Community must take charge of its destiny

Issued by Mandela Bay Development
Johannesburg, Dec 8, 2021
MBDA CEO Ashraf Adam.

In the classical sense, the term “state capture” is the expression of a truism that those in control of the economy seek to control the levers of state so that their economic interests are protected by that state. In the South African sense, it has been taken further to include the enablement of looting from the state, rather than the championing of a particular economic philosophy.

State capture, for the purposes of looting, is unfortunately not only a national or provincial pastime, but it has also been the hallmark of local government since before democracy. Municipalities collectively spend billions of rands annually on infrastructure and construction projects. According to Good Governance Africa, South African metros command a total budget of R278.4 billion, while Nelson Mandela Bay controls more than R11.7 billion. Such significant budgets will inevitably attract interest, not only from legitimate businesses and investors, but also from those seeking to make easy money. The extent of looting in municipal projects, if added up, would dwarf the money that has been mentioned at the state capture commission. Money is siphoned off in several ways, at times by use of questionable supply chain processes.

However, over the last few years, syndicates who demand that they be contracted to construction work outside of supply chain processes have gained traction. It seems that despite media exposures, Auditor-General reports and real-time decay, the situations are becoming worse rather than better. In other words, criminal syndicates are in the process of determining whom among them will be allocated construction projects. Since the extraction of money, rather than doing the work, informs such action, the result has been overpriced construction and incomplete projects.

It would appear that except for a few, that being mainly agricultural municipalities, citizens are prepared to live with the consequences rather than use the mechanisms of democracy to ensure that municipalities meet their obligations. South Africa’s socialist level of public consultation encourages individuals and organised groups such as sports clubs, school governing bodies and business chambers to participate in local development processes; and obliges authorities to engage with them. There are three broad areas which the formal processes of public accountability laws promote.

Firstly, seeking input into municipal planning and budgeting, then reporting on implementation and expenditure. Secondly, the formulation of policies, bylaws and regulations that inform planning, budgeting and reporting. Thirdly, implementation of projects in terms of the plans, budgets, laws, policies, bylaws and regulations. From an idea to digging the first hole, communities have the right to be involved every step of the way. Yet it would seem that other than a few die-hard community spirited people and organisations, citizens are generally absent from the public accountability processes.

Ironically, the government’s patronising approach of state-driven, instead of people-driven, development, and doing it badly, has contributed to the absence of community led development. Into the void, vociferous groups have stepped in claiming to be contractors using the very processes of democracy to undermine them so that they bully municipalities into passing undue rewards onto themselves.

There is evidence to suggest that these groups do not speak on behalf of the communities they claim to be. In the Mandela Bay Development Agency experience, their conduct is at odds with those who consistently engage and participate in established processes. Despite engaging with communities in open and transparent processes, which include the allocation of construction work to locally based companies, the aggressive and threatening demeanour of these groups is beginning to take its toll. Recently, a group closed the MBDA offices, the Science and Technology Centre and a construction site in Uitenhage, demanding that they be given work. At some point, if communities and law enforcement agencies do not step in, it is likely that the MBDA will need to review its infrastructure projects approach.

If this muscling in continues, more lives will be lost, infrastructure will be destroyed and conditions will be more unsafe for officials, and the development hopes of areas that need it the most will suffer. At present, millions of rands are being redirected from municipalities to what are essentially criminal syndicates. As a result, all the engagement, planning, budgeting and attempts at implementation would have been in vain because the syndicates will control all aspects of infrastructure development spending. In time, officials and contractors might refuse to work under such conditions. The MBDA has already had this experience.

Although there are several theories for why people do not participate in democratic processes, they include fatigue arising from public commitments not being met, the stark reality is that unless communities and community organisations take back control of those processes, municipal capture will continue unhindered. Communities need to take back their democratic rights and eject those who claim to speak on their behalf, who are merely pursuing capture of municipal resources.

Those who argue that municipalities and municipal officials merely go through the motions of accountability for the sake of compliance miss the point. All over the world, governments will only do what they can get away with, notwithstanding their obligations. It is up to citizens to take control of their development by using those processes that looters now seek control of.

Communities must arm themselves with knowledge and information, persistence and a willingness to take on groups who suddenly form themselves into self-serving cliques. These groups will go to great lengths to derail development and deprive the very communities they hail from. Communities need to capture their municipalities or accept that others act in their name. 

* This article first appeared, under a different heading, as a column in The Herald, on Friday, 3 December 2021.