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Local government will fail without ethical leadership

People rightfully angry at state of service delivery

FILE IMAGE: The dominant narrative in SA speaks of a local government that has lost the confidence of the populace by being unresponsive and callous.
FILE IMAGE: The dominant narrative in SA speaks of a local government that has lost the confidence of the populace by being unresponsive and callous.
Image: Thapelo Morebudi

Local government is where people experience the love or indifference of the state. It is in the streets and the villages where citizens encounter an improvement in their material conditions or lack thereof.

The dominant narrative in SA speaks of a local government that has lost the confidence of the populace by being unresponsive and callous, as evident in the low voter turnout in the November 1 local government elections.

In 2020/21, the auditor-general noted that the only thing that can save local government from the abyss is ethical and accountable leadership.

That more than 70% of the newly elected councillors are first-time councillors presents a local governance challenge and an opportunity – to undo and to start afresh. 

The SA Local Government Association (Salga) recently elected Bheki Stofile, speaker of the Matjhabeng local municipality in the Free State, as its president. The conference theme was apt – Consolidating the role of local government in rebuilding local communities to meet their social, economic, and material needs.  

I was invited as panellist to debate repurposing professionalisation to achieve a capable system.

An individual is deemed competent if they have a combination of knowledge (subject matter and theory), skills (the ability to demonstrate application of theory), and attitude (behaviour traits).

Professionalism starts with behaviour. Being on time, returning phone calls, customer service (remember Batho Pele!). Having a degree does not make an individual competent or a professional.

The latest report from Corruption Watch concluded that most  corruption takes place in the office of the municipal manager. What does this say? The municipality is as strong as the people working within it, and culture (professionalism) is shaped by what it allows or does not allow. So, if there is no consequence for poor performance, then this becomes the dominant culture. 

We neither have a policy problem, nor a money problem in SA. We have an implementation problem. I was told about a municipality that received a skills development allocation for eight projects to the value of R5.4m, but it could not manage these, and the money had to be returned.

And again, poor people bear the brunt of one man’s laziness. The sad reality is that there will be little or no consequence. This is unacceptable.

So, what must be done to ensure a more professional approach at the coalface of state delivery? I suggested five things. 

  1. Salga must implement the municipal staff regulations that will come into effect on July 1 2022. Research must bridge the gap between theory and practice, leading to new knowledge.
  2. Councillors must be included in the work skills plan of municipalities – the objective of the 22-year-old Skills Development Act is to ensure lifelong learning for the employer and employee. The learning curve for councillors is steep. And just when they think they understand the complexities of local governance, the term is over. How do we explain that after 28 years of democracy, we still have people in the employ of local government who cannot read or write? The time to implement recognition of prior learning is now – education and affirmation of blue-collar workers, in particular, is a pathway out of poverty. 
  3. A single district-wide plan for human resource development must be implemented.  
  4. The need to showcase success and to change the dominant narrative. In August 2021, I started a weekly podcast called Great Governance ZA. It introduced me to some incredible professionals. I asked them their secret – ethical and accountable leaders. Therefore, we must continue to showcase success.
  5. University must be brought closer to society. And that means re-looking the curriculum.

South Africans are rightfully angry at the state of local government. Let us find the courage to act on our anger by playing our part to build a strong sector.

* Dr Cloete is a research fellow in the department of public administration and management at the University of the Free State


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