Time to rethink how cities and towns are managed

October 13th, 2015, Published in Articles: Energize


It is often said that we need to get back to basics, and that we need to re-invent and refresh tired processes and value propositions. Increasingly, these directives are aimed at local government, which is ultimately responsible for our most immediate and life sustaining civil services.

Jean Venter

Jean Venter

The form and function of local government is shaped by more than 40 acts of parliament and many more provincial ordinances. Above this, the other two spheres of government, as well as parastatals such as Eskom and the water boards, are all setting dictates and agenda of their own. To top it all, society is changing, expectations are changing, standing in queues is no longer acceptable, and we want services that do not attract citizen complaints, all in an era of instant and online everything and mobile to boot.

Bureaucratic complexity costs money to manage. Complexity is unproductive and wasteful, and takes many years of experience and skill to master. It is interesting to note that the government insists that municipal managers must be appointed on short term contracts. The very people who are tasked to steer these ships are discouraged from taking on these challenges as a career or long term professional mission. This is said to be so to allow each crop of newly elected politicians to select one of their own to ensure executive loyalty. The combination of rural economic stagnation, legal complexity and short-term thinking are strangling the majority of councils in South Africa, unable to accomplish their basic mission.

Local government has become a dumping ground for the desperate and the reckless, who are willing to take a quick risk, make a quick buck and then move on, often in disgrace. This needs to change. Local government cannot afford to be an employer of last resort. Local government is quick to blame a skills shortage, implying that if we can’t get anyone to work for us, there has to be a skills deficit. Yet, wiser men and women prefer employers who can offer not only solid remuneration but also a stable environment, respect, and personal fulfilment. Above all, our towns and cities must be places where people of ability want to live, where the environment is pleasant and their families can grow up in a healthy way.

I speculate that South Africa may well have reached a very positive tipping point. Councils and officials alike have encountered many a bumpy road, made loads of mistakes and faced many challenges over the past two decades with many lessons having been learned. A younger generation which has less of a historic entitlement mentality, is coming to the fore, which is worldly wise, has grown up in a South Africa that is more like Europe than Africa, wants smart things, and wants to compete. When Lindiwe Sisulu, the minister of human settlements, said “no free houses for under forties” she expressed a view that applies to many other things. The base of the social pyramid in South Africa is too broad to support anything for free. We have to work, be smart and dump a complex bureaucratic local government legal structure that is strangling the country.

It is encouraging that the city of Johannesburg is taking the lead in the process to frame an international system specification for smart cities. It is appropriate that the wealthiest city on the continent should show the way and help set the benchmarks in this regard. A smarter city will be one where services are easy to access, where there will be no queues, where the city will monitor its own performance in real time, where energy savings and services are in careful balance, where potholes are fixed rapidly, where maintenance is scheduled like clockwork and traffic flows are optimised by fast thinking computers. Perhaps transgressing motorists will get a phone call from a computer advising of the most recent traffic fine or cancellation of a driver’s licence.

Yet the smart city of the future is unlikely to happen for rural towns and villages unless we can re-engineer the legal environment, and bring back proud officials and politicians who love what they do and do what they love, without prejudice.

Contact Jean Venter, Institute for Local Government Management, Tel 011 061-5000, jean@vdw.co.za

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