The municipal elections of earlier this year apparently had a dampening impact on service delivery protests, according to research by Municipal IQ, which pointed to only 23 protests in 2011 until May.That is in strong contrast to the frightening regularity of local government delivery protests in 2009 (105) and 2010 (111).
But this encouraging statistic may merely be masking some worrying and troubling facts, figures and factors about local government and its capacities to deliver.
A low road to economic implosion?
Let us consider dilapidated road networks at local government level, for example.
Minister of Transport Sibusiso Ndebele recently said that portions of the South African road network, particularly those under the jurisdiction of provincial and local government, continue on a down slide mainly as a result of professional skills shortages and inadequate institutional arrangements.
South Africa has a poor road safety record by world standards, with annual fatalities of approximately 265 per million of the population – compared with an international average of 85.
A poorly maintained road substantially increases the risk of road accidents. In 1988, only 10% of our provincial road network was classified as being in a poor and very poor condition. Ten years later, by 2008, that figure had risen to 60%.
Similarly, in 1988, 70% of the provincial road network was measured to be good and very good. By 2008, that figure had dropped to 15%.
Professor Fanie Cloete
of the Department of Public Governance
at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) says municipal revenue is notoriously low and insufficient to enable municipalities to provide the wide scope of community services at the standards and levels that they should provide them.
As municipalities prioritise the funding of too many programmes with too little income, the sectors that normally are neglected include general training and information technology (IT) upgrades.
This situation is aggravated by other ill-considered spending priorities (for example, millions of rand on Fifa Soccer World Cup expenses, all sorts of celebrations and functions, shiny cars for office bearers, and white elephant projects that are unsuitable for the contexts for which they were designed).
The electronic billing system of the City of Johannesburg is an example that illustrates this last point, notes Prof. Cloete.
He adds that the allocation of projects to incompetent service providers under the guise of black economic empowerment often reduces the little remaining funds available for community development.
Inefficient and ineffective implementation further wastes scarce resources.
Sunette Steyn, professor responsible for the Collaborative Governance and Partnerships Research Programme at the Unisa Institute for Corporate Citizenship, says that an adequate working supply of infrastructure services has long been viewed by academics and policy-makers as a key ingredient for economic development.
An increasing number of observers point to deficient infrastructure as a major obstacle for growth and poverty reduction. This will impact on the objectives of the government to fulfil its electoral mandate as stipulated in its Medium-Term Strategic Framework.
It will impede the government’s ability to achieve the objectives of halving poverty and unemployment by 2014 and ensuring a more equitable distribution of the benefits of economic growth.
Prof. Steyn says the assessment for 2010 shows that out of the total extent of the Gauteng provincial paved road network of 4 248 kilometres, 9% is in very good condition, 27% in a good condition, 33% in a fair condition, 20% in a poor condition and 11% in a very poor condition.
The international benchmark is that a country’s road network should not have more than 10% in a poor and very poor condition. For Gauteng, this statistic is 31%.
Asked what could be done to rectify the situation, Prof. Steyn says productivity can be improved by better planning processes and co-ordination or roads service delivery, roads policies, standards and guidelines, and road funding.
Short- to medium-term management contracts – with a component to build management capacity in local governments – can play an important role in improving planning and management.
An alarming lack of capacity and skills
Recently, in an article in the Financial Mail, Loane Sharp – a labour economist at Adcorp’s ADfusion Trust – said there are 829 000 unfilled positions for highly skilled people in South Africa.
Lack of skills and knowledge at local government level, particularly in positions filled by comrades who have benefited from cadre deployment, has been publicly bemoaned.
Prof. Cloete says skills scarcity exists in all sectors – also in IT and knowledge management in municipalities, big and small – although it is much worse in the smaller municipalities than in the larger ones.
Bad nominations of councillors by political parties and bad appointments by these councillors of officials create a governing system that is guaranteed to underperform at best and completely fail at worst, as is the case with the increasing number of municipalities under administration.