Municipal officials must appreciate the significance of their role in SA’s development agenda

Published Date: 
Tuesday, 30 June, 2020

The cliché goes that local government is at “the coalface of service delivery”.

This suggests that government efforts to tackle poverty and underdevelopment, among other things, essentially to change the lives of the previously disadvantaged for the better, must largely take place at municipal level.

Sadly, some municipalities are seemingly failing to grasp this concept.

In one of the 35 investigation reports released last week, Public Protector Adv. Busisiwe Mkhwebane laid bare gory details of how a rural community in the outlying areas of the North West were strung along by the Mahikeng local municipality regarding the construction of tarred road which was to have changed their lives for the better.

The R4.8 million project would have seen 3.1km of a rocky dirt stretch linking the impoverished Kaalpan rural village on the outskirts of Mahikeng with the neighbouring Nooitgedacht community being tarmacked.

Nearly a decade later, the community is still waiting, yet the contractor appointed for the job has pocketed a cool R4.4 million for the incomplete job.
In its current state, the road is inaccessible in rainy seasons, blocking members of the community from making their way to schools and work. It is also harmful to residents’ vehicles.

The community welcomed with much fanfare news of the project in 2010. A tender had been advertised in a local paper in June that year, paving the way for the appointment of the contractor, Bonolo Supplier and Distribution, 14 months later.

Naturally, expectations were high when the contractor moved on site in 2011 to commence work. The project, which was financed through the Municipal Infrastructure Grant – a groundbreaking intervention introduced in 2003 to cover the capital costs of basic infrastructure development and maintenance for the benefit of underprivileged communities – was to last as little as five months.

But the community’s excitement was soon to be short-lived. Before the project was completed, the roaring machines on the construction site had gone silent. The workers left. All the while, there was no word from the municipality as to what had happened.

To date, the community remains in the lurch while the contractor was paid for a job well-done. The money came in ten tranches ranging from R38 000 to R1.9 million over the three-year period ending June 2012.

It was this state of affairs which caused one a representative of the community to approach the Public Protector in October 2015 with nearly a dozen questions that he hoped Adv. Mkhwebane would help him find answers to.

In a heartfelt complaint, the representative wanted to know who inspected the work done and authorized payment for the project even though the contractor vacated the site halfway through construction. He also questioned if officials had any plans, at all, to complete the road.

In addition to confirming that the contractor was paid, the investigation revealed that the then head of roads at the municipality certified that the account was correct, that the service was rendered and that the charges were fair and reasonable.

To bring the community their long-awaited relief, the Municipal Manager was ordered to conduct an analysis of work still to be done on the road, determine the costs thereof and the timelines within which the project can be completed. He must provide the Public Protector with the action plan regarding the completion of the project following an assessment of outstanding work, the cost thereof and the appointment of a service provider.

The manager must also determine the amount overpaid to the contractor and initiate a legal process to recoup the excess.

He must further report, to the Hawks, the activities of any official who inspected the road and authorized that the contractor be paid while the road was incomplete. Additionally, he must ensure that internal disciplinary action is taken against such officials.

Perhaps what was of grave concern to the Public Protector was the attitude of the municipality during the investigation. When investigators sent a query to officials in January 2016, no response came through.

This resulted in the Public Protector invoking her subpoena powers to force officials to the accountability table. Only then did the municipality provide answers, admitting to wrongdoing in respect of all the allegations.

Even then, officials still failed to provide the Public Protector with the names of the officials who inspected the road and those who authorized the payment to the contractor. Worse, when the Public Protector served the municipality’s administrator, the Municipal Manager, the Speaker and the Executive Mayor with a notice in terms of which they were deemed potentially complicit in the wrongdoing and had to furnish her with their sides of the story, they all failed to respond.

It is high-time officials in municipalities realised that a lot of the country’s development agenda rests on their shoulders. This requires of them to exercise their control over public resources with the highest degree of professional ethics, put people first and do everything by the book.

Where transgressions are picked up by accountability authorities such as the Public Protector, officials must be at the ready to account. To do the opposite is akin to betraying and sabotaging the constitutional vision of an improved quality of life for all.

Segalwe is the Public Protector’s spokesperson