Local govt: The coalface of our democracy

Mugabe Ratshikuni says dire state of most municipalities is a window into ill-health of our society

With local government being the coal face of all human development activities, the perilous state of most of our municipalities around the country is a window into the ill-health of our society, which demands urgent attention and intervention, if we are ever going to achieve our developmental objectives as a people.

In the Free State, we were recently awakened to the reality of the provincial government placing Mangaung municipality under administration. In Gauteng, we are still to get a full picture of the mess that Herman Mashaba left the City of Johannesburg in, but the evidence is there for us all to see in mushrooming potholes everywhere, traffic lights not working, rubbish not being collected and neighbourhoods looking like dumping sites and of course perpetual water and power outages.

The less said about Tshwane municipality, which has been put under administration by the provincial government, the better, with even basic services such as water proving too much for the municipality to provide to the extent that even the Human Rights Commission had to step in. Looking further afield to the Eastern Cape, one need only look at the complete shambles that is Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality to realise that we are in serious trouble as a people and in fact reading through Cristian Olver’s eye-witness account of the rot within that municipality, How To Steal a City, leaves one with a serious sense of foreboding.

These are all issues that need to be tackled in a non-partisan manner, because to a large extent it is the partisan nature of our politics at a local government level, that has left service delivery in a state of inertia with entropy reigning and the interests of citizens being negatively affected.

In reflecting upon all this, one was reminded of the words of renowned poet Walt Whitman, in his poem lamenting the state of affairs in his country at the time titled, To The State,

Why reclining, interrogating? why myself and all drowsing?
What deepening twilight—scum floating atop of the waters,
Who are they as bats and night-dogs askant in the capitol?
What a filthy Presidentiad! (O South, your torrid suns! O North, your arctic freezings!)
Are those really Congressmen? are those the great Judges? is that the President?
Then I will sleep awhile yet, for I see that these States sleep, for reasons”

Addressing an eThekwini Metro leadership breakfast session, in a 2015 speech with the profoundly germane theme, Building a Capable Municipality: How to Lead in a Politically Charged Environment, Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection Executive Director, Joel Netshitenzhe, made the following pertinent observations in seeking to provide solutions for the local government conundrum that we are faced with:

The bureaucracy forms a critical part of the state: it is the infrastructure through which policy and technical imperatives find concrete expression. It is not apolitical, as it is meant to carry out the policy mandate of the party that wins elections. It should be non-partisan; but its functions are essentially political.

We should avoid at all times conflating the party, the government and the state. While the bureaucracy is obliged to carry out the popular mandate as directed by the ruling party in any specific sphere, it has a broader responsibility in relation to society; in relation to the burghers of eThekwini (or any particular municipality)– from big and small business to workers and the unemployed – on matters pertaining to provision of municipal services.

A critical element of this is the basic principle that governance should be based on clear rules which everyone must observe; and that there should be accountability – both upwards in relation to relevant supervisors and downwards in relation to staff and society in general – on the part both of the bureaucracy and the political principals.

The bureaucracy should enjoy ‘embedded autonomy’: it should be networked in society to be able to give leadership to economic development; but it should be autonomous of any special interests.

The bureaucracy should be staffed by competent, mission-oriented professionals, it should be “sufficiently insulated from the push and pull of special short-term interests”, corruption and political favours.

The personnel should be career-bureaucrats, with the primary mode of recruitment and promotion being merit rather than political or personal connections. Expertise and competence should be highly prized and rewarded; and an independent perspective – as advisors to the political principals – should be cultivated.

The bureaucracy should be non-partisan, but it is never apolitical as everything it does relates to politics in the broader sense

To highlight this final point, Netshitenzhe gives an example of the UK, where during elections, political parties all release their manifestos, which are in essence, their contract with the people who vote for them, “the bureaucracy develops detailed plans on how the manifestos of at least the largest parties can be operationalised. This is crucial for the practical reason that a new government should able to hit the ground running; but it also entrenches a culture to ensure clear dove-tailing between bureaucratic pursuits and the popular mandate.”

These are all very important principles that we must endorse, if we want to further enhance the efficacy of our municipalities and ensure that they can deliver on their Section 152 responsibilities, as it is the highly politicised and partisan nature of local government that is creating service delivery deficits that are a serious threat to the health of our democracy.

It is these highly politicised and partisan local politics that have produced coalition governments and arrangements within our municipalities that advance narrow individual and party interests, with no regard whatsoever towards their Section 152 responsibilities, with the outcome being political instability that has a devastatingly negative impact on quality of life for ordinary citizens.

We must fix local government if we are really serious about enhancing the capacity of the state to be developmental and impactful in aims and output, with the ultimate objective of improving the living conditions and quality of life of ordinary citizens, in line with the words once uttered by the Roman Senator, Marcus Tullius Cicero, “the good life is impossible without a good state; and there is no greater blessing than a well-ordered state.”

Mugabe Ratshikuni works for the Gauteng provincial government. He is an activist with a passion for social justice and transformation. He writes here in his personal capacity.