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COVID-19 pandemic offers municipalities rare opportunity to restore trust
Author: Harlan Cloete
Published: 11/05/2020

​The COVID-19 pandemic offers municipalities a rare window of opportunity to reboot and to restore the trust and confidence of local communities, writes Dr Harlan Cloete from the School for Public Leadership in an article (Monday 11 May) for Mail & Guardian.

  • ​Read the complete article below or click here for the piece as published.

COVID-19 pandemic offers municipalities rare opportunity to restore trust

Harlan Cloete*

The efforts of the South African government to manage the Covid-19 pandemic have been applauded locally and internationally by the likes of the World Health Organisation. Friend and foe awoke to the sudden realization that Covid-19 - the new enemy - is creed, class and colour blind, demanding collective decisive action to prevent large-scale loss of life.

The pandemic has certainly highlighted the deep fault lines in our constitutional democracy. A tale of two cities, where the minority non-racial middle class are sheltered, enjoying the fruits of democracy and the poor left scrabbling for the crumbs from the table. The case for equal access to health care and education firmly established.

The Constitution positions local government at the nucleus of development and the delivery of basic service to communities. It is where participatory democracy finds expression through the active participation of citizens in policy making and monitoring government's efforts to eradicate poverty, inequality and unemployment. Late in April, President Ramaphosa announced a R500bn Covid-19 relief fund with R20bn directly allocated to municipalities to help contain the spread of the virus.

This has raised a number of questions from citizens. Is this not a license to loot by corrupt municipal officials? Can the leadership of municipalities be trusted to lead the fight against the virus? Do municipalities have the skills and capacity to manage a crisis of this magnitude?

Unsurprisingly, some people have expressed their disdain for local government, accusing councillors of favouritism with the allocation of food parcels and double-dipping by certain members of the community due to the ineffective data collection system and intergovernmental duplication.

Others have argued that ward committees (the hands and feet of participatory democracy) are a farce and were simply not working. In general, citizens seem to have lost confidence in their elected local leadership and officials who have consistently failed to meet the promise of developmental local government envisaged 20 years ago.

Municipalities are now presented with a rare window of opportunity to reboot and to restore the trust and confidence of local communities. What should they do to achieve this?

Given that in some councils opposition parties have been reduced to spectators, mayors need to emulate the President and make sure that there's a multiparty approach to ensure local Covid-19 responses enjoy the support from all the parties. Now is the time to put purpose together and to leave egos at the door. A time to listen and learn. This is not the space for political grandstanding. This demands new innovative thinking and stretch collaboration as advocated by Adam Kahane in his book Collaborating with the enemy- How to work with people you don't agree with or like or trust (2017).

There should be a relook at the Integrated Development Plan and the budget. We know that municipalities do not have a track record of taking community input seriously. Now is the time for municipalities to facilitate a citizen-centric approach to budgeting and development. The anticipated revenue streams will not be there, given the devastating economic impact of the virus. Municipalities could very well consider a rates and tax relief for small business. But the needs of the poor and the most vulnerable in society should be prioritized.

They need to mobilize all sectors of society as the late acclaimed academic economist and writer Professor Sampie Terblanche advocated in his book Lost in Transformation (2014). He argued that we did not succeed in replacing the deeply divided South African society with a society of social solidarity. And he was right. Local government is the bridge between “the haves, the have nots and the never hads". We need to build a sustainable socio-economic security network to address the deep-rooted crises of access and structural violence. The empty church building today, is tomorrow's field hospital.

Given that food parcels are not sustainable, municipalities should rather invest in infrastructure. They should consider buying gas burners and utensils to support the efforts of the many different organizations already operating in communities. Most of the food parcels are dry goods that still have to be prepared. A more practical approach would be to credit the pre-paid meters for qualifying households.

Municipalities should also follow a data-driven approach. They have big data sets that they are not mining effectively, which leads to partisan and erratic decision making that is sometimes inconsistent with the reality on the ground. Once the data is interrogated, it has the

potential to map the ward reality. But knowing is not enough, municipalities should then make evidence-based decisions that could result in better-coordinated implementation and traction across all government departments.

To restore trust, municipalities should provide daily updates to communities about how government is responding to the Covid-19 crisis. This could include flyers, loud hailing, tapping into the community social media networks and media such as community radio and local newspapers

Last, but not least, municipalities need to build local capacity and equip communities as well as municipal officials with the skills needed to propel local economies and to manage waste better.

As our municipalities try to navigate the Covid-19 crisis, they could do well to heed the following words of Nigerian musician Ike Uzondu: “The art of governing is not rocket science. Being honest, knowing that you are here to serve the people; and finding a way to deliver the goods – that is the key."

*Dr Harlan Cloete is an extraordinary lecturer at the School of Public Leadership at Stellenbosch University. His main research interest is exploring evidence-based HRD governance systems in the public sector with a keen interest in local government.​