Municipal public accounts committees (MPACs) are being presented as one of government’s most important tools in the fight against poor financial management and accountability at local level, but so far only 101 of 272 municipalities have set these up despite a November 2011 deadline.
Cash-strapped Limpopo had set up two MPACs by October 2011, while the Free State, North West and Northern Cape provinces had not yet set up any, according to the Association of Public Accounts Committee’s conference late last year.
Ongoing revelations of corruption and fraud at local level are proving an embarrassment to government and a serious stumbling block to its job-creation and growth targets. Only seven municipalities received clean audits in the last financial year, 2010/11.
MPACs have been highlighted by both South African Local Government Association CEO Xolile George and its spokesperson Milisa Ketane as one of the key measures being put in place to address financial management at local government level.
But questions were raised at the association’s 2011 conference in a session “Municipal Accounts Committee, the Road Ahead”, and continue to be asked about whether these committees have enough power to make a notable difference, or whether they are dependent on the authority given to them by their municipal council.
Some of the larger municipalities in Gauteng, the City of Cape Town metro and KwaZulu-Natal have had municipal oversight committees in place for years ahead of the expected move to MPACs and a lessening of provincial control.
In a 2008 report Gauteng questioned the effectiveness and functionalities of MPACs in the province.
The Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (Cogta) has been tasked with establishing and monitoring the MPACs, and reviewing many of the concerns raised about them, but challenges still remain.
MPAC stumbling blocks
MPACs do not have some of the key powers of the national Standing Committee on Public Accounts and their provincial counterparts, including the power to subpoena individuals. In addition, MPAC councilors aren’t considered full-time employees.
According to City of Johannesburg Democratic Alliance councillor John Mendelsohn, the pre-MPAC oversight committee had trouble getting reports from some of the metro’s entities like City Power and Pikitup, which operate as individual companies, and is still waiting for billing and payment information relating to a large event held in Johannesburg three years ago.
Oversight committees are reconstituted after each municipal election.
“We have great difficulty getting reports from bodies and three years later we are still waiting for information on an event, which cost the municipality millions of rands. The sub judice rule is often evoked, without additional information being provided like the case number,” he said.
Mendelsohn said despite Cogta’s involvement in the MPACs, he is not convinced they stand as the best bodies to carry out an oversight role.
“The committees tend to be reactive, rather than proactive and the committee may not interfere with the day-to-day running of the municipalities, so it cannot march into a department and demand answers. It may also not undermine the mayoral committee. All this presents problems when it comes to getting answers out of departments or entities that are not willing to hand over the information willingly.”
Advocate Tommy Ntsewa, speaking on behalf of Cogta, said MPACs are required to have a minimum of four meetings a year, but it’s up to individual municipalities as to how often they meet.
He added: “As to whether the MPACs have teeth, only time will tell. In order to monitor financial delivery and performance MPACs will have referral documents as they become available … and it will be up to the MPAC to advise council, and then for council to decide whether to accept its recommendations regarding any corrective measures.”
The MPACs were established in terms of section 79 of the Municipal Structures Act to serve as “an oversight committee and exercise oversight over the executive obligations of council”.
Their role should not be confused with that of the internal audit committee or the finance portfolio committee.
Cogta’s role is to: monitor how municipalities perform; develop local government capacity in the province; assess support needed by municipalities to strengthen their capacity; investigate malpractices and report to the National Council of Provinces; develop necessary capacity for MPACs; monitor performance of MPACs; organise training for MPACs; document best practices on MPACs in provinces and use MPACs as a tool to ensure clean audits in municipalities.
South African Local Government Association is also expected to play an active role in the implementation of MPACs, and help develop capacity in the municipalities with regards to their establishment.
The association’s spokesperson Milisa Ketane did not respond to a request for comment.
The Association of Public Accounts Committee’s conference in late 2011 listed the state of MPAC establishment as (according to what existed at the time of the May 2011 local government elections):
- Mpumalanga: 20 MPACs established out of 21 municipalities
- Limpopo: 2 MPACs established out of 30 municipalities – although it does have committees carrying out oversight functions
- Gauteng: 12 MPACs established out of 12 municipalities
- KwaZulu-Natal: 58 MPACs established out of 61 municipalities
- Free State: 0 – arguing insufficient funds
- North West: 0
- Northern Cape: 0 – although it has oversight committees presently functioning in all municipalities with regards to annual reports
- Eastern Cape: 5 MPACs established out of 45 municipalities, but all municipalities have oversight committees to deal with annual reports
- Western Cape has 4 MPACs established out of 30 municipalities