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Opinion: Examining the crisis in the Eastern Cape

5 Nov 2018 - 09:15

Dr Ncapayi and  Professor Ntsebeza examine the case of the Sakhisizwe local municipality in the Eastern Cape.

Published on the CALUSA website:

Photo: calusa.co.za

Contextual background

Addressing Members of Parliament on 15 May 2018, the Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (COGTA), Zweli Mkhize lamented the state of the municipalities in South Africa, characterising 87 of the 283 municipalities as ‘dysfunctional’. In his words, there is a growing number of “municipalities which are becoming distressed or dysfunctional, including those that are regressing in audit outcomes”. The Minister identified “mismanagement and political instability or interference, corruption and incompetence” as contributory factors to the challenges facing municipalities.

The South African Auditor-General (AG) also drew attention to the regression of 45 municipalities in “audit outcomes”, with only 16 municipalities showing improvement. According to the AG, only “33 municipalities (13%) managed to produce quality financial statements and performance reports and to comply with key legislation, thereby receiving a clean audit”. Furthermore, the “municipalities are failing” to produce “credible financial statements and performance reports” that “are crucial to enable accountability and transparency”.

The AG went on to reveal that auditors were met “with increased contestation of audit findings and pushbacks whereby our audit processes and the motives of our audit teams were questioned. At some auditees, pressure was placed on audit teams to change conclusions so as to hide negative audit outcomes or the disclosure of irregular expenditure. Some auditees “used delaying tactics whereby information and evidence were not provided as requested”.

Most recently, an article in the Daily Dispatch of 26 October 2018 has depicted a deeply disturbing picture of the state of municipalities in the Eastern Cape. In terms of this article, Oscar Mabuyane, the finance Member of the Executive Council (MEC) in the Eastern Cape revealed that 25 of the 39 Chief Finance Officers (CFOs) in the Province “do not meet the minimum requirements for their posts”. This was in response to a question by a Democratic Alliance Member of the Provincial Legislature (MPL), Bobby Stevenson at the Bhisho legislature.

The municipalities that are implicated include the Buffalo City Metro and all six district municipalities in the Eastern Cape: Amathole, Sarah Baartman, Chris Hani, Alfred Nzo, Joe Gqabi and OR Tambo. The following municipalities do not have permanent CFOs: Intsika Yethu, Sakhisizwe, Walter Sisulu, Ingquza Hill, Port St Johns and Makhanda.

The Daily Dispatch article reported that “just 5% of the province’s municipalities received a clean audit, down from 20% for the previous period”. We can see that this is far more critical than the national average of 13% reported by the AG. Regarding the Eastern Cape, the AG had reported that “more than half of the province’s 39 municipalities were in dire financial distress”, with some having liabilities “exceeding their entire budgets for 2017-18.

The AG attributed this sad state of affairs to “instability, disregard for laws and regulations, and the absence of solid, internal controls”. On his part, the provincial secretary of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), Lulama Ngcukayitobi, is reported as having “acknowledged that some municipalities in the province faced serious challenges of political and institutional instability”.

What has been the response of residents and government?

Protests have been the dominant form residents have expressed their anger and frustration. According to the Municipal IQ, “(T)he footprint of protest activity is increasingly evident across a diverse range of communities – from cities to rural areas, with the range of issues including growing demands for housing and job opportunities in urban areas to basic services and better governance in smaller municipalities”. Indeed, there were in 2018 about 144 reported service delivery protests in South Africa by July 2018. The Municipal IQ further points out that the “Service delivery protests have become a daily feature of South African life with an alarming increase in violent confrontations between protesters and police. As a result, the opportunity for communities to engage constructively on grievances is lost and municipalities need to work to ensure that channels for such communication remain accessible and relevant”.

Regarding the Eastern Cape, the Municipal IQ points out that this Province had the highest number of protests in South Africa. There have also been litigations leading to court judgements against the municipalities. Two recent examples are the Enoch Mgijima and Makhanda local municipalities. In the case of the Enoch Mgijima municipality, its assets were auctioned. At the same time, residents of the Makhanda municipality considered withholding payments of their rates.

The situation is so dire that the Minister for COGTA placed 11 municipalities under administration by revoking Section 139 of the Constitution (Act 108). The section compels the provincial executive to intervene in municipalities who fail to carry out their obligations. The intervention can include dissolution of the municipal council and taking over of administrative roles from such municipality.

As can be seen, the Minister sees the problem as largely technical, hence his call for a comprehensive review of the municipalities, focusing particularly on size and structure. On the other hand, Sandile Swana of the School of Business at the University of Witwatersrand identifies political meddling in municipal administrative processes as the main reason for the current crisis facing the municipalities.

This article is inclined to agree with Swana on his view on political interference being at the centre of the poor performances of most of the municipalities in the Eastern Cape and elsewhere in South Africa. It specifically brings attention to the practice of cadre deployment, which is the hallmark of the current system. This enables the ruling party to place its members in strategic positions, thus making officials accountable primarily to their political principals rather than residents.

Having said the above, we argue, as will be seen later in this article that this practice is in conflict with the provisions of Chapter 7 of the South African constitution which, among others, encourages community participation in matters of local governemt.

For illustrative purposes, this article focuses on the Sakhisizwe Municipality in the Chris Hani District municipal area of the Eastern Cape. It argues that this municipality bears a lot in common with the problems facing municipalities outlined above, including the lack of accountability of the officials to its residents.

The state of Sakhisizwe Local Municipality

In the first instance, the Sakhisizwe Local Municipality is not among the 11 municipalities in the Eastern Cape that the Minister for COGTA placed under administration in May 2018. We found this surprising given our sense that this municipality was in no better position than the 11 municipalities were identified as dysfunctional. We are however happy that the Eastern Cape Legislature has corrected the record and highlighted the Sakhisizwe municipality as in deep crisis. One of the indications of this crisis is the failure of this municipality to submit the 2017-18 annual financial statements to the AG for auditing. The municipality has, in recent times, experienced a spate of demonstrations in the form of what has now become commonly known as a complete “shutdown” of municipalities.

The first total shutdown occurred in Cala, one of the two towns that make up this municipality, the second town being Elliot. The shutdown started on 13 July 2018, initially in the form of a demonstration that was led by a section of the African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL). The main issue that was raised revolved around the disbursement of tenders by the municipality management. The protesters demanded the removal of the mayor and the municipal manager, accusing them of corruption and irregular employment procedures. There were also allegations that the municipality gave preference for tenders to construction companies from outside the municipal area.

The action crippled municipal operations in Cala for more than a week as rubbish was strewn throughout the streets. At the same time, the action highlighted deep divisions among members of the ANCYL, as some members questioned the authenticity of the leaders of the demonstrations though. Specifically, there were claims that the leaders of the demonstration were not members of the ANCYL in good standing and that they did not represent the views of the local ANCYL. There are allegations that the differences even led to physical clashes between Elliot and Cala youth.

About a week following the shutdown, the Provincial Executive Committee (PEC) of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) visited Cala. The intervention of the PEC led to the suspension of the mayor for three months pending the outcome of an internal investigation.

The intervention triggered an angry reaction from the residents of Elliot who felt undermined and marginalised by the actions of the PEC. They formed a Crisis Committee. The residents saw the suspension of the mayor, who is a resident of Elliot, as a move to remove their leader from the municipality. They demanded his immediate re-instatement. Regarding the internal investigation proposed by the PEC, members of the Elliot Crisis Committee demanded that the investigation should go back to the 2009 investigation of Sakhisizwe. They pointed out that the results of this investigation were never made public. They questioned why immediate action was taken against the mayor from Elliot when none was taken against the incumbent mayor in 2009, who happened to be from Cala.

Members of the Crisis Committee are of the firm belief that their mayor was victimised because people in Cala do not want a mayor from Elliot. For this reason, they want to disaffiliate from the Sakhisizwe Local Municipality. According to members of the Crisis Committee, Sakhisizwe has been marginalising Elliot residents in terms of service delivery. They raise the poor state of the streets in Elliot and the three townships as an example.

There is little doubt that the Sakhisizwe Municipality is in a deep crisis. One indication of this crisis, as already pointed out, is the dire state of its finances. Speaking to a meeting of the Cala Ratepayers Association at the height of the shutdown in Elliot in September, the Speaker of the Sakhisizwe Municipality confirmed that the municipality was in financial difficulties. She pointed out that the Equitable Share, which is funding that is provided by the national government to municipalities as per the number of registered voters, is not enough to rescue the municipality. She was hopeful that the internal investigation set up by the PEC would throw light as to the causes of the financial difficulties. Furthermore, councillors, according to her, were on a campaign to encourage residents to register as voters in their wards so as to increase the number of voters for the municipality. This would ensure that the Equitable Share grant would be increased.

The other indication of the crisis is the poor state of the infrastructure, such as the roads and sewerage system. It is common to see sewer flowing almost all the time. The situation does not only look clumsy, but poses a serious health risk to the residents. The lack of enforcement of bye-laws also contributes to the situation. Consequently, there are number of taverns that are non-compliant with environmental health requirements. For instance, taverns are not forced to ensure that their patrons drink and relieve themselves within the premises. “Customers” sit and drink anywhere they like; inconveniencing their neighbours and members of the public.

Moreover, the poor lighting system that leaves large parts of the two towns and the villages in darkness at night contributes to the high crime rates. In a meeting of the residents of Elliot town with their councillor, it was reported that there are no less than 15 reported cases of crime per day. The rate of disrespect for the rules of the road within the two towns is worrying. Motorists stop and park anywhere in town. There are streets that are almost impossible to drive on at certain periods of the day in Cala in particular. There does not seem to be anything done about it. The unmanaged dumping of waste, which is an eyesore, is another sign of the municipal collapse. Finally, the municipality has a number of unfinished infra-structure projects such as the revamping of sewerage system, upgrading of sewer ponds and the paving of streets. Nothing seems to be happening with regard to these projects.

What accounts for this serious decline and what can be done?

The Minister for COPTA, as already indicated, as well as the management of the Sakhisizwe municipality seem to think that the problems are caused by lack of human capacity and insufficient financial resources. While one may agree with this assessment, we feel this is not a sufficient explanation. Political meddling and the abuse of power by political leaders are, we humbly submit, the main reason(s) for the near absence of delivery of essential services. This is precisely the point that Swana highlighted in his interview with the SABC cited above in this article. Some politicians tend to interfere in administrative processes, thus compromising service delivery for their personal benefits. As Swana pointed out, the current political system, which requires accountability of leaders to internal structures of their political parties, cushions these political leaders from accountability to the citizens. Political leaders account to their parties instead of the residents. They seem to sacrifice principles and democracy in order to cling to their positions for essentially person gain.

The rights of citizens are often undermined and/or disregarded. A good example concerns the manner in which a resident of Elliot was treated. In a meeting of the Elliot Residents Association held on 7 October 2018, the resident reported that she never received help from the municipality when she approached officials for assistance to remove a tree whose roots are damaging her house. She was told the machine was busy and would be helped as soon as it was back from Cala. She was however surprised to see the same machine clearing the yard of the Acting Mayor. The municipality never came back to her about the request for assistance. 

Our key observation is that residents haven’t sufficiently challenged the abuse of power that is evident in many municipalities, including the Sakhisizwe municipality. Residents need to reclaim the power usurped by politicians and officials. An essential point of departure is for people’s organisations such as residents associations, ratepayers and social movements to organise themselves and come up with a programme of action that will ensure that the municipal officials are primarily accountable to residents, rather than their political leaders and organisation.

Awareness raising programmes are needed to raise the residents’ level of awareness of their rights. A good starting point is the South African Constitution, in this regard Chapter 7 on Local Government. Section 152 (1) sets out the “objects of local government in these terms:

(a) to provide democratic and accountable government for local communities;

(b) to ensure the provision of services to communities in a sustainable manner;

(c) to promote social and economic development;

(d) to promote a safe and healthy environment; and

(e) to encourage the involvement of communities and community organisations in the matters of local government.

Important to note here is (e) above: the need to encourage community participation in local government matters.

At the same time, section 152 (2) puts an obligation on the municipality to “strive, within its financial and administrative capacity, to achieve the objects set out in subsection (1).

On the developmental role of the municipality, section 153 specifies that a municipality must—

(a) structure and manage its administration and budgeting and planning processes to give priority to the basic needs of the community, and to promote the social and economic development of the community; and

(b) participate in national and provincial development programmes.

Other pieces of legislation that residents should be made aware of are the Municipal Finance and Management Act and the Municipal Systems Act. Sections 56 and 57 of the latter Act set out procedures for the employment of officials. This, Swana would argue, is where cadre deployment takes place. Whether or not this is in line with the constitution is what residents should grapple with.

Conscious of their power, the residents would be armed to hold officials and politicians accountable. Residents need to realise that political leaders are their servants, not the other way round. The residents must start by stopping local government officials from taking instructions from politicians in total disregard of the needs of residents, as the case of the residents of Elliot cited above shows.

Municipalities are an important sphere and a terrain closest to the people. It is thus a level where the people themselves can give direction as to how they want to develop their areas. Local government is also a sphere of government where residents can identify and elect their leaders. This will make it possible for the elected leader to be directly and primarily accountable to those who elected her/him. Residents can formulate clear principles that will guide how their chosen leaders will be monitored.

Authors:
Dr Fani Ncapayi is Research Associate of the Centre for African Studies, University of Cape Town (UCT), as well as Senior Researcher of Inyanda National Land Movement

Professor Lungisile Ntsebeza conducts research on the land question and local government in South Africa in the Centre for African Studies, University of Cape Town (UCT)