Home PodcastJulie Alli Can South Africa Save Its Ailing Towns?

Can South Africa Save Its Ailing Towns?

by Zahid Jadwat

The potholes on the road to the town of Koster, NW, are one of the effects of poor service delivery. [Picture: Zahid Jadwat/Salaamedia]


Some two hours out of the city of Johannesburg lies the dry, dark and dilapidated town of Koster in the North West. Getting to the town one Saturday afternoon, a friend and I meander through peaceful farms under a highveld thunderstorm. The roads are unkind.

As we approach the town near the picturesque Magaliesberg mountains, a series of craters on the road have him swerving across the road to avoid winding up in a wreckage. No time to observe sunflowers in their radiant bloom; the road demands all focus. It is a forewarning of the neglect and mismanagement that lies ahead.

The town is located in the Kgetlengrivier Local Municipality, which itself falls under the Bojanala Platinum District Municipality. Home to a population of some 60 000, Kgetlengrivier municipality can hardly deliver services to its people.

Just over a third of residents (35%) have access to piped water inside their dwelling, 52% have toilets connected to the sewage network and more than half (55%) do not have weekly refuse removal.

So poor is the state of affairs in the local municipality that the Auditor General issued a disclaimed opinion. This means that “its finances are so badly managed that it cannot provide evidence (documentation) to support its financial statements” and so the AG “cannot form an opinion”.

But what is it that brings municipalities to – or over – the brink of collapse? There are at least two factors: poor oversight and a menacing skills deficit. That is according to Professor Sam Khoma, a governance expert at the North West University. He spoke to us to help us make sense of the dire outcomes of AG Tsakani Maluleke’s local government audit of 2021/22.


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Poor oversight

What is happening in this municipality in the North West province is not nearly an isolated issue. The collapse of service delivery is a pestilence that has corroded small towns and is quickly spreading to urban areas and major cities, Johannesburg and Durban being no exceptions.

“The net effect of these governance lapses in the context of our municipalities,” he explained, “is that we seem to have serious accountability regression that has given rise to abuse of authority, misappropriation of public funds and trust deficit and, very importantly, it means there’s a lack of consequences.”

It goes beyond that. As he put it, it also means that oversight bodies and officials have consistently failed to perform their functions. Everyone, from the mayor to the ward councillors, appear to have failed residents miserably.

“The municipal council, the Speaker, the elected office bearers and internal audit units seem not to be fulfilling their legislative and Constitutional obligation to hold those officials accountable in the manner in which they go about performing their responsibilities,” he said.


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Skills deficit

One simply cannot expect to place a bunch of uneducated, inefficient and inexperienced individuals at the helm and expect all to go well. Yet that is exactly the kind of prevailing trend in many parts of South Africa, particularly at a municipal level.

“We seem to have a serious problem of a skills deficit. In other words, we have wrong people holding the right positions in municipalities,” said Khoma. “You have people who are appointed in the finance units of these municipalities without the necessary expertise, knowledge and experience to execute their tasks.”


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Reviving a town

Not all hope is to be lost just yet, if Professor Khoma’s analysis holds true. He pointed to recent efforts by the South African Local Government Association (SALGA) to “professionalise” local government.

He said, “There seems to be impetus and drive on the part of key stakeholders involved in the local government sector to say it’s high time we prioritise the issue of appointing the right individuals as per the Municipal Systems Amendment Act.”

But what does this look like? Who are these people the country so desperately needs before it slips off the cliff and straight into the abyss? Khoma might have an answer for us.

“We need courageous political leaders with political will who can take tough decisions that relate to effecting consequence management, reprimanding officials, instituting disciplinary sanctions and instituting criminal proceedings where necessary,” he said.

Hoping such a tall order is delivered in South Africa, he believes it “will trigger a major shift in terms of attitude, behaviour [and] conduct on the part of municipal officials, including our councillors”. Whether or not this will happen, however, “remains to be seen”, he said.


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