Susan Booysen. File photo: Motshwari Mofokeng
Susan Booysen. File photo: Motshwari Mofokeng

Ungovernable government – AG’s local story

By Susan Booysen Time of article published Aug 10, 2014

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The SA government, reduced to the essence of what unfolds around us, is very close to being “ungovernable government”, writes Susan Booysen.

 The South African government, reduced to the essence of what unfolds around us, is very close to being “ungovernable government”. So many of the ground rules are flouted or adapted beyond recognition, and due process is subverted. It is miraculous that so much goes right in government, despite these grievous failings.

The auditor-general’s stock-taking of South Africa’s municipalities, released last week but still in the eye of the storm, provides the most graphic evidence of lawlessness in the heart of the state. It is the story about how local government “flaws” tell the story of government in general in South Africa.

The wheels of such ungovernability are oiled by vague, vacuous job descriptions and performance agreements. It is carried on the silver tray called “no consequences”, especially for useful deployees. In the land of political sensitivity and the need to protect political patrons, the buck stops nowhere.

How is it possible that so many rules can be disregarded, so much procurement done in flagrant disregard of the law, and noble constitutional obligations treated as nice-to-haves? The auditor-general’s sobering report lifts the lid on how all of government, not just the municipalities, is complicit in corruption, fruitless and irregular spending, and a dismal absence of accountability. One could coin a new motto: “Designed to accommodate deployment deficits.”

Yes, a handful of municipalities improved their auditing statuses. This drop in the ocean is worth celebrating. But, inescapably, the majority of local governments supposedly serving their communities were caught frequently with severe findings. They concerned the absence of evidence that taxpayers’ money was spent ethically, lacking evidence of accountability, of funds spent to the best benefit of the communities. Contracts were recurrently in the hands of councillors, council employees and close associates.

In delving into the depths of the final sections, one finds the report’s disarming account as to which entities in the municipalities, the provinces and national government had responsibilities and oversight – the constitutional and legal responsibility to intervene and correct the obvious avalanche of non-performance, irregular processes and fruitless expenditures. The list reads like a who’s who and what’s what of South African government.

The thread of likely corruption, subversion of tender processes, business with government, and government as family business, runs through the report. The theme is “lack of assurance” by the state institutions for their legal and constitutional provisions to be upheld, let alone enforced. Government appears as a virtual free for all.

It is unlikely that there will be serious consequences for cases of malgovernance. In a world of mandatory cadre deployment, job performance is negotiable, mitigated by woolly performance agreements and job descriptions. The only certain reason to be picked out will be political misdemeanour.

Assurance that things will go right starts inside the municipalities, with mayors and chief executives.

They have the direct responsibility to get municipalities performing. The story then proceeds through internal audit units and the councils, which bulge with councillors who do not have (and appear uninterested in gaining) the skills to help them enforce clean auditing practice.

The saga pauses next in the provinces. Here the provincial co-operative governance and traditional affairs departments (Cogtas) have a host of responsibilities, including that they “must support and strengthen the capacity” the municipalities under their watch. The provincial treasuries and offices of the premiers have comparable functions.

The National Treasury, national Cogta, and the Department of Performance Monitoring and Evaluation in the Presidency of South Africa have a host of responsibilities. The auditor-general is kind enough to stop his report short of pushing the responsibility to ensure that these departments, in turn, do their work up to the president.

The president appointed the ministers, and approved the often tolerant formulations in their performance contracts.

These terms of the performance contracts are commonly vague and vacuous; couched in escapable deliveries. The only publicly available performance contracts are still the ones of this year’s pre-June cabinet, but the essence of job definitions are likely to remain.

Part of the explanation lies in the fact that Cogta is a “co-ordinating department”.

The performance agreement that is available on the “refined delivery agreement” of December 2012 helps us understand how the system of government in effect predetermines that the national will not hold provinces and municipalities to account. It states that it is the “responsibility of Output Leaders in DCoG to ensure that the various partners to this delivery agreement fulfil their obligations and commitments with respect to each of the outputs and sub-outputs delineated above…”

The auditor-general’s report swells with lists of tasks intended to help get municipalities to do their work. On several of the actors it overflows with feedback on things done. Part of the problem lies in the fact that performance agreements at this stage, as the quote illustrates, are largely focused on monitoring outputs, and not outcomes.

This means evidence of action plans, workshops conducted, training provided, transfers of funds facilitated and leaders reminded of responsibilities are evidence of “performance”. Outcomes in contrast are the end destinations. They would relate to achieving proven skills transfers, clean audits.

So what then goes wrong in getting government – and local government in particular – to work?

To start with, the velvet gloves are all over, but no iron fists. The report does not shy away from talking about things not being done to the required level of effect, but the formulations show little evidence of serious disquiet, of determination to let things go right from now on, of identifying and firing the responsible multitudes.

Next, there is the recognition of lack of capacity and skill of provincial and national agencies that are responsible to help steer to municipalities. For example, the National Treasury did not monitor the municipalities’ use of conditional grants. Rather, it took statements at face value.

The lack of urgency is illustrated by the auditor-general’s conclusion that the National Treasury “should” improve considerably its internal capacity, or maybe hold a round-table discussion.

The refrain in the report is that the Treasury, Cogta, the provinces, the municipal officials, and the councils “did not provide the required assurance” to let the municipalities function as mandated. Yet, in many cases such failure is written into the job description. Cogta, for example, failed because the majority of its functions are of a support nature… The DPME did not offer the required level of assurance because it “has not yet developed to the level of monitoring municipalities”. Is it not part of its job to be at that level?

And – wait for it – an NCOP select committee on Cogta visited municipalities. It noted the lack of standardisation in activating some interventions. How profound.

In one notable exception on definitiveness Cogta gets the March 31 next year deadline to put an integrated monitoring, reporting and evaluation system in place. But if current government practice prevails explanations for not getting it done may be acceptable.

Slow responses by the political leadership, lack of consequences for poor performances, lack of appropriate competence, and many key positions remaining vacant, are the factors outlined in the report as the root causes of this malaise.

While the 2016 local elections approach, the ANC in government is literally painting itself into a corner. It is faced with persistent bleak municipal audits combined with low responsibility of politicians and officials in general at all levels and in all spheres. It is a question of time before the ANC’s traditional supporters start taking on their national government about its deficient resolve to hold their own to account.

Cogta deputy minister Andries Nel acknowledged the likely conjunction of poor audit results with community protest. The Presidency’s 20 Years of Democracy report and the Cogta ministerial performance contract (with the former minister) highlight how protest and lack of trust in the local government converge.

As the constitution declares, municipalities and provinces enjoy much decentralised power.

Perhaps national government is impeding those municipalities’ “exercise of power” by equating the institution with the incumbents, and allowing them to stumble on to compromise the institutions. It is highly unlikely, however, that the centre will hold while its perimeters fracture.

 

* Booysen is professor at Wits University’s School of Governance and author of The ANC and the Regeneration of Political Power.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

Sunday Independent

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