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South Africa's local government conundrum: we need to do better in 2022

Jesta Sidell is the executive mayor of the Ehlanzeni District Municipality. Picture: Supplied

Jesta Sidell is the executive mayor of the Ehlanzeni District Municipality. Picture: Supplied

Published Jan 14, 2022


It has been four months since South Africans cast their ballots in the 2021 local government elections.

By now, the euphoria of that election period coupled with the excitement of the festive season has subsided, and for many, reality has kicked in while some ponder on what the year ahead has in store.

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At this instance, there is an individual, a family or a household that is heavily maligned and is still seized with the challenges of yesteryear, such as who will collect their refuse, where their next water source will come from, how they will access quality healthcare services and much-needed electricity or if job opportunities will be within their reach.

The hunger for basic service delivery in this country has never been greater.

This hunger is brought on by the economic depression we've faced over the past two years that has resulted in SA's unemployment rate increasing to 34.9 percent, notwithstanding the Covid-19 pandemic that continues to plague and wreak havoc in communities not only in South Africa but throughout the world.

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This then presents an opportunity for the public service sphere to reflect on the reform of local government, given that we have arrived at a pivotal moment in history where it can no longer be business as usual. Now more than ever, as a government, we need to transform how we offer and deliver services to our people.

Last year's local government elections were contested by 325 political parties. Up to 95,000 candidates submitted their names as part of the cohort that sought to contest elections. Of the 95 000 candidates, 1 500 were independent candidates. The previous year was also a moment of reckoning.

The elections posed many challenges, such as a lower voter turn-out, which is an indication of people’s resentment towards local government due to the standard of service provided by these municipalities. The service delivery protests, which took place prior to the elections, were also a sign of this dissatisfaction.

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Secondly, residents are becoming wiser and clearer in terms of the service they want from the government. Therefore, the government of the day should be able to deliver quality services and customer care.

For instance, some of the core requirements raised by the residents of Ehlanzeni are that they need access to clean potable water, decent sanitation and want us to do away with VIP toilets once water infrastructure has been installed.

Furthermore, they asked for adequate road infrastructure that is well maintained in terms of closing up potholes and remodelling arterial roads so that many of them have gravel. There was also a strong indication of creating job opportunities, particularly for the youth and ensuring that they are equipped with skills.

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Lastly, the systematic and age-old issue of decent housing came to the fore as many of them informed us that they now wanted a transparent and accountable government and that in the main, they also want the government to plan and implement their needs and not engage in talk shops on service delivery.

Now, the question for us is how do we as a government ensure that this happens, and can we do better this year and beyond?

Research conducted and penned in the GSDRC interestingly points out that "basic services are far from being a purely technical matter and that the political and governance context is paramount in influencing how and where resources are allocated."

GSDRC quotes (Devas et al, 2004) and elucidates that the "lack of resources is not the only explanation for inadequate provision of services. Others include the lack of an adequate national policy framework; the unresponsiveness of city government."

But in some of our observations over time, we have learnt that service delivery can never be a "one-size fits all" scenario. It affects various communities and municipalities differently.

A district municipality needs to be well apprised of the perplexity that affects those within its communities, while the metro municipality needs an entirely different mindset on how to tackle service delivery head-on for a city that may have more pressing needs due.

So what strategies do we need to adopt as means of improving service delivery?

The findings of a study released by scholars Charles Makanyeza, Beatrice Ikobe and Hardson Kwandayi in 2013 “showed that the major causes of poor service delivery include interference by councillors, political manipulation, corruption, lack of accountability and transparency, inadequate citizen participation, poor human resource policies, poor planning, weak monitoring and evaluation mechanisms”.

They highlighted that some of the ways the government can adopt as means of augmenting service delivery is to advance citizen participation, implement flexible response to service user complaints, and among other things, ensure citizens pay their bills on time.

As a leader, I believe in leaving no stone unturned when it comes to excellence and high performance. And as we plan for our respective budgets in the coming year, all councillors and members of mayoral committees must remember that they need to close the gap (social distance between the people and government) by resuscitating all the community structures such as ward committees, CDWs and CPFs and home-based carers.

The Councillors and MMCs must constantly report progress made, status reports, service delivery reports and challenges to these structures to avoid an information deficit. Above all, councillors and MMCs members must work hard to ensure that the needs of the people are fulfilled at all times.

*Sidell is the executive mayor of the Ehlanzeni District Municipality

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media and IOL.