In the first of a series of webinars examining the crisis in local government ahead of the elections on 1 November, activists said there was no doubt that many municipalities were on the verge of collapse. They said the system to deliver services needs a redesign to benefit residents and not politicians.

There is no doubt that local government in South Africa is in a state of unprecedented crisis as the country approaches the 1 November elections, Minhaj Jeenah, the executive director of My Vote Counts, said at the launch of a series of webinars about the issue on Tuesday night.

“Every year, the Auditor-General’s municipal audit paints a picture of the municipal crisis. The most recent audit shows that this crisis is deepening. It reveals that only 27 of South Africa’s 257 municipalities received a clean audit.

“This is 10 less than the 2018/19 municipal audit. It also shows that there was R26-billion in irregular expenditure in municipalities. This means that around 90% of municipalities are neck-deep in debt and unable to pay for basic services like water and electricity,” Jeenah added.

“The crisis is serious,” Phindile Kunene from the Tshisimani Centre for Activist Education said. “It is a horror show that comes out of the Auditor-General’s report. We are seeing a complete collapse of local government outcomes.”

She said communities, residents and businesses were turning to the courts to compel municipalities to provide services.

Ayanda Kota is from the Unemployed People’s Movement and the newly formed Makana Citizens’ Front, an organisation that will contest the local government elections in Makhanda.

In 2020, the Unemployed People’s Movement made legal history when it obtained a court order to have its municipality’s council dissolved for its unconstitutional failure to provide services.

Kota said South Africa has “beautiful pieces of legislation”, but people had completely lost trust in the Makana Local Municipality specifically, and in local government in general.

“Meetings about integrated development plans have become spaces to contain the anger of people. There is no serious or meaningful engagement,” he said. “The municipality does not take people seriously and people have completely lost trust in municipalities.

“Thieving politicians are running the show. They don’t care about people. People have been pushed into the margins.”

Kunene said many municipalities are facing a skills crisis and are unable to collect what is owed to them and unable to pay what they owe Eskom, for instance.

“Municipalities must strengthen credit control.”

She said that local governments were given the task of community development but there had been a mismatch between commitment and the money needed to do development work.

“Without money they have no choice but to… become stingy with free services and increasing rates for ratepayers,” Kunene said.

She added that many people find it difficult to believe that local governments were underfunded, given the underspending on programmes and the wasteful expenditure often highlighted by the Auditor-General.

“The problem is that we have people in power who are extremely corrupt. They are there on party tickets. They do not have the skills to do the job.”

She said it was important to diagnose the problems in local government as this would lead to the right solution.

“The mismanagement of municipalities and the local sphere… the ANC has presided over this. Now we have communities doing things for themselves.

“That, for me, is a double-edged sword. Because, for instance, AfriForum will provide rubbish removal for a small fee,” Kunene said, explaining that her concern was that AfriForum might not be committed to the same principles as communities, and moving to an approach of citizens “doing it for themselves” would embolden right-wing forces.

“It is important that there must be consequences and accountability. That is also a big message from the Auditor-General. We are starting to see some consequences [of failures by officials]. Do we have sufficient accountability? In 2019 the Auditor-General was given extra powers. I think we will start to see more consequence management now,” Kunene said.

Kota, who had to flee Makhanda after receiving death threats, said that many politicians see communities as a “threat that must be vanquished”.

“It is for this reason that you find many activists across the country are living their lives in fear. We are continuing to see these cases. The issue of holding them to account is quite a battle. After we won the judgment in our case, the ANC held a meeting and decided to appeal it. That is shocking. The people of the city took a decision to challenge the governance. But people outside the municipality – a cabal in the ANC – took a decision to challenge the court order.”

Kota said the Makana Citizens’ Front is contesting the local government elections without a budget.

“It will take a lot of struggle, but this must be a struggle for all the people.  The politicians have failed. The system has failed. It continues to fail. It is not even just the black working-class communities. The system is failing everybody now.

“It is a serious, serious, serious crisis and there is no quick fix.”

Kunene said the case taken to court by the Unemployed People’s Movement was an inspiring case of people starting to fight back, but she anticipated that even if the corrupt are voted out, problems will remain because of the fiscal framework.

Henrietta Abrahams from the Bonteheuwel Development Forum said the living reality for many people was that they are unemployed.

“What must the community do to change the local government so that it can work for people and our needs?” she asked.

She said communities are compelled to clear their own stormwater drains and fix their own potholes.

“We have no faith in service delivery from the municipality. They are operating as mafias when it comes to delivery to the poor. The system is not working for us as a people. There is no sense of dignity in what our people are exposed to. We seriously need to take our power back and rewrite policies and put quality of life at the centre and design our policies around it,” she added.

Kota said fixing local government will go far beyond November’s elections.

“We have got to organise. There is no quick fix. We need a strong community-rooted movement after the elections, that will be able to march forward. If we forge unity then there is hope for us.”

Originally published on Daily Maverick.