THIS week South Africans were privy to another African National Congress (ANC) plan to “strengthen” declining municipalities.
Grappling with service-delivery challenges and resultant violent protests, the ANC’s future plan, says party secretary-general Gwede Mantashe, is to look at deploying senior public representatives including Cabinet members and MPs to struggling municipalities.
The ANC is faced with loss of confidence on the ground, and many previous efforts to bring stability at local government level appear to have been inadequate.
However, Mr Mantashe proceeds from the flawed premise that those who make it to the top in the ANC do so primarily on merit. He ignores the influence of factions in catapulting leaders into top posts in both the party and government.
Thus those who make it to the top are not always necessarily the cream of the crop. Leaders often emerge through flawed selection processes where branch records and conference credentials are manipulated, sometimes all the way to the national elective conference.
It is these political networks that have defeated previous efforts to improve the functioning of municipalities, among them Project Consolidate in 2004 and the Local Government Turn Around Strategy in 2009. Mr Mantashe conceded the same during his organisational report at the ANC national conference in Mangaung in 2012, saying that “comrades regularly appoint friends and associates without taking into account the need for deployment of skills to posts”.
From these backdoor arrangements for positions, millions go missing every year during audit assessments, and those responsible are rarely held to account due in no small measure to the ability of the factions to protect their own.
There are already examples of experienced leaders being deployed in municipalities, like former MP and now Nelson Mandela Bay metro mayor Ben Fihla.
Mr Fihla was brought in in March to assist the troubled metro, after a long period of factional battles between former mayor Zanoxolo Wayile and then ANC regional chairman Nceba Faku. Because of the ANC’s internal fights, key positions in Nelson Mandela Bay remained vacant for long periods, including that of municipal manager.
But since his appointment Mr Fihla has been forced, over and above the task of bringing stability to the ailing metro, to keep an eye on untrustworthy colleagues trying to discredit his work.
There is therefore no indication yet that parachuting in Cabinet members and MPs would serve as a deterrent to factional interference. Nor would it engender the required turnaround in local government.
Instead, the new proposal could serve to provide Luthuli House — the ANC’s head office in Johannesburg — with more control over its lower structures, providing it with more avenues to dispense patronage.
Among those welcoming the ANC’s latest deployment proposal is Johannesburg city manager Trevor Fowler, who says the placement of experienced, capable and senior officials to municipal management would be a good idea.
He says the proposal would create the opportunity for skills and experience to be shared.
A former director-general in the Presidency and also a qualified engineer, Mr Fowler was brought into Johannesburg in 2011 as the city grappled with the billing crisis that saw residents getting inflated bills for rates and services. The problem is yet to be fully resolved.
Political analyst Ralph Mathekga says while leaving municipalities in the hands of inexperienced councillors has proved to be a disaster, the ANC needed to manage the intervention properly to avoid perceptions that Luthuli House is “taking over local government”.