Time for municipalities to rethink their obligations?
Section 152 of the constitution requires municipalities to promote “social and economic development”, “a safe and healthy environment” and focus on the basic needs of communities.
They should also participate in the programmes of the other spheres of government.
Although the constitution was adopted in 1996, the current local government system was established with the December 2000 municipal elections, the framework for which arises out of the 1998 white paper on local government.
This white paper gave rise to most of the laws pertaining to municipalities, including the Municipal Structures Act of 1998 and the Municipal Systems Act of 2000, both of which amplify the constitutional powers and functions of municipalities.
When read together, the concepts of functional integration and human development permeate throughout.
Municipalities have the incredible and overwhelming task of ensuring the wellbeing of residents by investing in the ecosystems of sustainable livelihoods. They have to provide basic needs to residents, such as shelter and utility services.
In recognition of our past, integrated development became enshrined in legislation.
In 1996 the term “socioeconomic” was in vogue.
Contemporary discourse refers to “sustainable”, “integrated”, “trans-disciplinarity”, “joined-up thinking” and “intersectionality” to describe development methodologies.
Notwithstanding the plethora of terms, few other countries can claim a constitutional system which requires a whole of society approach to human development.
Municipal investments ought to be directed towards people as individuals as well as the communities and spaces where they live, learn, work and play.
Municipalities need to plan, budget and structure themselves in ways which equip them to meet their obligations enabled by the public sector budgeting regime.
Overcoming inter-generational violence, inter-generational unemployment and persistent deprivation (in contrast to the enduring privileges of apartheid) is the object of most municipal planning.
Basic needs research starting in the 1980s advises that fragmentation and the status quo will persist unless the concept is broadened to include the psycho-social aspects of development.
It suggests nutrition, social skills and ending domestic violence are as important as sidewalks, sewerage systems and libraries. New Brighton and Helenvale are apposite examples of areas where this is required.
This is the approach of the MBDA in Helenvale and, budget permitting, in New Brighton in the next financial year.
These townships are typical of others in SA, displaying an air of abandonment despite decades of social and economic infrastructure expenditure.
There are three possible explanations for this.
First, the allocation of powers and functions to municipalities is not commensurate with their roles in local development.
For example, functions such as environment, health, housing, pollution control, trade, urban and rural development are national and provincial competencies.
Similarly, abattoirs, ambulances, libraries and liquor licences are the exclusive domain of provinces.
Where municipalities do undertake these functions, they are through assignments from these domains, and are totally reliant on the budgets and abilities of those spheres.
Thus, core functions and budgets are outside of municipalities’ control.
Second, a dysfunctional government is the primary reason the past continues to be replicated in the present.
An example of this is the Bayview school in Helenvale where classrooms were set ablaze by some of the multiple gangs that surround the school.
In the years since the blaze, the department of public works has committed to, but has not repaired the classrooms.
Teachers, some of whom have returned as volunteers since retiring, marshal pupils to safe spaces inside the school in the event of sudden violence.
The government’s national school nutrition programme provides basic meals, which would often be the only meal of the day for pupils.
What teaching and learning can happen under such conditions, when inside the school is not much different to outside the school; where domestic and community violence, malnutrition, TB and domestic overcrowding prevail, is anyone’s guess.
Yet, for every malaise just mentioned, there is a national or provincial programme with budgets allocated.
The problem is not the lack of money, but an inability to perform.
Third, municipalities are not geared towards meeting their constitutional obligations even when functions are assigned to them.
Several studies have concluded the intergovernmental system, including the fiscal system, are the main causes.
To this can be added the reliance on organisational development experts who don’t understand municipalities’ role.
Municipalities need “joinedup thinking” and action, if the status quo is to change. Instead, every municipality has, to varying degrees, separate departments such as local economic development, spatial planning and infrastructure.
Human settlements departments merely provide subsidised housing, when actual human settlements have housing typologies, primary health services, open spaces, schools, social centres and commercial activities.
Municipalities would be serving their residents better if they brought all of government to settlements.
Human life operates in networks or ecosystems which define who we are and what we do.
To improve these networks requires officials to be free of the dissonance caused by institutional fragmentation and embrace the relationships between the physical, psychosocial, environmental, habitat and related infrastructure as the building blocks of what the constitution exhorts us to achieve.
● Ashraf Adam is the CEO of the Mandela Bay Development Agency.