Taking a Deeper Look into Local Government

There is a protest against a municipality almost every second day in South Africa. The dissatisfaction expressed by communities through these (increasingly violent) protests largely relates to service delivery. 

Thobile Madonsela, Associate Subject Matter Expert (SME) with The Ethics Institute (TEI) shares some of her thoughts on what some of the causes might be.

by Thobile Madonsela

There is a protest against a municipality almost every second day in South Africa[1] . The dissatisfaction expressed by communities through these (increasingly violent) protests largely relates to service delivery. However, if we take a deeper look at the administrative and political structures shaping local government, it is clear that there are fundamental inefficiencies inherent in the system. In theory, the political and administrative spheres are supposed to work together: side by side, but never infiltrating each other. In practice, this does not always happen, and failures related to service delivery and poor AG findings at municipal levels are the external symptoms of a much more complex problem at the heart of local government.

Auditor General Kimi Makwetu states that the recurring root causes resulting in minimal improvement include: slow response by leadership in improving internal controls; instability or vacancies in key positions or key officials lacking appropriate competencies, inadequate consequence management for poor performance. “As a result of these root causes not being addressed, there was a limited improvement in the audit outcomes of municipalities with 15% improving, 13% regressing and 67% remaining unchanged”, the Auditor General said.

In this article, I will draw on two sources. The first is my own anecdotal experience over the past year, during which I worked closely with the municipalities through the Gauteng Municipal Integrity Initiative project (a five-year partnership between The Ethics Institute, Gauteng Provincial Government, and Gauteng municipalities, funded through the Siemens Integrity Initiative) which aims to capacitate municipalities towards improved ethics management. The second source is the Public Sector Ethics Survey which TEI conducted in 2015 at all levels of government in partnership with the DPSA, CoGTA and SALGA.

The survey results reinforce my earlier statement that there is a disjuncture between what is prescribed by law and what happens in practice. According to the survey, the top five ethics risks related to local government are as follows:    

  1. Political interference
  2. Incompetent/unqualified people being appointed
  3. Abuse of cadre deployment
  4. Jobs given to friends and family
  5. Inconsistency in the application of rules and discipline

Our interaction with local government through the Gauteng Municipal Integrity Project has shown the possible contributing factors to the ethics risks mentioned above:

Contributing factor 1: Abuse of cadre deployment

Cadre deployment is intended to appoint a politically aligned, competent individual who will maximise the operations of the administration in alignment to the agreed Integrated Development Plan (IDP). Cadre deployment is not necessarily problematic. In fact, if all deployed personnel were appropriately qualified, skilled and placed in strategic positions, there would be no cause for concern. However, based on experience, I believe the top-five risks identified in the Public Sector Ethics Survey are all related to the abuse of cadre deployment.  People are more often appointed for their political affiliations than for their competence. 

The practice has penetrated all positions in the municipality, exposing the recruitment process to further appoint staff who are politically affiliated. It creates a vicious cycle. In most cases, these individuals are inadequately qualified and, thus, incompetent. When a political employee transgresses or is deemed incompetent, the disciplinary procedures do not necessarily follow because that person enjoys protection. The administrative staff and managers are unable to hold these individuals accountable, and thus managers have become powerless and vulnerable. The political appointees take advantage of the situation and become intentionally insubordinate and uncooperative.  This is the main reason for low morale and anger amongst staff in the municipalities and has created an ‘us’ and ‘them’ atmosphere.

Contributing factor 2: Councillor competence

Every five years there is electioneering that takes place by prospective ward councillors who are meant to represent the community, to be their voice and affect downward communication.  What ward councillors promise in their election campaigns, frequently goes far beyond their influence.  They enthusiastically proclaim that they will deliver services. The more they promise, the greater their chances of being elected, after which they will be expected to deliver on their promises.

Councillors are expected to be the voice of their communities in council and to play an oversight role to the administrative arm. They should ensure that the municipality is well governed and that services agreed to in the Integrated Development Plan (IDP) are delivered. This is quite a big ask for many newly-elected individuals, many of whom who may not have had any exposure to a highly regulated environment.

There are currently no minimum educational requirements for becoming a councillor. When elected, councillors are taken through a compulsory induction programme with the South African Local Government Association (SALGA) in conjunction with the municipality. These are essentially crash courses that councillors have to swiftly absorb, understand and apply to their new role. Educated or not, this is an immense task, and an ineffective oversight body has long-term effects.  Councillors find themselves ill-equipped to play their role and, in most cases, the community does not understand their actual role because they have been misled during elections and have portrayed themselves as implementers rather than overseers.  Councillors do have the ear of the administration, but the administration is inundated with bureaucratic processes and procedures which in turn affect the pace of service delivery.  The latter is slower than the community is prepared to accept, they grow frustrated that, again, promises have been broken, and their elected councillors have since forgotten about them and their pleas.

Perhaps, in future, the election campaigns should shift from being ‘I will deliver services’ to ‘I shall ensure that I fully understand the governance of local government so that I can effectively play my role’. Maybe then, councillors will not be (somewhat unfairly) held personally responsible for the failures of the municipality and the lack of service delivery.

Contributing factor 3: Upward accountability

The governance system of council assumes that constituencies will hold councillors to account, who will, in turn, hold the administration to account. In practice, it is very challenging for councillors to hold senior councillors and deployed cadres to account, or to discipline them when wrong-doing is suspected. There in an inherent conflict of interest at play as councillors are unlikely to speak up against a leader who enjoys more political support than they do, as it may lead to victimisation. These individuals are likely to keep quiet and tow party lines in order to secure their salaries - even at the expense of the community at large. Unfortunately, political appointees cannot tender their resignation and apply for a position in another political party.

Within an environment that is prone to abuse of cadre deployment these oversight and governance challenges easily infiltrate the administration as well.

The other aspect of inadequate downward accountability is that the mayor is politically appointed, but plays a dual role, as he or she is accountable both politically and administratively. In a business environment, he or she would be the equivalent of the chairperson of the board. The employment and performance contract of the municipal manager, which is agreed between him/herself and the mayor, in my view, underwrites upward accountability. The municipal manager is supposed to manage the administration but is accountable to a politically-appointed individual (the mayor), who in turn is accountable to a political structure (the council). Who is running the municipality and, more importantly, in whose interest? Is it for the community or the interests of the individuals in the political party?

If municipal managers refuse to perform duties delegated to them by the mayor, this will be deemed insubordination. And thus, if those duties are illegal or in any way ethically questionable, the potential negative impact of this may go as far as the municipal manager resigning due to irreconcilable differences.

The current legislated system will work if there is ethical leadership at the top, both at a political and administrative level, but with so much power being concentrated at the top, and so little accountability in practice, it does pose a risk that power will corrupt. 

Contributing factor 4: Institutional memory loss at the executive level

Another major challenge flows from section 57 of the Municipal Systems Act, which deals with the contracts of managers directly accountable to the municipal manager.  These managers would generally form the executive management of the municipality.  By law, all their contracts are fixed to a five-year term, ending six months after the election.  

In the private sector, this would be equivalent to a company changing its executive members every five years! Although the contracts may be renewed, this happens infrequently as newly-elected mayors appoint municipal managers of their choice, who tend to want to work with individuals that they themselves have recruited. The impact of this institutional memory loss is insurmountable and is surely damaging, as these individuals if appointed correctly, are governance professionals equipped for the job. These individuals should be assessed and retained/dismissed based only on their performance, not the mayor or municipal mayors’ preference.

The argument for this practice is that the incumbent party needs to work with professionals who are aligned with their political policies. In my view, there is no DA, EFF, or ANC way of managing a department. True governance professionals will manage and lead their teams in a professional manner which will be beneficial to the organisation and thus to the community in which it serves.

The impact and instability this causes in the administrative leg is destructive, because the recruitment process lacks an official or sufficient handover. During the transitions, employees are requested to act in these positions, at times for years, until an appointment is made.  

The transition protocol means that the municipality is only really stable for approximately three years. In the first year, the lengthy recruitment commences, and those designated as acting personnel may be uncomfortable to make decisions that will impact the organisation in the long term. Once the permanent employees are appointed they need to acclimatise to the environment, and in the fifth year of the contract, these section 57 managers are often looking for alternative employment and their focus becomes fragmented.

These complexities in local government give some level of understanding of the reasons for governance challenges in local government.  It also leads one to have some level of empathy for well-intentioned people caught up in the system. 

The constant instability due to leadership change and institutional memory loss will always put the municipality at a disadvantage. The inherent upward accountability ultimately robs the community of answers and service delivery.

These challenges have no short-term answers but require serious attention and ethical leadership to address them, which will have a ripple effect on how the municipality performs. How many more burning of buildings, vandalising, looting and lives lost will it take to change the status quo?     

[1] As reported by Business Tech, based on data compiled by researcher Karen Heese where 70 municipality protests were recorded as having taken place in the first four months of 2016. This works out to about one every second day. Link to article: https://businesstech.co.za/news/general/126243/this-is-how-many-protests-there-are-per-day-in-south-africa/