Monday, 18 February 2013

Local "government"

A friend of mine is a councillor in a local municipality. He recently had this to say:

Local government is entirely mis-named. It's not government at all (a good thing), but it pretends to be a government (a bad thing). After an involvement of about 20 months, I am convinced that municipalities should resume their former status of service organisations, limited in scope only to the provision of electricity and water, sewerage disposal, solid waste removal, and the maintenance of local roads, most if not all of which functions can be easily privatised. Such municipalities can be controlled by non political councils consisting of unpaid volunteers.  If a town really wants to have a mayor for ceremonial functions, let it elect to have one. I suspect that many municipalities could run well enough without councils at all.

The objective record seems to suggest that towns get on and run themselves quite well enough as long as the level of service delivery is only just a bit higher than catastrophically bad. According to the Lightstone Risk Management company, the municipality recording the highest growth in real estate value in 2010/11 throughout the whole of South Africa was Prince Albert. At that time it had a hung council which met only for the purpose of staging walk outs, and an MM who spent most of the year out of office suspended on full pay. 

I am certain that at least 80% of the time, energy and hard resources of our municipality is expended on matters that have nothing to do with the provision of essential services. It is astonishing to me that councillors and senior officials who campaign for office or who apply for jobs on the basis of their fitness for purpose, suddenly acquire the need for endless education and training on matters that extend from climate change (sic)  through AIDS counselling to LED (Local Economic Development) after acquiring office. Our  Council/municipality will spend well over half a million this year on the costs associated with education and training for people who should already be fit for purpose. Education and training incorporates such delightful perquisites as comfortable hotel accommodation, sitting doing nothing all day except doodling with partial attention on some totally inept presenter, and disproportionate vehicle mileage claims which help individual cash flow no end. In 20 months our Council has not received a single solitary report back on a training course attended.

The biggest myth of local government is that it is developmental.  I have read all the laws, statutes and SALGA position papers on the subject, and still have no clue whatsoever what distinguishes a developmental municipality from any other kind of municipality. I ask my fellow councillors the same question, the DA the same question, and any itinerant economist who wanders into our domain the same question, and I still haven't received an answer. I have developed and frequently offer to anyone who will read or listen a fully worked out and (I think!) an economically literate argument proving conclusively that "job creation" is a total, unrehabilitatable fiction, but municipalities continue to pretend that they have this legitimate mission of creating jobs, and when Extended Public Works Programmes, funded by the central fiscus provide funds, we employ scores of people whose task might be, for instance, to pick up litter that people helpfully provide by throwing it on the ground in the first place, or to sweep dust off tar roads in howling gales that blow it right back again. And this then gets claimed as a successful "Job Creation" programme.  And don't get me going on LED, currently being run in our town by a failed entrepreneur paid by taxpayer's money. In the meanwhile we produce entire forests of utterly useless documentation - annual reports, integrated develoment plans, performance reports and an utterly ghastly thing called the Service Delivery and Budget Inmplementation Plan (SDBIP) which nobody ever reads. We get terribly confused between serving the residents and ratepayers, for the one part, and the Auditor-General for the other, and default to serving the A-G, because a so-called Clean Audit looks good on a political CV. The A-G is incompetent  arrogant and prodigously expensive. The annual audit is a cost incurred outside of our control. This year it mounts to 7% of municipal revenue. Shocking. 

I have more than once asked the DA to tell me what, at policy level, would distinguish a DA council from an ANC council, and have never received an answer.

So why do I do it? I mostly think I shouldn't. The little stipend that comes with the job is not unwelcome in the household, but I bank it with a troubled conscience, which I largely assuage by telling myself that the Council is better served by a sceptic, a critic, and at times even a libertarian. I claim no other expenses to line my pocket, I read all the voluminous documentation (all in Afrikans) and I try to ask tricky questions. Sometimes in Council I have fun by inventing extravagant and far-fetched metaphors, and imagine myself in the tradition of Burke, or Churchill, or I quote Tom Paine, or the Preamble to the American Constitution, in response to which I receive at best, a muted reaction, or earn the outright suspicion of my fellow councillors.