Julius Malema's house in Sandown was auctioned for R5.9 million. Photo. Adrian de Kock

Corruption could be stamped out instantly if there was the political will to investigate where the money disappeared to. When there are no consequences people act with impunity, writes Mcebisi Ndletyana.

Johannesburg - Government has re-discovered its mojo. Initiatives that had stalled in the past few years will suddenly be resuscitated. One of them is the youth wage subsidy, which was first mooted in the early 2000s. It met with fierce resistance.

Cosatu and the South African Communist Party objected that employers would retrench long-serving workers to make way for cheaper subsidised labour. Thabo Mbeki, who allegedly presided over a Thatcherite ANC, shelved the proposal. Ironically, it has taken Jacob Zuma's supposed leftist ANC to bring back the wage subsidy.

Predictably, Cosatu is protesting. But, Zuma’s ANC isn’t deterred. Where the “Thatcherite Mbeki” balked, the “radical Zuma” is going full-steam, against the wishes of organised workers. Labels don’t count for much, do they? Things are not always what they seem. This is an interesting line to pursue, but not today.

Now I’m keen to understand what makes public policy change. My curiosity is particularly sparked by the suddenness of the change, under what seems, at least at face value, to be unlikely circumstances. Next year’s election obviously has something to do with the renewed zeal to push through the youth wage subsidy, and all the other initiatives that had been hitherto neglected.

The prospect of employment will play well with young voters. They are the hardest hit by unemployment and face dim prospects of securing a job. Roughly two-third of the unemployed youth did not finish school and just about the same proportion has never worked. They lack both qualifications and experience.

Youth-focused policies are especially necessary this time. Young voters are fought over now more than ever. Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) has targeted the disillusioned youth. The ANC Youth League is no match for Malema’s EFF. Disbandment of its elected provincial leaderships has left the organisational network weak. Because it is appointed, displacing elected leaders, the interim Youth League leadership lacks credibility. It’s now left to the ruling party to design policies that appeal directly to the youth, independent of the intermediary of the Youth League.

Democracy has an inbuilt mechanism, therefore, to encourage official responsiveness. Politicians are most receptive to popular needs at election time. Even the most apathetic ruling party is energised to action by a looming election. But, it’s not just a mere election that invigorates incumbents. Rather, it is competitive elections, especially the possibility of the incumbent loosing voters’ support. The EFF has done exactly that.

Local government reforms offer another example of how a competitive electoral system nudges an otherwise reluctant party into action. The first signal of problems in local government flared up in 2005. A municipal audit uncovered that about 61 percent of the municipalities were performing less than 50 percent of their functions. The gravity of the problem was manifested in the intensity and regularity of community protests. In a year leading up to October 2005, for example, South Africa experienced 881 community protests. So shocked was government that they ascribed the protests to a “third-force”.

Government responded with a number of measures. They included sending teams of experts to dysfunctional municipalities and encouraging retired civil servants to return to work. They don’t seem to have worked. Vacancy rates continues to be a problem, averaging at between 11 percent and 24 percent. The vacancy problem was compounded by the incompetence of the staff as well as unskilled councilors.

There isn’t much the ruling party can do about unskilled councilors. Not that they’re not a problem. Their lack of professional training, according to the Auditor- General’s last Municipal Audit Report, impairs their ability to scrutinise financial reports and, as a result, they don't have confidence to question their managers. In a democratic society, especially with a history such as ours, insisting on merit as a prerequisite for political office would smack of elitism. It would go against the much-cherished principle of equality.

But, the ANC tried nonetheless. For the 2006 local elections candidates had to submit CVs. Popularity was inadequate for a nomination. Merit was to be just as important. But, this hasn’t done much to improve the skills profile of councilors. For instance, of the 40 percent of the total number of councilors surveyed in 2011 by the local government Seta more than a quarter had not completed primary or secondary schooling, and less than a quarter only managed to complete matric. Those with tertiary and post-graduate qualifications made up the smallest component of the sample. The attempt to underscore merit is admirable, but in a popular democracy, short of providing training, there isn’t much a party can do about unskilled councillors.

Ensuring the employment of competent staff is certainly something a party can act upon. And, this is where the ruling party has proved painfully slow, if not reluctant to act. The latest municipal audit shows that almost 20 percent of municipal managers and chief financial officers “did not meet any of the prescribed competency requirements”. Their appointments were made without regard to job requirements. This may well be the result of the cadre deployment policy.

It took six years, from the moment the problems first flared up, for the ruling party to start dealing with incompetent recruitments. Introduced in 2011, the law stipulated that managerial posts should no longer be advertised in local newspapers alone, but also in national newspapers.

And, political office- bearers were barred from serving as municipal managers. The idea was to attract as wide a pool of potential candidates as possible and to discourage appointment of politicians into professional posts. New regulations have just been introduced prescribing that managers go through a competency test as part of the selection process. The intent is to ensure competent appointments.

The timing of the reforms was not coincidental. They followed decreasing electoral returns in 2009 and 2011 national and local elections respectively. In the national elections, the ANC dropped by an average of 4 percent in all provinces, except in KwaZulu-Natal where it experienced phenomenal growth of 17 percent.

In the following local elections, the party almost lost one of its traditional strong-holds, Nelson Mandela Bay Metro, dropping sharply from a healthy 63 percent to a risky 51 percent. Electoral prospects was the stimulus for the substantive reforms.

In other words, the political system has a way of nudging parties towards reforms. It is no substitute, however, for self-agency. If parties lack the will to change, reforms amount to little.

Local government remains beset with serious problems, some of which are man-made. A number of councillors continue to award themselves and their families contracts amounting to millions of rands, and wasteful expenditure costs hundreds of million.

There isn’t sufficient political will to eliminate such malfeasance. The number of investigated misdemeanors is far less than the reported cases.

There are no consequences for impropriety. People act with impunity. There is an unsaid rule that local government is the source of patronage.

Political corruption could be wiped out instantly if there was political will. Lifestyle audits can uncover easily who looted public money. SARS did that with lightning speed in Julius Malema’s case. I wonder why it’s not doing that in municipalities where money has reportedly disappeared.

Your guess is as good as mine.


* Ndletyana is head of political economy at Mapungunge Institute for Strategic Reflection

** The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Independent Newspapers

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