Opinion pieces

Another One Bites the Dust

As I walked towards the venue for a strategic planning session with a unit of Municipality X, I was greeted by the CFO who had informed me that he had handed in his resignation two days back and would be gone within 3 weeks. I enquired about the prospects for his future and he assured me that there were plenty of opportunities in the private sector and that it was a huge relief to be leaving. His resignation reeked of injustice to me but I said nothing more and proceeded into my meeting. The purpose of the session was to re-define a role for the Unit within a municipal context of huge institutional upheaval and financial collapse.

For the first time the responsible General Manager provided an update to the Unit of the state of the municipality. For the past two years, or more, the municipality had steadily been slipping into decline with the current reality of zero reserves, a huge discrepancy between expenditure commitments and anticipated revenue, and massive debt. The reasons for the decline were many, but the underlying one was the lack of strong and accountable financial management. For the past couple of years, conditional grants were reallocated at whim, budgets without cash-backing were adopted, tenders were awarded without securing the required loans, corruption was rampant, and an over-bloated, top-heavy administration fed patronage. The General Manager’s justification for not having communicated openly with the Unit earlier was the lack of sufficient certainty for her to report on. The future of the municipality was presented as bleak except for the possible hope of being placed under financial administration.

The mood after she spoke was heavy with the Unit’s officials asking questions of clarity, begging for signs of turnaround, and sharing experiences of being rejected for credit owing to their “high risk employer”. Many felt that they had lost personal credibility in the job market owing to being tainted with the perception of corruption. Amongst other successes, this Unit had excelled in mobilising external resources for projects. These resources, too, had fallen foul to mismanagement and corruption and had never delivered their intended purpose. A week earlier, the Unit’s highly effective manager had served his resignation and left the municipality to take up a similar position in another municipality. As the facilitator of the session, I listened to what everyone said and the summarised the mood by saying: “I can hear that you all feel very disappointed in the leadership of the municipality. I can hear that you are feeling disempowered and demoralised.” “Everyone wants to leave,” was the General Manager’s muted response.

The session took place in a state-of-the-art Complex, a 2010 legacy project. Part of the General Manager’s feedback was a loss of political confidence in the Unit given their association with failed projects such as this one: projects that were draining the municipal coffers as expenses far exceeded any possible income; projects that had been politically championed and even birthed, but were not grounded in any solid evidence of market research or feasibility assessments. Projects such as these were stranded across the district – under-utilised, under-maintained and slowly degrading. Whilst the Unit had been allocated the projects to manage on behalf of the municipality, the Unit had never been the one to identify and motivate them. The Unit was now taking the fall as the municipality’s survival mantra has become “focus on our core business”.

Four years ago I had walked into Municipality X’s offices offering a partnership programme on behalf of a grantee which was aimed at turning around the local economy. Some time prior to this I personally had rejected an approach to apply for a position in the municipality: my perception was that capacity would be limited, and my experience would be a frustrating and draining one. However, when I engaged the municipality I was struck by a different reality: a bright, enthusiastic, cohesive management team proud of their many accolades and awards; a visible and committed political leadership with respect for its administration; 100% spending on infrastructure grants with excellent project management capabilities; and dedicated, passionate and skilled officials. The partnership deal was sealed and support was given to introduce a more strategic, consolidated approach to municipal planning and stakeholder engagement. The successful implementation of the first phase of the partnership programme was largely due to the resourcefulness and commitment of the internal municipal officials.

However, two years into the programme there were signs of distress in the municipality as factional politics played out within the political leadership and associated administrative appointments were made. The rest is history (for now).
We continued the Unit’s strategic planning session, and after two hours of hard work we had a plan for survival and growth on the table that we all felt proud of and had all bought into. The task ahead was to convince the political principals of a fundamental shift in approach towards development in the municipality: one that was less project- and municipal-led, to one that was more strategic – galvanising all stakeholders and their resources around a shared vision and growth path for the district. This requires re-building credibility and trust but is regarded as absolutely critical if the municipality is to deliver on its stated development goals and objectives.

What motivated me to write this story (when there are numerous similar stories littered around South Africa’s local government landscape) was the sense of disappointment and discouragement of the officials in the Unit in Municipality X. It was also my own sense of disappointment and frustration at having been part of a failed agenda for strong municipalities to deliver services and create conducive environments for businesses and communities to thrive. It must be a small taste of the anger and frustration of communities that are protesting, demanding and destroying. What happened to Municipality X is a shame. There is no easy road to recovery as skilled staff leave, the officials and politicians who should be held accountable are not, and productivity levels plummet. The shame is not only related to the difficult municipal recovery, but to the fact that communities within the municipality that desire and need leadership with vision, commitment and passion, do not have it. As a result, their prospects for improving their lives or building the competitiveness of their businesses are shrinking. The shame spreads deep…

By Karen Harrision

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