Chris Ndaliso
Senior journalist
5 minute read
16 Jul 2022

Why councils fall apart

Chris Ndaliso

Blind loyalty to political parties, polarisation of staff and irresponsible cadre deployment are said to be some of the causes of an ethical lapse in municipal leadership in the province.

The Msunduzi City Hall.

As residents of many KwaZulu-Natal municipalities suffer under the blight of poor service delivery, blind loyalty to political parties, polarisation of staff and irresponsible cadre deployment are said to be some of the causes of an ethical lapse in municipal leadership in the province.

A study by the Local Government Ethical Leadership Initiative project (LGELI) has found that a key challenge is the lack of ethical leadership in local governance which in turn affects the operations of councils. LGELI is an initiative of The Ethics Institute (TEI) in partnership with the Department of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs (Cogta), the South African Local Government Association (Salga) and the Moral Regeneration Movement (MRM).

The project aims to facilitate a national dialogue on ethical leadership in local government to develop a code for ethical governance in local government. Programme facilitator Fatima Rawat said the project was founded on the local government anti-corruption strategy. A research paper shared with councillors and officials from different municipalities during a virtual engagement on Friday revealed that the separation between the political and administrative spheres in municipal governance was a challenge.

This happens frequently when politicians appoint [or deploy] people into the administration who have political ties rather than competence for the job. This practice is done from the municipal manager right down to more junior levels of the administration, but is most damaging at the senior management levels. The consequence of this is a degradation of the culture of professionalism in the municipality.

“Such deployed officials are beholden to those who have deployed them rather than to the Constitution and the legislation. They also frequently lack the competence required of them to do their job, which further entrenches their vulnerability to their political ‘handlers’,” reads the paper.

Rawat said they were now in a consultation stage with various stakeholders, including government, political parties and others. “As we continue with the national dialogue on the Code for Ethical Governance in Local Government, the intention is that this research informs and enriches the discussions. It also gives a research-based starting point to enable us to address the most relevant issues.

“It is furthermore hoped that the results will be useful to guide future research-based policy development in the field of local government,” she said. She said from the interviews and focus groups it became clear that it was difficult to lead ethically and provide meaningful oversight and direction for councilors that lack the basic competence and skills to do so.

“In the quantitative data (in July and August 2021) this came up as the single issue most destructive of ethical leadership. The democratic process does not require any educational or competence criteria for political leadership, but without some standard it seems that ethical and effective leadership is unlikely,” she said.

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The research focused on: what makes ethical leadership difficult; politicisation of local government; destructive deployment practices and lack of skills; political interference; lack of councilor competence; lack of or inconsistent consequence management; abuse of accountability processes; capture; corruption and fear, among others. Participants were given a chance to have their take on all the ethical issues in local government. Governance specialist in Msunduzi Municipality William Mapena said some people acted unethically because of the “respect” they have for their political bosses.

“In some of my research work I’ve noted a number of respectable people who act unethically and when I question them they simply say they respect the mayor [in their respective municipalities] so that’s why I do things this way. That’s where the power dynamics come into play leading to people dropping their ethics to please others,” said Mapena.

Others said ethical leaders should have respect for autonomy and dignity. Newcastle acting municipal manager Zamani Mcineka said: “Ethical leaders are beneficences, which means everything they do is for the good of the communities they serve. Fear for one’s life is one of the causes for ethical leadership’s drop in local government. Political polarisation of staff is another factor.

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“You find a person employed without the required qualifications. Some of such people tend to be bold to an extent that they will tell a manager or senior manager that they don’t care about the qualifications because they are deployed. I have witnessed some colleagues resigning because of pressure from people who are deployed. If you tried to call such people to order they threaten to report you to the seniors [politicians]. We therefore should not [underestimate] the element of fear as one of the stumbling blocks in ethical leadership,” said Mcineka.

The research found that corruption, false promises, greed, power dynamics within the context of political and administrative leadership were some of the factors that frustrated ethical governance in local government. Ugu District deputy mayor Victor Chiya said: “We can’t phase out the issue of political deployment but the question is, do political parties take into cognisance the calibre or level of capabilities of the people they deploy to these municipalities? It needs to be part of the principles to emphasise to political parties that they should deploy capable people to municipalities.

This [municipal governance] is such a complex environment that needs skill in order to implement service delivery programmes

Cogta portfolio committee chairperson Zinhle Cele would not be drawn into commenting on the content of the paper saying that she was not part of Friday’s engagement.

She said some municipalities were doing well while some were not, but there was room for improvement. Cogta spokesperson Senzo Mzila meanwhile warned political parties against abusing powers entrusted by their electorate and should start nominating party representatives that are not likely going to tarnish their reputation.

“Certain councillors and municipal managers have been slapped with such court orders, as a result of contempt [of their duties]. We also wish to encourage our people to report unethical tendencies occurring at municipal level to the department of Cogta, Human Rights Commission, Public Protector and the SAPS,” he said.