Local municipalities in South Africa have been in the spotlight for years for their shocking service delivery to residents. With the coronavirus pandemic upon us —  and already dealing maladministration, corruption, mismanagement of funds to poor records management and political interference — they face a very grim moment.

A successful fight against this pandemic depends on people having access to clean water and sanitation, which many don’t have 26 years after democracy.  

President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that an estimated R20-billion would be directed to municipalities for the provision of emergency water supplies, increased sanitation of public transport and facilities, and providing food and shelter for the homeless. The addition of funds was made available to help flatten the infection curve.

Several issues exist that hamper efficient management of funds at municipalities. These include, among others, a lack of expertise, the inability to collect arrears debt, extensive corruption and exorbitant salaries and bonuses. It is important to note that South African municipalities still depend on traditional revenue collection, which is a cause for concern.

A report titled Municipal Revenue Maturity Benchmark Report 2018 by Ntiyiso Consulting states that: “The municipal environment has not advanced in this category. According to the benchmark results, revenue collection instruments are still predominantly traditional, with less than 10% of municipalities having opted to make use of various discretionary tax tools or revenue sources outside of the traditional municipal finance framework.” 

An annual report by the Auditor General of South Africa Kimi Makwetu painted a bleak picture regarding the financial state of municipalities in South Africa. He stated that 257 municipalities had been audited and that the number of clean audits in municipalities declined from 14% in the previous financial year to 8%. Only 18 municipalities had a clean audit with the highest number, 12, being in the Western Cape. Gauteng, Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Natal, and the Northern Cape each had one municipality with a clean audit. The Eastern Cape had two. 

He stated that “the lack of accountability was one major cause of poor local government audits”.  

South Africa has one of the highest rates of inequality in the world, according to the World Bank. With unemployment at its highest, dwindling economic activities and poor infrastructure, it is often those in impoverished, underserved areas who depend on local government the most.

Yet, the media has been inundated with reports of councillors — the  people our communities trust to deliver adequate basic services and provide food during the lockdown  —  stealing from the poor. 

Where has our ubuntu gone? 

As I write this article, I remember watching an old woman from QwaQwa on the news, shouting for joy during lockdown level 5: “Wow, we finally have water. Thank you, Mr President, for our water.” The joy and relief on her face is what local government should be about. 

It is crucial for our local government to remember its true role in society —  implementing proper mechanisms and innovative strategies so people can depend less on government grants and subsidies and increasing cash flow in municipalities for times of unexpected natural disasters such as the coronavirus. 

I dream of a local government that works in the people’s best interests, with improved infrastructure, well-equipped offices and advanced data management systems to ensure exceptional communication with residents. A municipality that roars with pride when it delivers  adequate services, free of corruption, and advanced systems to enhance the lives of the people of South Africa.

As Alex Mabunda of Ntiyiso Consulting said: “Let the coronavirus be the dose that mutates us into a citizenry that cares about its collective well-being. Let us enter into a partnership to transform the economy and strengthen our nation against any future attacks. Lest the tide settle on us again.” 

By Alex Mabunda, CEO of Ntiyiso Consulting