The fact that our municipalities are disintegrating has long ceased to be news. What is news, though only in the sense that our fears were formally confirmed by the auditor-general last week, is that there has been no improvement.
Auditor-general Terence Nombembe.
Indeed, the “dire” situation he warned about three months ago is getting worse.
Auditor-general Terence Nombembe was flanked by three cabinet ministers when he released the results of his latest municipal audit. Either they were there as a gesture of support — to show how seriously government took his findings — or they were there to discourage him from expressing himself like he did during a speech in May, when he referred to a “growing lack of support” from government and hinted at threats to the independence of his office.
Predictably, the ministers voiced their concern about the municipalities and made a lot of noise about a turnaround, although Minister in The Presidency for Performance Monitoring and Evaluation Collins Chabane gave us a more accurate idea of what to expect. The government’s hands were tied “because of the law”, he explained. Government could only intervene in the shambles after certain criteria were met.
In an interview with Business Times
afterwards, Nombembe said the problem was not the law but the failure of government to spot the need for intervention quicker.
“Their role is to know what is going on, to have proper diagnostic instruments to tell them this, way before we pick it up. This is not happening.”
Though ready to accept that government’s hands might be tied to an extent, he said: “I believe that the more thorough and diligent they are in the diagnosis of the issues, the quicker they could be in making the necessary interventions.”
The Financial and Fiscal Commission says the Public Finance Management Act needs to be changed first, but Nombembe does not buy this. “The necessary legislation is already in place for national and provincial leaders to deal with situations that are not yielding the right results. The legislation does exist and is even supported very firmly by the constitutional arrangements.”
There has been the usual blather about setting up the right “diagnostic instruments”, but Nombembe puts the lid on that too. There are diagnostic instruments, he says. “Getting these diagnostic instruments to work needs capacity on their side. There is still a lot that needs to be done there to beef up the capacity of departments at national and provincial level to do that.”
At the moment it is only the auditors that pick things up. “It should be the administration that picks things up before the auditors do. Their monitoring capacity needs to improve.”
If there are problems with capacity at national and provincial level then the picture at municipal level is one of almost unrelieved horror.
Nombembe found that officials in key positions at 70% of municipalities did not have the minimum competencies and skills required to do their jobs properly.
But even ministers who accept that capacity is a problem go to extraordinary lengths to deflect the finger of accusation from the government policy of cadre deployment. Is cadre deployment the fundamental issue?
“You are right,” Nombembe says, adding quickly that “we don’t have any business interfering with that philosophy. What this requires is to persuade politicians to appoint the right people. They must deploy people who have got the ability to get the job done. We have been very specific with them that those that have been deployed to do the jobs have not been competent to do what they were expected to do.”
What he is clearly saying, although not in so many words because, as he keeps pointing out, it is not his place to pronounce on government policy, is that until the policy of cadre deployment is dumped, the situation will continue to slide.
For all the public protestations of support he gets from politicians, they refuse to act.
This is partly what he meant when he referred to a lack of support from government.
“We find a situation where skilled people are still not employed. We need to dig deeper to ask why, despite the fact that it is now known that a lack of skilled people is the obstacle here, municipalities are continuing to employ or retain people who are not competent.
It needs “to be explored” as a matter of urgency, he says.
“We’ve had very robust discussions with the premiers on this matter. We need to convince them that when municipalities continue to retain and employ the wrong people this situation will continue. There is no other alternative.”
He likes to think they’ve seen the light but the latest example from Gauteng is not encouraging: not a single municipality received a clean audit. And the person Premier Nomvula Mokonyane has now appointed to turn things around as MEC of local government is the same person whose previous department, health, had to be put under national administration because of financial mismanagement.
When I refer this example to Nombembe he sounds suitably gloomy while casting around for a bright side to look on.
“The turning around of municipalities is not solely dependent on provincial MECs. It’s about the politicians at local government level doing the right things,” he says.
There “must be consequences” for those who continue to appoint the wrong people “knowing that it is going to lead municipalities directly to the tipping point”, he says.
Chabane’s department is to conduct a study to see if there is any connection between bad audit results and the service delivery failures that provoke community protests, but Nombembe says he has no doubt there is a direct link.
Which is why he also says that if the deterioration of financial management at municipal level is not arrested, “one will start making statements that will spell anarchy.
“We are not near there yet, but it is a looming risk if these issues we have highlighted continue to be ignored.”
It is encouraging that we have someone of Nombembe’s calibre in charge of the AG’s office. Sadly, at 50, he will reach the end of his seven-year term next year and it cannot be extended.
He thinks this is a good thing, and who can blame him?