Graft, incompetence and nepotism a toxic mix in SA local government

A dry water tap in Disaneng, a village in the North West, is as a result of incompetence, corruption and nepotism by local municipalities in the country, says the writer. /Tiro Ramatlhatse
A dry water tap in Disaneng, a village in the North West, is as a result of incompetence, corruption and nepotism by local municipalities in the country, says the writer. /Tiro Ramatlhatse

The alarm triggered by the threat by the Water Affairs and Sanitation Department to restrict bulk water supply to municipalities that collectively owe more than R10,7-billion to the various water boards and the department are focusing our minds on yet another manifestation of poor management of public affairs in our country.

It is disconcerting that large sections of our citizens might have a miserable festive season this year due to this kind of bumbling in the administration of public affairs.

If things were working properly in the public sector, we would not even know about the problem. The relevant sections of the state would have met and solved this matter quietly, without calling press conferences for the purpose of issuing threats against each other.

Eskom faces the same predicament in as far as payment for bulk electricity supplied to municipalities is concerned. It, too, has been issuing threats of cutting off these wayward councils.

 But withholding water and electricity to a municipality is a blunt weapon that hurts even those who are diligently paying their bills. This, unfortunately, might have the effect of discouraging them from continuing to pay.

What is the point of being up to date with your accounts if at the end of the day you will be punished in the same way as the defaulters?

If truth be told, councils are the theatre where the triple ills of incompetence, corruption and nepotism play out. These maladies manifest themselves at their crudest at this sphere of government.

An acquaintance told us some years back how after being interviewed for a post at one of the municipalities in Limpopo, he was phoned by an office bearer of a political party and told the job was his if he took up membership of that party.

He was told that although he was the best candidate for the position, he would not be appointed if he was not a member of that party. He was not appointed because he did not join that party.

It follows that the least qualified individual with the "right" membership card of a political party was hired.

There are many instances where functionaries at this level are appointed on the basis of party affiliation, blood relationships and/or friendship to people in authority.

It is not uncommon to find municipal managers who are just teachers by training. For such a post you need people trained in management and public administration, supported by other similarly skilled people in the fields of engineering and finance.

Add to this the fact that the majority of councillors have a poor understanding of municipal issues. We seem to think that we should send our brightest to the national and provincial parliaments and our least qualified to the local sphere of government. Local government is the most technically challenging area of public administration.

I attended a municipal meeting once and was amazed by the technical nature of the various agenda items. The majority of the councillors did not understand a thing. Many did not even bother to open their council meeting packs.

One minister responsible for local government once observed, correctly, that up to a third of councillors are un-trainable.

Instances of corruption are legendary at municipal level, just as they are widespread at state-owned enterprises.

The combination of corruption, incompetence and nepotism feed on one another to produce a toxic mix that leaves residents in municipalities short-changed at multiple levels.

It produces a situation where waste is not collected efficiently, water reservoirs and pipes are not properly maintained, sewage systems are similarly not looked after, leading to frequent flows of human waste in the streets.

Electricity supply is not consistent owing to a lack of competent staff, billing for services is messy and inaccurate, the management of financial affairs of the municipalities is chaotic.

On many occasions, the auditor-general has decried the appalling state of management of most municipalities. The root cause of this situation lies in a combination of nepotism, incompetence and graft.

Although there is poverty and unemployment to contend with in many communities, the nonpayment of bulk water and electricity to the relevant entities owes most of its origins to this trio.