Cape Town - The irreversible consequences of poverty and chronic unemployment coupled with incompetence and corruption in South Africa’s municipalities that were once a footnote in the news cycle are increasingly making headlines.
Many privileged people living in leafy suburbs and working in air-conditioned offices would hardly have noticed. Still, those in the coalface of the deteriorating administration of municipal governments have constantly alerted decision-makers of the dangers ahead.
Those paying attention were not surprised by the Auditor-General of SA Tsakani Maluleke’s repeated warnings contained in the Consolidated General Report on Local Government Audit Outcomes such as the one released on May 31.
South Africans must brace themselves for hard times ahead as more and more municipalities are plunging into such financial disarray that their future operations are in doubt.
“Local governments are losing billions of rand each year because of poor decisions, neglect or inefficiencies,” she says. Even the Western Cape’s usually admirable performance faltered, with three municipalities losing their clean audit status.
It hit most people, even from ivory towers, that the water and sanitation crisis, the cholera deaths, the potholed roads - the reasons for them neatly appear in Maluleke’s 144-page report hanging as a public mirror showing how bad things have become.
The air in our struggling constitutional democracy is already heavy with the stench of humanity under stress - polluted by poverty and unemployment, dusty from maladministration and corruption, and cooking political disenchantment threatening to undermine the gains made in the early years of our democracy.
As the local government elections of 2021 failed to produce clear winners in some councils, coalitions fuel instability in these municipalities, as influential party factions peddle positions, at the expense of service delivery.
As we draw closer to the 2024 national and provincial elections, the heat will become unbearable for many voters whose hopes and aspirations have been shattered by the political turmoil that stifled human and economic progress in municipalities nationwide.
An increasing number of municipalities, including those under coalition governments, are dysfunctional and municipal services are seriously failing.
“When we analysed the financial statements of the 217 municipalities with audit opinions other than disclaimed or adverse, we found 56% of them to have indicators of financial strain. If not attended to, this can result in significant doubt about their ability to continue operating,”
Maluleke’s report says. By the end of this year, liabilities will exceed assets in more than half the country’s municipalities; 36% have spent beyond their means and, as a result, are using next year’s budget to cover current expenditures.
This unhealthy spending is likely to have a knock-on effect on service delivery, and revenues are unlikely to improve under the current depressed economy.
The net result of misdirecting funds is visible everywhere: raw sewage flowing down pothole-riddled streets; water crises; recurrent electricity problems; the outbreak of waterborne diseases; and broken bridges.
Maluleke said the debt owed to Eskom and water boards by municipalities remained high and continued to increase due to interest and penalties incurred on late payments.
The resulting discontinuation of access to basic services such as electricity and water leaves people stranded and also makes it difficult for businesses to operate optimally, which further affects the struggling economy.
Politicians’ response to previous similar reports and warnings has been to boost the egos of incompetent and corrupt individuals in influential positions by rewarding them with fat salaries and bonuses while moving those accused of wrongdoing into other municipal government positions in different districts.
This focus on near-term self-serving relief only worsens the long-term problem that has already arrived.
Maluleke noted that the salary bill of most municipalities was so significant that it “crowds out spending”.
The municipalities spent R121.47bn on salaries and wages during the year under review: “Service delivery suffers when you spend so much money on salaries and wages.”
But how can the rest of the country blame local government politicians for taking a short-term approach to addressing skills shortages and cronyism when the provincial and national government departments do the same in the name of adherence to the cadre deployment policy?
The regular by-elections give voters a golden opportunity to double down on credible independent candidates to wrest power from the factional political party candidates.
Instead, the electorate’s response has been apathy! This political party entrenchment aimed at ignoring and perpetuating corruption directly clashes with efficient administration mitigation action that this audit report and others released in previous years have urgently been calling for.
It is a testament to the power of the party system in our democracy, which continues to enjoy an undue advantage over independent public representatives who can account directly to the people.
Next time you hear a politician complaining about how expensive the inclusion of independent candidates at national and provincial levels will be as an alternative seeking to expand accountability, remember that the political parties have been monopolising the seats in the legislatures since 1994.
They centrally decide who serves in local governments. The existential crisis of dysfunctional local governments demands national leadership but has none.
This vacuum would be a great place to start if the new crop of credible leaders wants to lead the country on anything.
It is hard to imagine we will escape this mess by relying on political parties alone. If our apocalyptic municipalities over the years cannot drive meaningful grassroots action, what will?
Record fires in informal settlements, rubbish heaps in public spaces, blocked stormwater and sewage systems, illegal electricity connections and cable thefts.
Yet what tops political parties’ concerns today is perpetuating cadre deployment, not the livability of our communities and arresting corrupt individuals.
Our chronically short attention spans are incompatible with the kind of action we need to address this national and generational threat.
Political parties in government will not act decisively unless South Africans demand it.
Vested interests in retaining national dependence on corrupt politicians significantly influence South African politics, and South African public interest must outweigh that.
Nyembezi is a policy analyst, researcher and human rights activist