Sona just a litany of failed promises as municipalities get worse: Outa

10 February 2020 - 13:57 By Nomahlubi Jordaan
Outa has called for President Cyril Ramaphosa to make "significant" reforms in the local government space.
Outa has called for President Cyril Ramaphosa to make "significant" reforms in the local government space.

The Organisation for Undoing Tax Abuse (Outa) says the state of the nation address (Sona) has a history of failed promises for local government reform.

“Multiple interventions into failing municipalities have achieved poor results despite repeated commitments at successive Sonas,” the organisation said.

Outa said that since the 2009 Sona, presidents Jacob Zuma and Cyril Ramaphosa had promised to turn around local government, but the opposite has happened.

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“Municipalities continue to deteriorate at an increasingly rapid rate. Many are less fiscally prudent, more susceptible to tender corruption and hamstrung by intra- and inter-party political disputes, resulting in reduced maintenance, failed service delivery and ongoing social unrest," said Julius Kleynhans, Outa’s operations executive.

“An increasing number of municipalities are facing collapse. In several well-documented cases, municipalities have been unable to pay their own staff, have had assets seized and essential services paralysed.

“Makana local municipality was dissolved due to civil action brought by disgruntled civil society groups, but instead of addressing the collapse of that municipality, the Eastern Cape government sits back and watches while the council fights their removal with public money.

“It is clear neither the president of South Africa nor national, provincial or local government leaders have an understanding of the seriousness of the situation,” said Kleynhans.

Kleynhans has called on Ramaphosa to initiate “significant” reforms in the local government space and ensure municipal leaders and officials accused of involvement in corrupt relationships are investigated with urgency.

“The local government turnaround strategy was adopted in 2009 and highlighted in president Zuma’s Sona 2010 and Sona 2011, but has had no effect. The strategy listed 39 achievable milestones to be reached by 2011 and 2014.

“Nearly every milestone was missed, and six years later these have still not been achieved. The problems highlighted in that report still persist today,” said Michael Holenstein, manager for local government at Outa.

According to Outa, the milestones include making sure political parties do not destabilise municipalities, electing office bearers and appointing officials fit for purpose with the required skills, and implementing performance management of councillors.

“Over the past decade the number of municipalities in financial distress has nearly doubled from 64 (22.6%) to 125 (48.6%), while the number of municipalities disestablished in the same period is 26, reducing municipalities from 283 to 257. Of concern is that 56 of the 64 municipalities deemed distressed in 2009 have been classified as distressed on more than one occasion, with eDumbe in KwaZulu-Natal, Emalahleni in Mpumalanga, and Maluti-a-Phofung in Free State having appeared seven times on the list,” Holenstein said.

Holenstein said it appeared the greatest period of growth in financially distressed municipalities occurred shortly after a local government election. After the 2011 election the number rose from 66 to 94 and never substantially reduced, while in 2016 the number rose from 87 to 128 in 2017, reducing to 125 in 2018.

According to Holenstein, the poor state of local governance was further highlighted in a January 2020 statement by data analytics firm Municipal IQ, which found service delivery protests against municipalities had doubled from 107 in 2009 to 218 in 2019.

In October 2019, a report by the Public Affairs Research Institute, which researches the effectiveness of state institutions in the delivery of services and infrastructure, revealed 140 municipalities had been placed under administration since 1998, in terms of section 139 of the constitution, with the bulk of these over the last decade, Holenstein said.

He said the number of complaints received by Outa concerning poorly performing municipalities had increased, with key complaints  around the provision of water, sewerage systems, waste collection and a lack of focus on repairs and maintenance.

“The data coming out of government, the private sector and civil society organisations all paints a deeply concerning picture for the future of local government. The sad reality is that the oversight role meant to be exercised by provincial and national government structures has failed and, even worse, when society turns to the courts to intervene, the provincial structures do little to enforce these orders but instead appeal these judgments, wasting time and making matters worse for residents," said Holenstein.

"Unless we see focused action, we expect more municipalities will collapse. The resulting failures of essential services like water and sanitation leave millions of citizens at the mercy of indifferent officials, and are a significant factor in locking people into lives of misery, encouraging social unrest and damaging the economy," he said.