What we found and how we are turning things around
Yesterday, the 18th of May, marked the first anniversary of last year's local government election - the Democratic Alliance's most successful election ever. We now govern in 27 local councils, in four provinces, and enjoy 24 % of the national vote. In this special edition of SA Today, to mark the anniversary, it is appropriate for us to report back on some of the DA's achievements in government in the "new DA municipalities" (those we won from the ANC a year ago).
The DA won 13 new councils last year, either alone or in coalition - Bitou, Breede Valley, Drakenstein, George, Hantam, Hessequa, Karoo Hoogland, Knysna, Laingsburg, Langeberg, Nama Khoi, Saldanha Bay, Witzenberg.
In most of our new councils it took some months for the full extent of the damage to become apparent. The outgoing administrations were, as a rule, anything but co-operative. Issues included missing documents , break-ins, harassment and theft, as well as damaged, broken or stolen equipment . In many cases, these actions were not simply vindictive, but seemingly designed to destroy records, including evidence of corruption.
In the words of one of our new Mayors, Gesie van Deventer of Drakenstein municipality (Paarl and Wellington), many of these had become "shell municipalities" under the ANC. They "looked normal from the outside but had no substance" when the inner workings were examined. Moreover, many of the new councils "had been experts in what can only be called 'creative accounting' to hide financial decline".
While the overall pattern of ANC mis-governance was similar across all these municipalities, outcomes did vary. Generally, the smaller municipalities (with the notable exceptions of Bitou and Hantam) were in better shape than the larger. The four biggest new DA municipalities - Breede Valley, Drakenstein, George and Saldanha Bay - were nearing financial collapse. Unaffordable excesses like international travel, food for councillors, mayors cars and, most costly of all, jobs for pals, meant that most of these councils faced a crisis of liquidity.
The new DA administrations were also hamstrung in their efforts to take corrective action, as all had to operate using budgets passed by the previous ANC administration in the last few days before the election. In three municipalities - Bitou, Drakenstein and Hantam - the last ANC budget did not even cover staff salaries for the next year. Under the new DA administrations all three were forced to take emergency measures (loans or redirection of funding earmarked for development) just to pay staff.
Breede Valley's dire financial situation epitomized the condition of all these local councils. With one-off transfers stripped out, the municipality's liquidity ratio - in other words its ability to raise immediate cash and cover short term liabilities - had slipped from 142% in 2010 to 127% in 2011 . A ratio of below 100 means the municipality cannot meet its debts and is technically bankrupt. Because municipal government tends to find it difficult to rapidly recoup monies owed, a prudent ratio of 200% is usually desirable. By this standard, most of the new DA municipalities were slipping towards unsustainability.
The recession which started in 2008 presented a common problem - pressure on cash flows - and implied the necessity of a belt-tightening exercise in all South African municipalities. But the ANC continued to spend freely. When the DA came to office, our first business was to cut this undisciplined expenditure on "nice-to-haves". In the three largest new DA municipalities alone (Breede Valley, Drakenstein and George), these cuts saved some R140-million in the first year (2011/12). This process continues into the second year of DA governance.
One of the biggest inherited problems is the blurring of the critical distinction between party and state, with many Municipal Managers under the ANC displaying openly partisan behaviour. In Saldanha, the Municipal Manager, a former ANC party secretary for the Boland region, appointed a number of party members to the municipal housing and social services departments. Despite the 18 officials in its housing department, Saldanha Bay, constructed only 646 houses in 2010, while DA-run Swartland, a smaller municipality with only 2 housing officials, built over 2000.
This reflects one of the major differences between the new DA municipalities and the old ANC administrations. The ANC treated municipalities as employment agencies. The DA is determined to construct democratic, open, accountable and above all sustainable delivery machines.
Despite the necessary focus on salvaging the municipal finances in the first year, these new DA administrations have already demonstrated that impartial and honest administration is the key to delivery. A number of housing projects, previously blocked by ANC maladministration and corruption, have been unblocked by DA administrations. Under the ANC, Drakenstein delivered 120 houses in the 2010/11 financial year. Under the DA, the 1 500 house Dromedaris project has now been cleared. Ward committees and Extended Public Works Programme (EPWP) activities, so often used by the ANC as patronage channels, have been reconstituted on a basis where poverty, not party loyalty, determines access.
A new emphasis has been placed on the restoration and maintenance of infrastructure as the new DA administrations commit themselves to sustainability rather than short term influence peddling.
The new DA administrations are putting the finishing touches on the first genuine set of DA budgets. Given the on-going recession as well as the ANC legacy, these have to be appropriate, sustainable budgets. All the new DA municipalities are beginning to demonstrate that where the DA governs it governs better. In each case, the entire administration is being rendered more "fit-for-purpose" and thus better able to achieve development goals. Improvements are already visible on the ground, in communities and within municipal administrations.
But it takes a long time to turn a municipality around, so that people start to see and feel the results. That is why an administration has a five-year term of office. Looking back on the first of this five-year term, I have no doubt that most of the new DA municipalities are off to a good start, cleaning out the stables they inherited, and saddling their horses for the distance ahead.
In five years the voters in these municipalities will directly experience the difference. That should pave the way for a second DA term-of-office, after which the comparison between DA-run municipalities and ANC-municipalities becomes plain for all to see. In the end, voters get the government the majority voted for. It is our job to make it clear why this choice should be DA.
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