By Carl Sebastian Steenekamp
South Africa is facing a crisis in municipal governance. According to the auditor general, only 38 of the 257 municipalities received clean audits for the 2022/23 financial year.
Many municipalities are struggling to provide basic services, collect revenue, pay creditors, and maintain infrastructure. Some are on the verge of collapse, such as the Merafong Local Municipality in Gauteng, where I serve as a municipal councillor. This municipality has accumulated outstanding debts of R5.4 billion and owes Eskom more than R700 million.
The causes of this crisis are complex and multifaceted, but they include poor leadership, corruption, mismanagement, political interference, skills shortages, and weak oversight mechanisms. These factors erode public trust and confidence in local government and undermine the constitutional mandate of municipalities to provide democratic and accountable government for local communities.
How can we change this situation? How can we ensure that our municipalities meet the needs and aspirations of their residents? How can we restore the dignity and pride of our local communities?
The answer lies in a whole-of-society approach (whole-of-society approach) to public integrity. This means that all stakeholders in society – the state, private sector, civil organizations and individuals – have a common responsibility to maintain ethical values and principles in their interactions with each other. This also means that they actively participate in the development, implementation, and monitoring of the public integrity system.
A whole-of-society approach recognizes that public integrity is not just an issue for the public sector. It recognizes that companies, civil society organizations and individuals shape the social norms and expectations that influence public representatives and public decision-making processes. The approach also recognizes that these role players have an interest in the results of public policy and programmes, and can contribute to their success or failure.
A whole-of-society approach requires a change in the way of thinking and behavior of all parties involved. This requires that:
- The state promotes a culture of public integrity within its own institutions by enforcing good governance principles, ensuring consequences for corrupt individuals and organizations, and respecting the independence and authority of law enforcement and anti-corruption agencies.
- The private sector adopts responsible business practices and anti-corruption practices by complying with applicable laws and regulations, implementing internal controls and ethical codes of conduct, and reporting any cases of corruption or fraud.
- Civil society organizations apply integrity practices in their own operations by meeting transparency and accountability standards, engaging in constructive dialogue with the state and the private sector, and advocating for public interest issues.
- Individuals act with integrity in their daily lives by refusing to participate in corruption, exercising their civil rights and duties, and holding leaders and organizations accountable.
A whole-of-society approach also requires cooperation and coordination between various stakeholders. This requires them to initiate regular consultation and communication, share information and resources, build trust and mutual understanding, and align their goals and actions with a common vision.
An example of such an approach can be found in ward 17 of the Merafong Local Municipality, the ward that I represent as ward councillor. This ward includes Oberholzer and Pretoriusrus in Carletonville. In this ward, a group of community members initiated a project called “Ward 17 maintenance initiative”, which aims to fill the gaps where service delivery is not maintained by the municipality. The project involves activities such as curtailing public spaces, securing infrastructure, providing reserve materials for electrical repairs when needed, and so on.
The initiative does not try to do the municipality’s work for them or make it easier for them. Rather, it complements the efforts of the municipality by offering extra support where necessary. The initiative also works with the Merafong Ratepayers Association to hold the municipality accountable for its performance and obligations.
The initiative is financed by voluntary contributions from local residents and stakeholders who donate monthly amounts to a lawyer’s trust account. It is managed by a committee of community members who oversee its operations and report to the donors on its progress.
The Ward 17 maintenance initiative is an example of how a whole-of-society approach can work in practice. It shows how community members can take ownership of their local environment and improve their quality of life. It also shows how community members can work with other stakeholders to ensure that their municipality meets its mandate.
This initiative is not without its challenges. It faces opposition from some municipal officials who see it as a threat or criticism. It also has limitations in terms of its scope and impact. Nevertheless, it offers hope and inspiration for other communities facing similar problems.
This initiative shows that a whole-of-society approach is not only possible, but essential if we want to save our municipalities from collapse. This shows that we all have a role to play and a contribution to make towards building a culture of public integrity. It shows that we can make a difference if we act with courage, compassion and commitment.
- Carl Sebastian Steenekamp is 22 years old, and is a ward councilor in the Merafong Local Municipality.