30 June 2022

The 2020/21 report tabled by the Auditor General of South Africa, Tsakani Maluleke, signals the need for rethinking procedures on public participation along the lines of allowing for increased citizen power to ensure that municipal officials are held accountable by the public.

Currently, there are poor citizen-centric accountability frameworks put in place, thus implying that public participatory processes only serve the interests of a select few. In provinces such as North West and Mpumalanga, the discovery of material irregularities in the use of public funds, amounting to millions of wasteful and irregular expenditure in 13 municipalities, demonstrates a culture of impunity, a lack of accountability, and the failure in legislated processes that should serve as safeguards in the use of public funds. What is worse is that several municipalities in Mpumalanga, according to the Auditor General are on the brink of collapse. Let us take Dipaleseng, Dr JS Moroka and Govan Mbeki municipalities as examples.

The AG discovered material irregularity at these municipalities, meaning that there were instances where there was “non-compliance with, or contravention of, legislation, fraud, theft or a breach of fiduciary duty”. In accounting and auditing language, material irregularity usually means that the amount flagged as either irregular or wasteful expenditure is extremely high considering the total budget that the municipality has.

The situation is so dire that the municipalities are among the 35% in the province that are deemed so broke that they might be able to continue. Arguably, citizen participation at these municipalities may have not been at an acceptable or derailable standard, hence the absence of strong public accountability mechanisms. From an academic perspective, South Africa is struggling with ways to improve public accountability in local government as a way of fulfilling the envisioned hallmarks of participatory governance and participatory democracy systems across the local government sphere.

In fact, a careful review of the literature on public participation in South Africa’s local government affairs, particularly insofar as Integrated Development Planning is concerned, points out to the following challenges:
  • Local Citizens are not materially empowered to make decisions concerning local development and social change. They are merely asked to converge in Ward meetings to provide municipal officials with “10-point wish-lists” of needs in their communities. As to whether these wishes will come true or if Santa Claus will indeed deliver, is another story.
  • Citizens are passive participators and they only serve the purpose of ratifying pre-planned development ideas and objectives set out by those with the controlling power over Integrated Development Planning processes.
  • Local citizens have no direct power over how municipal budgets are spent, who is appointed in strategic position, or which service providers will be responsible for which projects.
  • Since municipalities have annual targets set out in the Municipal Systems Act, dialogue, in the form of genuine discourse aimed at facilitating inter-subjective engagements and equal exchange of ideas aimed at joint-decision making, hardly takes place since the participatory process is adopted as a means to achieve desired ends by municipal officials (i.e., it could be argued that they only hold public participation processes because of the legislative boxes they need to fill).

I would not be surprised if such experiences resonate across the aforementioned municipalities in Mpumalanga, who are said to be on the brink of collapse. Looking at the solution, it might well be argued that if local citizens are materially empowered, thus creating what some scholars in Political Science, Development Studies and Sociology would call a ‘Zero-Sum Game’- effectively implying that those who currently have a controlling power over the community development process should relinquish some of their authority and give over to local citizens as a way of enhancing accountability. This might be true and perhaps this might as be what is needed if public trust in municipalities is to be restored.

One thing is for sure, we need to rethink how power is distributed in local government. Local citizens need to be empowered to directly hold their leaders accountable because, as noted by the AG, there are indications where some leaders just turn a blind eye on serious cases of material irregularity, while some have just been too slow to act on allegations of corruption, flouting of supply-chain regulations and prescripts, fraud, and  wasteful and irregular expenditure.

@ The article is the view of Dr Tshepang Molale, a Senior Lecturer at the University of Mpumalanga School of Social Sciences. His main research interests include communication for development and social change as well as public participation in local government. His PhD Thesis is entitled: “A Framework for Participatory Communication in the IDP context of Ward 31 in Rustenburg Local Municipality”.