Incompetent municipalities may be "Sannieshof"ed

3 April 2008

Willem Landman
Chief Executive Officer
Ethics Institute of South Africa

Potholes in our provincial and municipal roads have become part of our lives, as have deficient services, such as water purification and supply, and sewerage. Black and white, rich and poor, are increasingly being subjected to poor or wanting municipal services. This had already resulted in violent rioting in townships.
 
The South African Constitution states that one of the objectives of local governments or municipalities is to create a secure and healthy environment. In addition, municipalities have an obligation to give priority to the basic needs of the community in their administration, budgets and planning and to foster social and economic development.
 
The Code of Conduct for Municipal Workers requires dedicated service delivery for the benefit of the municipality's credibility and integrity. Municipal workers are expected to foster and implement basic values and principles of public administration. They also have to create a culture of public service delivery and a collective sense of responsibility for performance in accordance with standards and targets.
 
The Batho Pele principles commit all state officials to quality service delivery, to setting of and striving for internationally recognised service standards and to honest and transparent communication with the country's citizens.
 
In fact, however, dozens of municipalities are disregarding these noble ideals as a result of incompetence and deficient professionalism. Some municipalities are practically speaking dysfunctional, particularly in rural areas.
 
There are several explanations for this, such as political cleansing and appointments that bear little relation to ability and skill, a lack of an appropriate sense of duty and work ethic, an exaggerated placing of value on status symbols coupled with associated deficient setting of priorities, underutilisation of local skills, and insufficient cooperation with the community.
 
Deficient municipal service delivery can be understood to be a moral issue. It can be argued that the state is the creation of an imaginary "social contract" or agreement between citizens in terms of which certain powers are assigned to the state so as to arrange society to everyone's benefit.
 
At the local level, the state has specific ethical obligations to deliver essential and other services for payment - or free of charge to the needy - in terms of the social contract. Should the state fail to fulfil its ethical obligations, it would be breaking the underlying moral agreement.
 
The question is whether rate payers can successfully convince a dysfuntional municipality, as the executive arm of the state, to fulfil its ethical obligations. This should certainly be attempted, but it is more likely that the state can be "convinced" only by moral arguments backed up by practical action in the hard reality of power politics. This is done by taking the state's statutory obligation to deliver essential and other municipal services at the point of departure.
 
Rate payers have not only a corresponding right to service delivery, but, in fact, also a statutory obligation to pay for such services - regardless of whether the services are satisfactory or even being delivered at all.
 
Given poor or wanting services, rate payers can attempt either to vote out the government at the polling booth, or to force it through the courts to fulfil its statutory obligations. The overwhelming majority of the ANC makes the first-mentioned option unlikely, whereas the second option is expensive. Both are time consuming whilst immediate health or safety risks are at stake.
 
There is another solution, of which Sannieshof in the North West Province is an inspiring example.
 
After two years of attempts to hold discussions in good faith with the municipality on deficient service delivery, the rate payers' association declared a dispute with the municipality and withheld certain payments, and placed them into a trust fund. Dedicated individuals mobilised the community and involved local skills.
 
Bore-hole pumps and water pipes were repaired, and water started flowing again at 5 000 households. Pot holes in municipal roads are being repaired. Expenses are being recovered from the trust fund. A sort of parallel "municipality" has been created.
 
The simple, political neutral motive is to let the town work again. If it leads to the municipality's effective involvement, monies in the trust fund can conditionally be paid out to the municipality.
 
From a legal perspective, a variety of possibilities arise. A municipality would be able to lodge a claim against rate payers on the grounds of wrongful holding back of municipal service fees.
 
Rate payers would be able to invoke self-defence as grounds for a legal defence and argue that they are reasonably defending themselves against the municipality's poor or wanting service delivery in order to protect their legally recognised interest - health.
 
Rate payers' association that wish to follow Sannieshof's lead will first have to hold discussions in good faith with the municipality, properly inform the council when a dispute is declared and, in fact, use funds in the trust fund constructively for the delivery of essential services.
 
The example of Sannieshof is already being followed, in various stages of progress, in almost 100 municipalities with the assistance of the National Rate Payers' Association.
 
The lesson of Sannieshof is that complaining and standing around with folded arms will lead nowhere. Conditions in many towns have deteriorated to such an extent that rate payers will have to take control themselves.
 
But, in the process, municipal workers have to be empowered, in a spirit of cooperation and assistance, increasingly to understand and fulfil their moral and statutory obligations themselves.