A remark President Cyril Ramaphosa made recently to a gathering of the country’s editors demonstrate that it is possible for those who are in or proximate to power not to have a full appreciation of what is going on in the country they govern.
Asked by the editors what he had done during his tenure as deputy president to stop state capture, Ramaphosa conceded that he was not aware of the extent of the problem until the media expose it wide open. Kudos to the media and to civil society. Sometimes it takes the efforts of the fourth estate and social activists to wake politicians up from their slumber. It is an activism and a probing posture of which we should never grow weary as a society.
But oblivion to the extent of problem is not, I suspect something unique to President Ramaphosa. Government in general, it would seem, is clueless about what is actually going on inside government. Take, for example, the reaction of some within government to the Auditor General’s last report about the state of our municipalities. One got the sense some in government were actually shocked by the report.
In a country that has a department, located within the highest office in the land, responsible for monitoring and evaluation, the performance of municipalities (or any organ of state for that matter) should not come as a surprise. Ordinarily, that department should by now have developed monitoring and evaluation instruments that would forewarn us before the AG gets there. I don’t know if these do exist but if they do it would be great if the reports generated therefrom could be released for public consumption.
Now, let us focus on the audit outcomes for municipalities. The report for 2016/17 makes for depressing reading. Just to recap, both irregular and fruitless and wasteful expenditure have era has ballooned to more than 70 percent. Of the 257 municipalities audited, 45 regressed, 16 improved and only 33 received clearance audits. In terms of their financial health, 31 percent of the municipalities indicated they may not be able to continue operating because of their vulnerable financial position.
The above suggests one thing: the municipal sphere of government is facing a crisis and government should be putting out an SOS that things are really bad. We have seen too much indifference to some of the problems we face as a country and one hopes that the powers that be are not oblivious to the nature and magnitude of the problems we face. But what is it that we are dealing with at local government level?
Just from my interaction with my city on as simple a matter as billing, there seems to be a problem with municipalities and their billing systems. Johannesburg is not unique in this regard. An erratic billing system will have a negative impact on residents and ratepayers enthusiasm to pay for services. The billing systems of municipalities must be fixed. For starters, the country must run on one platform for municipal billings. If it means National Treasury procuring one system for all municipalities then so be it. That, for me, would be a true reflection of the cooperative governance spoken about in our Constitution.
Then there is the issue of the number (257) of municipalities we have in the country. There are too many municipalities and, I suspect, a duplication of functions. This has resulted in a bloated municipality sector and an inefficient allocation of resources. There is, in my view, a case for the collapse and/or merger of certain municipalities. However, this will require a thorough review of the whole system.
A shortage of skills is another problem plaguing the sector. In some instances a municipality simply cannot afford to pay a suitably qualified person while in others municipalities have been used as sites for the most regressive type of cadre deployment – something very unfortunate as this is supposed to be the level at which citizens interface with government the most in terms of service delivery. It is therefore the height of irresponsibility to dump some of your below average comrades into this sector.
On the contrary, the ruling party should be deploying some of its most seasoned and experienced cadres to local government. Ambassadorship should not be the only avenue where former Ministers and DGs are deployed. Get them involved in local government too. Given their experience they may give local government the much needed shot in the arm.
Lastly, political will and courage are needed to tackle the corruption that is prevalent in local government, in this regard we welcome efforts by President Cyril Ramaphosa to root out corruption. In spite of municipalities themselves having made significant effort to identify and transparently report irregular expenditure, it is not a coincidence that this expenditure has increased from R16.21-billion in the previous year to R28.37-billion. While not everything that is irregular is necessarily corrupt, the link between the two should not be taken lightly. In his regard, a deeper probe may be needed into those municipalities that show a higher than what is the norm in irregular expenditure. A Pandora box may just be opened.
PASTOR RAY McCAULEY IS THE PRESIDENT OF RHEMA FAMILY CHURCHES AND CO-CHAIR OF NATIONAL RELIGIOUS LEADERS COUNCIL (NRLC )