By Stuart Mbanyele
Source: Good Governance Africa

Corruption, political instability, unskilled or unqualified appointees, mismanagement – there are some of the factors underscoring the continued poor performance of municipalities across the country. But local government elections place the power to change this lamentable situation in the hands of the people, giving them the chance to elect officials who will prioritise efficient local governance..

As South Africa prepares for municipal elections on 27 October the contested nature of local government will be highlighted. The next few months will provide the electorate with an opportunity to assess governance effectiveness at local level, where it matters most.

Governance is essentially about the authoritative allocation of resources — who gets what, when and how. This definition helps us understand and evaluate the contours of how public goods are provided. As renowned governance scholar Daniel Kaufmann and co-authors note, government effectiveness entails “perceptions of the quality of public services, the quality of the civil service and the degree of its independence from political pressures, the quality of policy formulation and implementation, and the credibility of the government’s commitment to such policies”.

Good governance facilitates the delivery of essential services for citizens and is vital for socioeconomic welfare and development. In South Africa the importance of efficient governance is underscored by the proximity of local government to the people: the epicentre of service delivery. It is where the state engages with citizens primarily and frequently through the provision of services, as legislated by the constitution and Municipal Systems Act. Accordingly, citizens should judge local governments on the basis of their ability to deliver central functions such as the provision of water, electricity and sanitation, as these are tangible indicators of service delivery satisfaction.

Local governance discussions usually focus on public administration, factoring in transparency, accountability and efficiency. The evidence of extensive mismanagement is manifest in poor audit outcomes and the exposure of irregular and wasteful expenditure in those audits. There are invariably no material consequences for this malfeasance.

The root cause of maladministration is corruption, enabled by the lack of credible accountability structures and individual agency characterised by impunity. These issues highlight the challenges faced by many municipalities.

Beyond these dynamics, the dysfunction in many of the country’s municipalities is caused by political instability and contestation that results in the politicisation of bureaucratic processes. The following elements are at play:

  • Political infighting at the national level affects local government performance. This intraparty tug-of-war is evident in the struggles within the ANC. Opposition coalition-led municipalities have not been immune to such contestation either. This is typically demonstrated through national leaders of political parties issuing threats and directives to their councillors concerning issues related to alliances and voting in council. In 2017 the EFF fired six of its councillors in the Mogale City council as punishment for voting with the ANC in a budget vote meeting. Another example is the DA’s removal of former Tshwane mayors Solly Msimanga and Stephens Mokgalapa, and Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba.
  • Interparty contestation often results in drawn-out court cases, interdicts and municipalities placed under administration. In coalition-run metros the ambiguity and constantly shifting structures of coalitions lead to frequent changing of mayors, speakers, members of mayoral committees and municipal managers. This dynamic is especially common in “hung councils”, as seen in the Nelson Mandela Bay Metro with the removals of the DA’s Athol Trollip and the UDM’s Mongameli Bobani as mayors. Due to these machinations over ideology, access to power and positions and other fault lines among coalition members, stability and ultimately good governance is hampered.
  • The conflation of roles constitutes a barrier towards more sustainable governance. Some officials have senior political roles within their political parties, and concurrently occupy administrative positions in municipalities run by those same parties. For instance, as branch or regional leaders in the ANC they may simultaneously serve in an ANC-governed municipality as financial officer or manager. This conflation leads to a situation in which municipal officials’ decision-making is based on political alliances and ambition, or the inverse, where the security or insecurity of their tenure is the determining factor rather than what is best for the municipality.

This situation also results in a problem of appointing people who lack critical skills and with insufficient capacity to govern municipalities. In a parliamentary response to a question on the governance, institutional and financial weaknesses of municipalities on 26 February, acting minister in the presidency Khumbudzo Ntshavheni said that 47% of senior municipal officials do not meet the minimum competence levels for their jobs. In some instances they lack the critical skills required to carry out even their most basic responsibilities, such as managing finances.

These realities partly explain why more than 160 of 278 municipalities in SA are in financial distress, indebted to the tune of more than R132bn.

Consequently there are significant backlogs in providing housing, electricity and water & sanitation, among other municipal services. These issues, as well as poor communication and lack of accountability, have come to define citizen-state relations.

Poignantly, 2021 marks 10 years since the death of Andries Tatane during a protest over the provision of water and sanitation in the Free State town of Ficksburg. Yet the root issues persist in that municipality and many others countrywide. Daily protests have centred on these issues and are increasingly viewed by communities as the only way to effect change. These protests are typically accompanied by high levels of violence and destruction of property, which further undermine the progress that has been made in some municipalities across multiple indicators.

Beyond the local government elections political actors and administrators must fulfil their responsibilities of good governance and effective service delivery to the electorate. For the problem of politicisation to be remedied it is important to implement and maintain a strong politico-administrative dividing wall, and unequivocally prevent potential conflicts of interest.

In an attempt to remedy the situation a national implementation framework towards the professionalisation of the public service was recently published. It provides practical guidelines to help create competent civil servants with the know-how to sharpen administration and governance.

Prioritising efficient local governance can improve service delivery and transform the areas where citizens live. This will go far towards tackling deep-seated inequalities and other immediate challenges that define the municipal landscape.

• Mbanyele is a researcher in the governance, delivery and impact programme at Good Governance Africa.