Municipalities need savvy managers, not political appointees

City Hall in Port Elizabeth. File picture
City Hall in Port Elizabeth. File picture
Image: Karen van Rooyen

Mvuleni Mapu’s employment as acting city manager of the Nelson Mandela Bay municipality is undeniably inappropriate.

In appointing Mapu, acting mayor Thsonono Buyeye assumed powers he doesn’t have, transgressing a resolution of council.

Mapu was never cleared of allegations of fraud and embezzlement in the housing department, where he was director.

Mongameli Bobani, who had a stint as mayor, brought Mapu back from suspension.

For a position that involves signing-off on municipal expenditure, Mapu doesn’t inspire confidence that the municipal purse is safe.

The appointment is symptomatic of an underlying flaw underpinning municipalities — that of councillors appointing executive managers.

This practice was introduced in 1994 strictly as a remedial measure to counter possible resistance from apartheid bureaucrats.

Under apartheid, senior bureaucrats were appointed by the Public Service Commission, which recruited strictly from the ranks of professional bodies.

City managers had to have a qualification in accountancy and belong to the exclusively white professional body.

A new government with a transformative agenda could not trust the commission to appoint a progressive candidate from a whites-only association, and decided to internalise appointments within municipal councils.

Councillors got involved in the selection process and approved appointments.

They could adopt their own criteria for a city manager, free from the preference for accountants.

This is how Graham Richards, a lawyer, became the first CEO (now city manager) of the democratic council.

Formerly in the Democratic Party, Richards had been an ANC councillor in the Transitional Local Council from May 1994, but lost his ward to the DP’s Elizabeth Trent in the inaugural local elections of 1995.

Richards’s appointment gave the ANC comfort it would steer a still predominantly white bureaucracy towards its policy objectives.

If a sympathetic city manager was necessary to counter resistance from a potentially hostile bureaucracy, it follows that a transformed civil service would require less political control.

The composition of management changed dramatically after 2000 as the new government pursued affirmative action.

But executive managers continued to be drawn from party leaders’ ranks.

Mzimasi Mangcotywa’s appointment in 2002 signalled the ANC was no longer concerned with simply ensuring the bureaucracy pursued its own policies, but intent on securing party interests within government.

Mangcotywa was brought into the municipality to restrain then mayor Nceba Faku, whom the party thought had become uncontrollable.

Stone Sizane and Vuto Toto, regional chair and secretary, had gone to see Faku and reprimanded him.

Faku chased them out of his office: ‘You keep your Standard House, I’ll keep my City Hall.”

Mangcotywa was appointed to impose party control over Fakum, but all Mangcotywa achieved was to bring party squabbles into the heart of the municipal leadership.

By the end of the first decade of the 2000s, the municipal budget had become a purse for the party and its individual leaders.

Councillors started using the municipality to generate income beyond their stipends as far back as 1995.

The policy regime they inherited from apartheid allowed them to sit on tender committees, prompting them to form their own companies and secure municipal contracts.

When new policies came into effect in about 2004, councillors had become so entrenched in doing business with the municipality they circumvented their exclusion from adjudicating and awarding tenders.

Now that managers adjudicated over tenders, councillors redirected their efforts towards influencing the choice of managers.

Squabbles followed on who should become city manager.

Richards was the first victim in 2009.

Nondumiso Maphazi wanted to retain Richards because he resisted approaches from the regional party office for contracts.

Standard House eventually dispatched Richards over dubious accusations he was corrupt.

A subsequent investigation that Maphazi instituted in 2010, led by the Kabuso audit firm, exonerated Richards and showed the accusers were actually the corrupt lot.

In the meantime, Standard House had succeeded in its bid and got an acting city manager, Elias Ntoba, who was loyal to them.

Zunoxolo Wayile, Maphazi’s successor, could not stand Ntoba’s sycophancy towards the regional office.

Backed by Standard House, Ntoba refused to be fired, forcing Wayile to chase him out the office in 2011.

Irregular appointments and arbitrary dismissals of city managers are nothing new.

Even the respected Lindiwe Msengana-Ndlela, headhunted to save the municipality, was not spared.

When she insisted on cancelling an improper contract, Ben Fihla and Chippa Ngcolomba, aided by Mongameli Bobani, fabricated charges that she was unqualified.

She left the job after only six months and sued for constructive dismissal, winning easily.

Buyeye is continuing a familiar practice.

The surest way to have a stable management is to take the function of their appointment outside council.

An independent body should make selections based on merit, without political consideration.

The effect will be the appointment of the most competent person.

Municipalities need savvy managers that will reimagine cities, not recite politicians’ birthdays.

Whoever still insists on political appointments wants unfettered access to government coffers.

Mcebisi Ndletyana is associate professor of political science at the University of Johannesburg and the author of Anatomy of the ANC in Power: Insights from Port Elizabeth, 1990 — 2019 (HSRC Press, 2020)

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