Graphic: DOROTHY KGOSI
Graphic: DOROTHY KGOSI

SA’s municipalities are constantly in the news for the wrong reasons and are clearly nowhere near playing their developmental role as envisaged in the National Development Plan, particularly when it comes to reversing the deteriorating state of economic decline and rising unemployment.

The media report endless episodes of violent protest and litigation against poor service delivery, dilapidated infrastructure and the imminent collapse of local authorities, while embezzlement and ineptitude seem to be the order of the day.

Those responsible for overseeing local government affairs are on record for lamenting the state of dysfunctionality in numerous municipalities, many of which are in the rural areas where delivery of basic services is crucial for development.

The auditor-general recently painted a bleak picture of municipal dysfunction, highlighting the growing weaknesses in governance and worsening performance: irregular expenditure is rising, contract and procurement practices are poor, and late payment of service providers has become the norm.

The public has evidently become increasingly benumbed to the growing frequency of municipal impotence, to the extent that genuine reasons for poor performance and underdevelopment are simply dismissed as a facade. Few people have interacted with municipalities to understand the dynamics of running a local administration when resources are scarce, economic growth is anaemic and the prospects for development are tenuous, beyond reading media reports, making account inquiries and perhaps attending community meetings.

Without making excuses for graft and incapability, it is quite clear that many municipalities are gravely overwhelmed by the socioeconomic challenges on the ground, including high levels of unemployment, poverty and inequality, as well as a confluence of dreadful social ills such as gender-based violence, child-headed households and substance abuse.

Implausible as this may sound, SA still has numerous settlements in which it is not immediately clear how people sustain their daily livelihoods, and by extension how they are able to pay for municipal services.

Take the Alfred Nzo district municipality for example. It is set in a tranquil landscape in the remote Eastern Cape, bordering Lesotho and KwaZulu-Natal, with a rich cultural and political heritage. Flying or driving into this locality one cannot help but marvel at the beauty of the rolling hills, deep gorges and numerous villages with colourful houses dotted along the lush grassland slopes, valleys and mountain peaks. These villages stretch for thousands of hectares along the N2 corridor from the northeast in Kokstad to East London and beyond in the south.

Yet hidden in this serene countryside are deep cases of social and economic deprivation, marginalisation and spatial inequalities that are regrettably a common experience in many parts of rural SA. The municipality has surpassed the OR Tambo district as the country’s most impoverished region, with more than 65% of the total of about 180,000 households living below the poverty line. Almost 70% of the population within the district are not economically active, while unemployment ranks as high as 48% in some local municipalities. Almost 80% of the households that are fortunate enough to be able to generate some income earn no more than R800 a month, largely from social grants.

These undesirable socioeconomic conditions are reinforced by the low levels of access to social services, especially potable water, health care and education. Many communities still rely on dams, springs and rivers for water, drinking side by side with their frail livestock, which endure the lasting effects of drought and declining fodder cultivation in the area. Notwithstanding improvements in access to schools, the education completion rate is worryingly low, with only 6% of the adult population having attained grade 12. As underdevelopment tightens its grip, job seekers are leaving the region in numbers, following the apartheid-era labour migration pattern towards mining towns and large urban centres, leaving destitution and hopelessness behind.

To be fair, much of the current manifestation of rural backwardness throughout SA can be attributed to successive years of pre-1994 spatial and economic exclusion, the effects of which keep lingering. However, some material conditions stem from the postdemocratic dispensation that also hinder development.

Foremost among these is the evident weak economic activity, evidenced by the resounding absence of a rural industrial base and the bustle of retail and informal trading activities. Rural communities are feeding the growth of the urban centres by consuming goods produced in the cities, while national retailers extract the little circulating income generated from remittances and social grants.

Sparse settlement patterns also stagnate development in the periphery by making universal access to basic services almost impossible. Communities continue to settle along tribal lines, preserving cultural practices and devotion to ancestral land. Inadvertently, these practices create spatial inefficiencies because the few resources that are available for development are overstretched, thus failing to achieve a meaningful impact.

Another important binding constraint to rural development has been a general shortage of resources to drive spatial transformation. Municipalities have always bemoaned the fact that resources channelled to them are insensitive to the historical legacy of underdevelopment in the former homelands. Yet when such resources are made available, expenditure programmes are all too often marred by poor investment decisions and mismanagement. Resources are directed towards building vanity projects, financing ephemeral initiatives and sustaining failing co-operative schemes that have become popular interventions for driving local economic development, and by extension have become part of municipal administrations.

Yet the agenda for driving development in rural municipalities need not only be premised on the availability of funds. After all, funding can never be enough. Local government authorities should invest in building new forms of social organisation in rural communities to encourage densification and spatial transformation.

Existing public housing programmes can be used to stimulate densification of local towns gradually without disturbing the rural livelihood.

A concerted focus on the delivery of key basic services would also yield better development outcomes than many of the utopian economic development plans predicated on superfluous projects such as conference facilities and agro-processing plants that are destined to become white elephants.

Local economic development initiatives should harness existing economic activities, for instance by supporting the location of local business in the central business districts and integrating them into the value chains of big retailers.

Most importantly, rural municipalities should drop the prevailing complacency in the belief that resources will trickle into their coffers and start utilising what is available more effectively.

Without these interventions rural economies will continue to function as segregated labour-sending dormitories and satellite economies, with no prospects for improvement in quality of life and economic wellbeing for disenfranchised rural folk.

Rakabe is an economist affiliated to the Financial and Fiscal Commission. He writes in his personal capacity.