Back to basics


CoGTA announced its new local government turnaround strategy in 2014. Its going ‘back to basics’ approach will see officials getting to the heart of what really matters in 2015.

Moving into the leading position in Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, former Finance Minister, Pravin Gordhan, has his work cut out for him as he tackles the challenges associated with this Local Government – often referred to as government’s poisoned chalice.

Last year, Gordhan said Local Government needs to go “back to basics” to improve service delivery for South African citizens. According to Gordhan, “Back to basics will ensure that in every municipality, traffic lights work, potholes are filled, water is delivered, refuse is collected, electricity is supplied, and refuse and waste management takes place as scheduled.”

In his State of the National address last year, President Jacob Zuma voiced government’s concerns regarding improvements needed at a local government level. The President stated: “We would like our people’s experience of local government to be a pleasant one. We have listened to the complaints and proposals of South Africans over the past five years, relating to the performance of municipalities”.

In sharing Government’s plan of action to revitalise local government the President our municipalities are built on a firm foundation, built over the last 20 years of democracy. “We have evaluated all our municipalities. We have inspected their financial management, how they work within legislative processes as well as their ability to roll out projects and to address capacity constraints. We have also looked at how they respond to service delivery protests. There have been many successes in many municipalities. However we face a number of challenges …”

It is against this background that the Ministry of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs is pursuing the back to basics approach to address challenges faced by local government, strengthening municipalities and instilling a sense of urgency towards improving citizens’ lives. This approach is also based on the recent review of all 278 municipalities, which established three groups of municipalities.

The top group comprises municipalities, which, in most cases, have the basics right and performing their functions adequately, even though they still have much to do. Within this group, there is a small group of top performers that are doing extremely well. In these municipalities the basics are in place, and there are innovative practices to ensure sustainability and resilience.

The middle group comprise of municipalities that are fairly functional, and overall performance is average. “While the basics are mostly in place and the municipalities can deliver on the traditional functions of local government, we also find worrying signs of degeneration and decline in these municipalities,” the department says.

The bottom, third group, is made up of municipalities that are dysfunctional, and face serious challenges in meeting their constitutional obligation and require urgent intervention and support to get them to get the basics right. The review found among others, endemic corruption, dysfunctional councils, no structured community engagement and participation systems and poor financial management leading to continuous negative audit outcomes.

There is a poor record of service delivery and service management functions such as fixing potholes, collecting refuse, maintain public places, fixing streetlights, etc. While most of the necessary resources to render the functions or maintain the systems are available, the basics are not in place. “It is in these municipalities that we are failing the people of South Africa, and there is a need to intervene urgently in order to correct the decay in the system,” CoGTA says.

The back to basics approach supports a transformation agenda which is premised on the need to ensure functional municipalities as outlined by the Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs in his 2014 Budget Vote. It is informed by the constitution, legislation and programmes, and aimed at ushering a new agenda to change government’s approach and strategic orientation especially at a local level towards serving the people whilst ensuring service delivery.

As CoGTA points out, “we need to do things differently if we want different solutions. The situation needs a change of paradigm that focuses on serving the people and not political elites and organisations. This is the essence of our back to basics approach.”

At the most basic level, CoGTA expects municipalities to:

  • put people and their concerns first and ensure constant contact with communities through effective public participation platforms;
  • create conditions for decent living by consistently delivering municipal services to the right quality and standard. This includes planning for and delivery of infrastructure and amenities, maintenance and upkeep, including the budgeting to do this. Ensure no failures in services and where there are, restore with urgency;
  • be well governed and demonstrate good governance and administration - cut wastage, spend public funds prudently, hire competent staff, ensure transparency and accountability;
  • ensure sound financial management and accounting, and prudently manage resources so as to sustainably deliver services and bring development to communities; and
  • build and maintain sound institutional and administrative capabilities administered and managed by dedicated and skilled personnel at all levels.

“Changing strategic orientation is no mean feat and requires leadership and political will. At the same time we need a collective effort and unity of purpose and partnership with leaders in local government, provinces and national government. There is a need to improve the political management of municipalities and be responsive to the needs and aspirations of local communities.

“We desperately need leadership with a vision to change and the calibre to drive the change process. We need leadership that will inspire and organise for our common purpose of improving services to our people. Each functionary needs to understand the core mandate and orientation, understand their specific role in delivering the local government vision as envisaged in the White Paper and act in a manner that ensures that local government primarily serves its people by delivering basic services,” the department says.

In the official docket regarding the programme, COGTA further highlights that their actions need to move from intent to generating impact on the ground and that they will have to mobilise massive support from those who are willing to change for the better and isolate those who seek to push back progressive change among them.

“The strategy for our campaign will be based on supporting and educating the coalition of the willing as well as enforcing compliance through legislation and regulation to achieve our goals. In other words, we will have to push, incentivise, disincetivise and embarrass those who are not willing to change,” CoGTA says.

The department also points out that its transformational agenda focuses on the three groups they have identified (top, middle and bottom tiers). The department’s recent assessment of the state of municipalities indicates that a significant number of municipalities are just below the middle path or are in a critical state of dysfunction. Its aim is to encourage all municipalities to become positively functional centres of good governance.

The department highlights the building blocks of back-to-basics approach as being good governance, public participation, financial management, infrastructure services and institutional capacity.

According to CoGTA, “good governance is at the heart of the effective functioning of municipalities.” Municipalities will be constantly monitored and evaluated on their ability to:

  • hold council meetings as legislated;
  • oversee structures, s79 committees, audit committees and District IGR Forums;
  • progress, following interventions over the last 3 – 5 years;
  • assess the existence and efficiency of anti-corruption measures;
  • comply with legislation and the enforcement of by laws; and
  • the way they address and approaches service delivery protests.

In terms of public participation, the department says measures will be taken to ensure that municipalities engage with their communities. “We will enforce compliance with the provisions of the Municipal Systems Act on community participation.” Municipalities must develop affordable and efficient communication systems to communicate regularly with communities and disseminate urgent information.

Sound financial management is integral to the success of local government according to CoGTA. “National Treasury has legislated standards and reporting requirements, and based on our monitoring of the indicators, we will identify the key areas emerging from the profiles and partner with National Treasury to support the remedial process,” the department says. Performance against the following basic indicators will be constantly assessed:

  • The number disclaimers in the last three to five years.
  • Whether the budgets are cash backed.
  • The percentage revenue collected.
  • The extent to which debt is serviced.
  • The efficiency and functionality of supply chain management.

“The planning, implementation and maintenance of basic infrastructure is critical for sustaining basic standards of living and economic activity in our towns and cities. All municipalities will develop service standards for each service, and will establish systems for monitoring adherence to these standards. Municipalities will be required to report on ward-level service delivery plans,” the department says.

Finally, in terms of institutional capacity, CoGTA highlights that the focus will be on building strong municipal administrative systems and processes. It includes ensuring that administrative positions are filled with competent and committed people whose performance is closely monitored. Targeted and measurable training and capacity building will be provided for councillors and municipal officials to enable them to deal with the challenges of local governance as well as ensuring that scarce skills are addressed through bursary and training programmes.

“Local government has been a primary site for the delivery of services in South Africa since 1994. We have made tremendous progress in delivering water, electricity, sanitation and refuse removal at a local level. These rates of delivery are unprecedented in world-wide terms. However, there are areas in which service delivery is failing, our governance system is not functioning, and we are not putting people and their concerns first. We need to move away from outdated models of top down service delivery to a culture of Batho Pele and serving communities. It is clear that much needs to be done to support, educate and where needed, enforce implementation.

“Back-to-basics is the framework for our collective action in this regard. We have outlined in this document what each sphere of government is required to do, in order to address the challenges faced by local government, to address the service delivery challenges we face, and ultimately in order to rebuild the trust of our people in the system of local government,” the department concludes.


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