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A CALL FOR THE REFORM OF LOCAL GOVERNMENT

by

N Barney Pityana

I stopped at a filling station at Five Ways, Cape Road, sometime in March. The petrol attendant asked me confidently whether I had been in town to attend the celebration for the inauguration of the new Mayor. I had not even been aware of the event. One’s mind was more focused on the events around Human Rights Day. The petrol attendant went on to tell me that what can a pensioner do that the other younger Mayors had failed to do. He laughed, because it was all a big joke to him. He just signed off by stating in a jocular fashion: “Umbutho udlala ngathi, qha ke!”

A big joke it was indeed, were it not such a serious matter. It was not immediately clear and neither was it ever disclosed how it was that of all people that the ANC could call upon it had to resort to an octogenarian who has no management or leadership experience, to try and sort out the messiness of the ANC governance of the City. I am reminded of a story told of the late Govan Mbeki and Raymond Mhlaba. The story goes that when the late Raymond Mhlaba told his friend and comrade Govan Mbeki that the ANC had asked him to stand for the then new Eastern Cape Provincial legislature as a candidate for Premier, “Oom Gov” is reported to have laughed, “Ndobe, badlala ngawe aba bantwana!” It was no longer these comrades are messing you up, but, “these children…” Mbeki must have reasoned that it was at best a way of honouring an old man by entrusting him with such a responsibility, or at worse it was to set him up to fail. Both were not comradely things to do, but childish playfulness. It was pointed out to Oom Ray that he was taking on more than he was capable of, and that he should resist the temptation. To allow children to mess about with him in this manner was foolhardy. Of course, Oom Ray did not heed the advice of his comrade, and he went on to carve out a reputation as the most disastrous incumbency at Bhisho, perhaps laying the foundations for the rot that the Eastern Cape has become famous for. Well, the petrol attendant appears to have greater wisdom than his political masters.

And so it is with Ben Fihla. A completely undistinguished backbencher in parliament, albeit a faithful party hack. There is no evidence that he has the competence and capabilities to lead a large Metro Council, or command the respect of his colleagues in the Council, or the confidence of the ratepayers in the City. In reality he can only boast of a threadbare CV. It is not just a matter of age, bjut nothing in the brief bio that the City website puts out on him qualifies him for the job entrusted to him. But by the grace of the ANC bosses at Luthuli House he finds himself in the driving seat, unclear where he is going and how he will get there. What he is reported to have told the party caucus upon assumption of office had nothing to do with the priorities of local government, or about the challenges that the Nelson Mandela Bay Metro needed to have solved, nor did he show any appreciation of what lay behind the restive strikes and demonstrations among the poor communities clamouring for service delivery. He just does not seem capable of distinguishing the competencies of the various spheres of government.

Indeed his hand was soon revealed. This is someone who has no regard for good governance. He clearly has no understanding of the relationship between executive management and the executive (political) authority or oversight. He labours under the impression that the City Manager is there to simply take political instructions regardless of the law. That is precisely what landed the City into the phenomenal mess it has become – and the succession with which the City has been trading city managers for others no better capable, save as party loyalists. And so he usurps the authority of the City Manager and purports to appoint the MKVA as security without due process and unbudgeted for. Recent reports suggest that the mayor and the ANC caucus seeks to countermand the authority of the City Manager in determining implementation of tender policies. Very soon, the Nelson Mandela Bay Metro Council will be weighed down by unfunded and unbudgeted for posts, all due to politicians who have no regard for financial management. Dr Lindiwe Msengana-Ndlela is to be applauded for resisting this abuse of power.

But for the Mayor to then resort to veiled threats of violence is most unbecoming. To interfere in the awarding of tenders contrary to policy cannot be anything but corrupt dealings, a problem that has become endemic in the management of the city.

Of course, one could make all manner of political protestations about this. At the heart of the matter though, is the simple fact that local government should better be in the hands of the local communities for the betterment of their own communities, and never to be controlled from far-away Luthuli House or the ill-named James Calata House in King William’s Town. It means that political parties as such really have no place in local government. It should not matter what political party one belongs to, except that basic services must be offered, that the Budget of the city must be in good and trustworthy hands, and that ratepayers and residents of the City have confidence in the leadership of the City. Political dogma hardly drives such considerations. What is vital is competence, together with a people-oriented, moral integrity and servanthood attitude of life. Ultimately, my petrol attendant friend is only interested in a council that serves the interests of the City: that rates be kept reasonable and affordable; that transport services be efficient, that roads, water and sanitation meet the health and safety standards, and that the supply of electricity be reliable. The city ultimately must be a dependable provider of efficient services for the citizen.

Together with the political party contestation in local government has come the idea that those who are in the contest for local government do so because it has become gainful employment. It is just a job. It is not so much about selfless service. Many of those who serve in local government have no experience even of running a family budget, let alone understanding the intricacies of the Municipal Finance Management Act, such as to participate effectively in decision-making activities of Council.

Finally, with full-time employed local councilors and the Executive Mayor and mayoral team there is bound to be conflict in the responsibilities between the executive management and the executive politicians. As a result there tends to be a total disregard of the good governance principles so widely accepted since the King Codes of Conduct, and the various standards set by the Auditor General.

A new way forward is required for local government.

Last Modified :Tue, 11 Mar 2014 16:45:23 SAST