Jonathan Erasmus
4 minute read
4 Jul 2022

OPINION | The truth is out

Jonathan Erasmus

“Our local governments need help, they need a tectonic attitude shift.”

Jonathan Erasmus.

The auditor-general’s report on local government for the period 2020-2021 reads like one of those books where the storyline remains the same, regardless of the author.

I feel for the relatively new Aditor-General Tsakani Maluleke and her band of bean-counting soldiers.

Every year they undertake the thankless task of auditing our municipalities, and like a music track on repeat, we get the same results.

And fewer people are listening. For Maluleke, her predecessors and those coming after her, there is little more they can do to stop this tsunami of fiscal devastation from rushing through municipal doors.

Their hands are tied. The rest is up to us. Through years of negative findings and news reports, the public has become astute in understanding the machinations of exactly how our councils do not work.

For instance, when we see roads with potholes and lengthy, if at all, turnarounds to having the things repaired, many of us will correctly guess that there are leadership issues in the roads departments.

We often also correctly guess that if one department is in a state of dysfunction, there is the extremely good likelihood of contagion in other departments.

As success breeds success, so ineptitude and failure lead to further dereliction of duty. The only way to escape this toxic trap is to firstly admit fault, and secondly, ask for help and forge a new path.

Accepting fault no longer seems to be an issue. Our political leaders have become very good at saying sorry, including our sitting president. It is the second part that appears to be tricky.

There are likely two reasons for this.

The first is either pride and/or arrogance. The second is fear. Pride and/or arrogance is something that has become synonymous with local government officials.

This is best characterised with the difficulty any member of the public often has in securing a meeting with a senior official.

E-mails and phone -calls go unanswered. Hand-delivered letters are ignored. Petitions are discarded and public meetings are seldom about accountability but rather box-ticking exercises.

Our bureaucrats have a false sense of importance when, in fact, their lack of activity directly reflects their impotence.

Fear is the other driver. There is, I believe, a genuine fear by many municipal workers that if they raise their heads above the parapet they will be exposed as lacking the requisite skills, or they will expose others — most likely a superior.

In worse case scenarios, they will be killed or lose their job. For many it’s a case of take the pay check and keeping quiet.

The data from the auditor-general’s report is clear: Our local governments need help, they need a tectonic attitude shift, and they must be prepared to ask for help. If they do not, everyone suffers.

And this is where the burden comes back to residents. If the council is not asking for our help, we as communities need to be altruistic and make a point of offering it.

In Bedfordview, Ekurhuleni, this is precisely what the community has done — with great success.

In April, residents there decided that they had had enough of the potholes and took it upon themselves to fix the roads, with or without the blessing or help of the municipality.

The results have been quite remarkable. Almost every day, the community has a team of private contractors fixing their roads.

Under the banner of Better Bedfordview, now a registered non-profit, they have adopted a monthly membership fee model which gives them stability of income.

Their efforts have not gone unnoticed, having garnered the attention of city mayor Tania Campbell, who now supports the initiative and has eased the red tape that the community organisation might face.

Both the council and the community group have come to the realisation that their future is intertwined.

While it may not be fair on the community to fund such an initiative when they are already paying rates, they are big enough to admit that in life, not everything is fair.

For them, the choice was clear — live in a dump or live in a place they like to call home.

• Jonathan Erasmus is a researcher and writer for Outa, the Organisation Undoing tax Abuse.