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The high delivery cost of deploying cadres

Former co-operative governance minister Sicelo Shiceka, as imperfect as he was, left perhaps his bravest legacy in the Municipal Systems Amendment Act, also known as the "cadre bill". Shiceka seemed to understand how cadre deployment undermined capacity.

Another Shiceka legacy, the Local Government Turnaround Strategy linked lagging service delivery, inadequate capacity and cadre deployment. The bill became a political hot potato in the tripartite alliance, with some members not wanting to force cadres to choose between political and administrative roles in local government.

The "cadre bill" was eventually promulgated. The crucial question for local government is now whether it will be implemented? Much rests on whether the intent of the act materialises.

Efficient, competent municipalities are fundamental to addressing widespread grievances about service delivery, a view expressed repeatedly by local government stakeholders during last week's National Congress of Provinces week, but is this hollow? We have already recorded more protests in the first seven months of this year than any other year, suggesting increasing unhappiness with local government. To be sure, there are often political dimensions behind protests, but the underlying concerns remain common and non-partisan - most commonly, housing and basic services.

An unhappy populace

Unhappiness is manifested not only in service delivery protests, but also in opinions polled by TNS South Africa, which recently found that 56% of African metropolitan residents are unhappy with the services they receive.

In a surprising defence of cadre deployment, Free State Premier Ace Magashula argues that the practice is acceptable if the appointee is appropriately skilled. This misses the point. Party status, or so perceived, trumps all, when it is meritocracy that should be foremost in the equation of getting the complex jobs entrusted to local government done.

Appointing the wrong people to top posts permeates entire organisations, not only because top leadership is unsuitable but also because it interferes with incentive structures that reward officials who do the best job. In organisations where the basis of appointment is not clear, factionalism - based on personalities more than issues - can easily become rife and degenerate into gutter politics.

Subordinates focus on politics rather than their jobs and the incentive to keep one's head below the parapet becomes an overriding concern for survival, rather than focusing on the job at hand. Local government, with limited and strained resources juxtaposed against large backlogs, needs innovative officials, freed from this kind of destructive atmosphere.

Residents believe they have valid reasons for discontent

Magashula has also argued that protests in his province (which has recorded the second-highest number of protests) are politically instigated. While it is hard to discern the truth of this claim, financial crises, mounting backlogs and poor audit outcomes suggest that residents have valid reasons to protest in many Free State municipalities. Besides, if cadre deployment is perceived to be behind failure, it makes sense that factionalism and community dissent are necessary political solutions to non-delivery.

Another concern is that in the absence of a truly professional environment, outsourcing of responsibilities becomes more attractive and, in cases of undue influence, is even encouraged by politicians and politically connected officials.

A common theme of recent policy debates has supported a push to decrease the opportunity for unscrupulous "tenderpreneurs". Awarding contracts on the basis of merit should hardly be a revolutionary proposal, but it is one that had to be explicitly made by the public protector last week.

The auditor-general's recent findings on the widespread inadequacy of supply chain processes, and rising levels of irregular expenditure, all fit into the downward spiral of influence trumping competence. Perhaps the most worrying aspect of the auditor-general's most recent audits of local government was a rise in irregular expenditure, which points to a worrying combination of incompetence and lax internal controls.

Clean local government needs to be entrenched and this requires a firm, non-partisan professional backbone, where merit trumps all else. This is a restatement of the "cadre bill", but perhaps it needs to be said again.

*Heese is Municipal IQ's Economist; Allan its MD.

Source: Business Day via I-Net Bridge



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