140225. Cape Town. Minister of Finance, Pravin Gordhan is seen making final adjustments to the 2014 Budget speech in his office at 120 Plein street. Picture Henk Kruger/Cape Argus

President Zuma has chosen no-frills former finance minister Pravin Gordhan to fix the service delivery lapses that are a major reason for the protests, says Craig Dodds.

Cape Town - When the flames of discontent are licking at the door, who do you send to quench the anger?

A silver-tongued politician or a cold-eyed securocrat?

This time, President Jacob Zuma has chosen neither charm nor threat to counter the wave of increasingly violent protests that have swept the country in recent years.

Instead he has picked no-frills former finance minister Pravin Gordhan to fix the service delivery lapses that are a major reason for the protests.

This may seem like sending an accountant into battle but it signals just how seriously the government is taking the challenge, with local government elections just around the corner in 2016.

The days of empty promises, punctuated by lashings of police brutality, may finally be giving way to a more deliberate sense of purpose and the realisation that systems work better than quick fixes.

One of Co-operative Governance Minister Gordhan’s strengths is in building the checks and balances and enforcing the double-entry drudgery that ultimately leads to funds ending up where they belong and producing the expected outcomes.

He comes to the task of fixing the neglected local government sector with a proven track record of righting ships of state in distress.

As SA Revenue Service commissioner he erected a tax collection system reliable and transparent enough to win the confidence of thousands of former tax dodgers and as finance minister he charted a relatively stable course through the global recession.

Karen Heese, economist at Municipal IQ, said the first priority for Gordhan was to provide leadership for a department which had stumbled through four ministers over the past five years and been saddled with a plethora of strategic plans and management styles.

“The second thing, which he’s also very good at, is taking an overview of a holistic set of solutions, because it’s quite complex. There are structural issues like demarcation debates, service delivery and also financial issues,” Heese said.

Previous ministers had been able to grasp only one or another aspect of the sector, without seeing the big picture.

He would also have to make sure the efforts of his department were synchronised with others, such as Treasury to Water and Human Settlements.

His time at Treasury, which routinely works across departments, would serve him well.

While the causes of service delivery protests were complex and varied, if Gordhan “plugged away at the fundamental issues” this could help to gradually defuse tensions.

“It’s a tricky one, because protests are so common across South Africa, but also varied. So there isn’t one set of solutions,” Heese said.

Municipal IQ had tried to develop a way of forecasting where protests were most likely to occur, but found them impossible to predict “in any useful scientific way”.

“In cities it’s often high rates of in-migration and in rural areas backlogs and failure to deliver basic services.”

It was ironic the ANC was under pressure in some of the major metros, where the party suffered serious setbacks in the recent elections, which were generally better run than smaller municipalities.

This meant metros would not automatically be a top priority for Gordhan, even though at least half of all service delivery protests occurred in metro areas.

“Where the ANC has done well is where expectations of them are highest and there’s movement away from the ANC,” Heese said.

Eradicating patches of poor delivery in the metros could lift the governing party’s image as being capable of running big cities well, but would be unlikely to yield big electoral gains.

Gordhan would be able to help fix the billing systems in the Gauteng metros, for example.

He would be dependent on his party to help address two other contributors to discontent at local level – contestation for places on the ANC’s candidate lists and the sanctioning of political office bearers who abused their power.

The ANC needed to act on the audit done by Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma in the wake of the 2011 local government elections, following a candidate selection process marred by violence and abuses in some areas.

The row over controversial Tlokwe mayor Maphetle Maphetle and the removal of Madibeng mayor Poppy Magongwa and two others following community protests over alleged wrongdoing showed there was “growing intolerance” for corruption at local government level and an increasing awareness in the ANC that protecting the corrupt would have electoral consequences. But the party’s response tended to be inconsistent, depending on how well connected the person in question was.

Heese said the recent passing of regulations flowing from the Municipal Systems Amendment Act, designed to ensure senior managers in municipalities were properly qualified and to bar those who abuse their power from moving to new hunting grounds, should improve performance.

It would be up to Gordhan to enforce the rules.

“He is a no-nonsense kind of guy. He’ll make it clear he does want to see those regulations enforced and aside from being technically well-suited for the job, it’s that force of personality that will serve him well,” she said.

Gordhan would also use his experience at the Treasury to deploy skilled people where urgently needed to plug the capacity deficits that lead to smaller municipalities not being able to keep up with demands for new infrastructure and its maintenance.

“The inherent problem of a lack of capacity is going to be an issue for another 10 or 20 years, but effective deployment can help with that in the short term,” Heese said.

Gordhan would bring his pharmacist’s exactness to the bewildering array of challenges facing his department, but force of will could be the most significant ingredient.

Heese said while municipalities were autonomous under the constitution, the minister was responsible for oversight and, where local councils failed in their obligations, they forfeited this independence.

“The legal structure does provide him with quite a lot of room for intervention and there are regulations like the Municipal Systems Amendment Act. So he will in all likelihood be quite an assertive minister and he does have the legal basis to do that,” Heese said.

“It all comes down to how committed a minister is in asserting that.

“Some ministers are more hands off than others, but he will have all the legal scope he needs to do what he wants to do.”

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Political Bureau