Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Mnquma Municipality in the Eastern Cape

A Case Study:

Mnquma Municipality in the Eastern Cape
Overcoming serious local government challenges
April 2008

More than 100kms from East London lie three rural towns that make up the Mnquma municipality. Butterworth, Ngqamakhwe and Centane – small towns that were part of the old Transkei – are at the core of this municipality that includes villages such as Mente, Ntenza and Gwadana.

Two years ago, this area won the dubious honour of being declared the dirtiest municipality in South Africa. At the same time, it was plagued with ongoing political instability that culminated in the burning down of a small newly-built mayor’s office in Butterworth. The arsonists have yet to be arrested.

At the Governance Summer School held in Somerset West in March this year, officials from this area reported that not only had they stabilised the area politically but had also led a clean-up campaign that had ended Mnquma’s notoriety as the dirtiest municipality in the country.

The Governance Summer School was convened by three provinces – the Western Cape, Northern Cape and Eastern Cape – and brought together politicians and officials from local and provincial departments to examine issues of leadership.

Mnquma was chosen as a case study presented to the gathering and generated considerable interest. How did this municipality which serves over 200,000 people turn the corner? Has it turned the corner?

According to Census data (2001), the total population is approximately 297 663 people. 99% are Xhosa speaking Africans. The remaining 1% of the population includes English, Afrikaans, Zulu and Sesotho speaking people. More than half (54%) are women. The number of households comes to about 75 410.

In the Eastern Cape, Mnquma is one of the municipalities with the highest levels of poverty, illiteracy and unemployment. About 40% of all households have no income and need subsidy arrangements for survival. About 27% have incomes less than R9600 a month. Mnquma suffers from serious infrastructural backlogs:

- 66% of households do not have access to electricity
- 29% of households have no access to piped water while only 7% has piped water either in their dwelling or in their yard. About 11% access water through community standpipes and 38% from rivers
- Only 12 percent of households have access to flush toilets
- More than half (54%) do not have access to sanitation services
- 2% of households have a telephone, 2% have telephone and cell phone in their home and only 16% have cell phones, 34% use public telephones and 27% use other means
- 92% of all roads are gravel whilst 8% are tarred

The Council comprises 61 councillors serving 31 wards and has a staff complement of approximately 460.

Before 2000, each of the rural towns in this vicinity had their own municipality. Butterworth for example was a municipality with a council and town clerk supported by three heads of department. These entities provided basic services and some planning but did not see themselves as having a broader developmental responsibility.

When the towns and the surrounding countryside and villages were amalgamated into a single municipality in December 2000, the new elected local leadership found that they had inherited a completely bankrupt municipal entity. They further discovered that many years of workers retirement deductions had not been paid into the appropriate funds. As a result, the local work-force, uncertain of the changed local environment in the year 2001, led aggressive protests against the mayor, his councillors and newly-elected top officials. Workers drove managers out of their offices. They blockaded entrances to local government offices with graders and other municipal vehicles.

At the time, the present mayor, Councillor Mabone William Duna, served on the executive of the municipality. He had served five years as a member of national parliament and had returned to his local constituency and been elected as a local councillor. He described the situation at the time: “In 2001, we found an institution run by bureaucrats,” he said. “There were no offices to accommodate new councillors and the town clerk was essentially the CEO. There was tension between these officials from the old order and the incoming councillors. We were uncertain about our different roles and were also faced with a scarcity of resources.”

Before the disputes arose over the workers pensions, the new executive progressed steadily. The present Speaker of Council, Mbulelo Thenjwa, was then elected Executive Mayor of the newly constituted Mnquma Municipality. He had previously worked with a rural development agency in that region for 20 years and immediately initiated an Urban Renewal Programme as well as an Integrated Development Plan (IDP) as required by the Municipal Systems Act (MSA) of 2000. These early efforts to put systems in place were derailed when tensions started over the pension dispute.

This crisis dragged on for two to three years and paralysed service delivery. By the time this was settled, the March 2006 local government elections loomed in the distance and slowly a new tension emerged between those who held positions of leadership and those who were keen to oust them and take charge. The mayor was in dispute with the deputy mayor who was in dispute with the speaker. As a result, the newly appointed municipal manager, Ngamela Pakade, was suspended. Also driven from his office was the human resources manager, Mthalo Mzimasi. Against this backdrop, service delivery stalled.

Once the new council was elected and installed, the acting municipal manager, Sipho Mengezeleli refused to work with them. There was general ill-discipline with the mayor and speaker being insulted by staff. The towns were deliberately dirtied with refuse being dumped in the streets. Service delivery was put on hold as water pipes were broken into, electricity poles cut, potholes left unattended and refuse uncollected. Ex-councillors encouraged people not to pay for services. The population of Mnquma was gripped in this administrative logjam.

Dealing with the problems
The first step taken in response to the challenges in 2001 was to bring new councillors and old bureaucrats together in a series of workshops. At the time, there were few full-time councillors. Initially there were only six which was later increased to ten. They had to squeeze into a tiny office to hold their meetings.

The initial workshops were held to find ways to accommodate everybody’s fears. In the process, some of the old order bureaucrats resigned or asked for early retirement. The councillors could then consider how they were going to build a new team. They immediately set out to find a new municipal manager and suitable human resource and administrative managers. While this process was underway however, there were growing rumblings amongst workers. Once again, they were feeling threatened that they would be expelled or dismissed by the new managers. They articulated their feelings of unease by once again demanding that monies be paid to them and not over to the pension fund.

It was difficult for the officials to handle this situation and cope with the other daily demands of setting up the municipality.

When Mthalo Mzimasi, a former teacher, was appointed as human resources manager, he found an unruly situation. He realised that it would be no use hauling workers up for disciplinary hearings for toyi-toying and locking out councillors. He recognised the fear of change running through the workforce. There were lots of rumours of new managers coming in to fire workers and deprive them of their livelihoods. He too was pushed around and was forced to vacate his office and decided to proceed cautiously. The first thing he did was to make contact with some union leaders and ask to meet with them. When they eventually met with him, he was slowly able to ask them to consider working with him to solve the pension pay-out problem. A committee was set up and endless meetings were held which were long and tiring. Mzimasi familiarised himself with the dynamics of change management practices which over time brought about cooperation. At the same time, on instruction of the mayor and his councillors, he also worked on instituting proper recruitment procedures and finance procedures. The issue of the unpaid pensions however dominated the municipality. The call for monies to be paid out immediately grew stronger leading the municipality to finally call in the help of the provincial authorities in Bisho.

They decided to make an intervention in terms of Section 154 of the Municipal Act which allowed such action when a municipality was in trouble. With the assistance of the province, a settlement was finally brokered amicably over many months. The municipality owed R30m in arrears to the pension fund. It agreed to pay this off in staggered payments over a number of years. These monies came directly from the municipal budget. Bisho also eased the load when it agreed to pay R10m owed by the apartheid government.

Mayor Duna, in his simply furnished small office at the Mnquma municipality was frank about the difficulties they had encountered. “I would say for much of 2001 to 2005 we were dealing with these internal issues. The old order bureaucrats wanted to maintain a hostile relationship with the councillors so that they could not function and everything would revert to the way it always was,” he said. “And we had no experience or understanding of governance. We were grappling with this arrival of the animal called a municipality, struggling to put it into its proper context and trying to determine the roles of the councillors. Within this confusion, no service delivery took place.

Unfortunately too, once these initial problems were nearing solution, a new set of political tensions emerged in the run-up to the 2006. Power struggles between the mayor and speaker paralysed the municipality and there was not much that could be done other than to prepare and fight it out at the polls. After the local government elections in March 2006, the newly-elected mayoral committee had to elect a new mayor. Councillor Duna was elected by 18 to 10 votes. The former mayor, Councillor Mbulelo Thenjwa was elected speaker. They agreed, through discussions with all councillors that a deputy mayor would not be appointed, thus reducing the possibility of reliving the tensions they experienced. By this time too, they were clearer about the roles of councillors and council officials. The mayor and his new team understood that they had to create enough space for the administration to function with independence. The only way they could do that was for them to work as a team and not give opposing instructions.

“We were keen to put together a team of bureaucrats that could help us steer the ship in the right direction,” said Mayor Duna.

At last the municipality appeared to have reached a point of stability. Little did they know that the fall-out of the election results were to have consequences. A group of assailants attacked the new municipal head office and set it alight. They managed to escape and remain unknown. At the same time, ex-councillors encouraged people not to pay for services and once the new council was installed, the acting municipal manager refused to work with them. The staff was unruly and deliberately dirtied the streets with refuse.

Against this backdrop, the suspended municipal manager, Ngamela Phakade, was returned to office. The charge against him levelled by the then deputy mayor was dropped. The charge was that he had usurped his powers when he fired a colleague. When Phakade was first appointed in 2002, he had walked straight into the mess of the transition. Now as he returned, he once again tumbled into drama. A lawyer by training, he joined the municipality from the law faculty now part of the newly restructured Walter Sisulu University. He comes from a younger generation of professionals eager to leave a positive legacy of progress. In his small office, with a rather large desk that takes up all the space, he explained that the crisis was precipitated by the fact that 50 percent of the 61 councillors were not returned to office. “This is something that the national department of local government has to give attention to. It creates enormous tension and it could result in a loss of skill that has been developed over a term.

This time round however he was in a strong position because of the united leadership. “The mayor supports me and does not interfere. The speaker has no interest in being mayor and the chief whip has no such aspirations.”

They instructed him to go to the courts and bring those to book who had committed the disturbance. Not only had they dirtied the towns but they had engaged in looting. Two trucks were stolen that were fortunately tracked down in Lesotho and recovered. The former deputy mayor still refuses to move from a municipal house and he too has been taken to court, the outcome of which has still to be decided.

The tough action calmed the situation and allowed the municipality to give serious attention to winning back the confidence of the people. One of the first things that they did was to show the people that they were prepared to lead by example.

They went on a big drive to clean the towns. The mayor and all executive members personally went into town to clean up. A two-day cleaning campaign helped to begin to restore confidence that perhaps the municipality was serious this time.

They also introduced regular communication with communities through the community radio station called Khanya Community Radio Station.

The appointment of a new CFO also helped to begin reverse the distrust. Coming from the Buffalo City Municipality, Noluthando Ntshanga found a backlog of audits. At the same time, she initiated an outreach programme to communities to hear what they wanted. They were reluctant to pay their bills and she wanted to understand why. They complained that often they received bills late or not at all. The 10,000 statements that the municipality was supposed to send out often did not reach homes.

She decided to invest in new automated machine that could quickly print, fold and seal statements. These were then posted in good time and resulted in more people paying their bills. By September 2007, she was able to set up a big tent in town and host an awareness day calling on people to come and pay up on the day. They came forward and R100,000 of outstanding monies were collected. “We had to be creative,” she said. “People had to see that the municipality was changing,” she said.

There was no quick fix though, said Municipal Manager Phakade. “The people have been subjected to dysfunctionality,” he said. “Most have lost hope and now have to be won over to be involved in governance,” he said.

Signs of hope
For the first time this year, the annual financial statements required by National Treasury were completed on time. An asset register has been set up as required by law and is being maintained.

They have started the process of valuing properties as required by law. This exercise should bring in additional revenue. A newly appointed firm of accountants (made possible through grant funding) has helped them comply with the production of monthly statements on the 10th day of each month as legally required.

They reached their 4 percent target of increased revenue collection and hope to meet their target of 20 percent in five years time. “In 2000, when Mnquma was born, it was created as a financial entity expected to run on its own resources,” said Mayor Duna. “At the time, this felt like a challenge that seemed insurmountable. But now with a stable team, it has become manageable,” he said.

The speaker clearly understands that his role has to be neutral. To help build trust, he has introduced a snap debate at every council meeting encouraging all political parties to initiate discussion not on the planned agenda. Most importantly he has led the process of enforcing personal discipline which the leadership believed would be the first step to reviving effective organisation. Through collective discussion with all councillors, they have drawn up documents that clearly define what is expected.

They have gone as far as to define what was considered appropriate dress for councillors attending formal meetings. Men cannot come dressed “as if they are about to do the garden” and women “must not expose their bodies in an undignified way”. The dress code makes interesting reading.

Further if a councillor does not a attend a standing committee meeting without an apology (to be signed by the chief whip and approved by the speaker), they will have R500 deducted from their salary. If he or she does not attend a council meeting, R1,000 is deducted. If councillors arrive 15 minutes late, they have to remain seated in the public gallery.

Progress within the Human Resources department made it possible to move its manager to Community Services. He had led the process of reviving the department and was now called upon to assist with a seriously neglected area – cleansing, traffic, security, fire services, libraries and primary health services. Cleansing continued to be a top priority with increased attention being given to landscaping.

This year attention has been given to lawlessness around traffic. In Butterworth, two senior traffic officers have been employed, four more will soon be employed and as an immediate intervention, 10 traffic wardens were employed to patrol the town.

When recently visited, the central town definitely exuded a sense of cleanliness and order. In surrounding townships, however there was still uncollected dirt heaps dotted around. Four roads have been built and repaired during the past year but residents continue to complain about potholes which damage their vehicles. “We do not have the resources to tackle everything at once,” said Phakade. “But we are aware that this is something that must be attended to.” A new hall for the use of traditional leaders will soon be completed within a business centre complex outside the town. This is part of their efforts to work more closely with the chiefs and
headmen to circumvent problems. The recently adopted Intergovernmental Framework Act has eased difficulties in this regard since it gives guidelines as to how municipalities should consolidate other spheres of influence in the communities.

The municipality initiated the business complex about a year and a half ago with the assistance of Nedbank and Old Mutual. The insurance companies have developed a package tailor-made for this locality. It is a pilot project that will insure cattle, mielie fields and houses. If the project succeeds, it will be extended to other rural municipalities across the country. The development of these business facilities is part of the realisation that people must have access to services where they live and not have to travel to Buffalo City in East London and spend their earnings there. “Local economic development is central,” said the Speaker Mbulelo Thenjwa. “What we had here was a false economy,” he said.

The growth of the economy also depends on responding to the needs of the middle income people. The municipality has successfully made an arrangement with the Eastern Cape Development Corporation to sell more than 400 houses that people are presently renting from them. Once this is done, the new owners will have to pay rates and this will improve the municipality’s balance sheet.

An audit of the needs of SMME’s is underway in an effort to identify how best to given appropriate support. Recently, the municipality opened a business information centre to give effect to this work.

In the next town, Centane, the Development Forum has identified land to start growing plants from which to make essential oils in demand locally and internationally. “Since we have resolved our internal problems and focused our attention on service delivery, numerous retail shops have returned to the town,” said Councillor Thenjwa. A new shopping mall is also under construction.
“Hopefully we will see a stage when the local leaders will graduate fully to a commitment to development not contaminated by political differences,” he said.

Two years after the 2006 elections, councillors and bureaucrats no longer bury their heads in shame when they have to attend provincial or national meetings. They are now often called upon to share their expertise instead and asked how they had reversed their fortunes.

All of those interviewed listed some or all of the following lessons.

The most important breakthrough was creating a collective leadership and eliminating tensions between top officials. The mayor, the speaker and the chief whip have to cooperate and not work against one another.

It was important to not rush into a situation but first understand the importance of developing a team. Through the experiences here, they learnt that it was not always good for a leader to move in the fast lane leaving most others behind. There must be investment in a team and time given to keep that team together.

The local leadership often did not understand the legislative framework nor the true limitations of constitutional capacity. Once they followed the legislation to the letter and accepted the capacity constraints, they were able to plan better and lead more realistically.

Every effort has to be made to ensure that councillors and staff understand their different roles and that they stick to a clearly-defined job description. A strong human resources operation was crucial in firming up lines of division and ensuring compliance to roles. It was disastrous when an administrator wanted to be a politician or a politician an administrator.

Besides the municipal manager, the skills levels of the human resource and finance manager made a huge difference to building a stable administration. All municipalities need to give immediate attention to getting the best people to fill these posts.

Understanding rights in terms of the constitution was also very crucial. Leaders needed to show that they respected the terms of the constitution, understood it and were prepared to try to live according to it. Only then was it possible to urge the people to demonstrate similar respect minimising space for misbehaviour.

Every effort must be made to improve financial management which is the bedrock of any municipality. The community was not interested in paying their bills when they witnessed mismanagement.

In appointment of staff, it has helped removing all political interference and concentrating only on skills. Skilled staff have been recruited even if they came from other provinces or municipalities breaking the tendency to employ only locals.

Similarly with tender processes, politicians were strongly discouraged from interfering in any way with administrative procedures. Constant reminders of the code of conduct that spells out this separation was important.

It was important to identify quick-win projects which could be translated into a longer term programme – for example, the two-day cleaning campaign must move into ongoing planned landscaping.

There are strong indications that there has indeed been a turn around in this troubled municipality. The energy and commitment of the local leadership and top officials interviewed are without doubt impressive. The strength of their recovery however will depend on a number of factors: Will they be able to maintain unity amongst the leadership team? How will they cope with the tensions generated by the next local government election? They are discussing the possibility of instituting a risk committee which will appoint a risk manager to anticipate potential problems and this may ensure improved readiness for the difficulties of an electoral period.

If they are able to reach their increased revenue target of 20 percent within five years, this should be a good indication of prolonged success. Will they retain able staff and attract new staff on a consistent basis? Will they be able to minimise the disgruntlement still present amongst some sectors of the workforce?

Most of all will they stimulate the kind of local economic effort that would lift this municipality out of poverty? The municipal manager’s contract ends in 2012 and he hopes to leave an institution that is running in accordance with all the principles of corporate governance as required by the local government laws. “It is all about giving people confidence to take local initiatives,” he said. “We do not want people who are beggars.’

This municipality is moving in the right direction and deserve every bit of provincial and national support. It will be very unfortunate if the local leadership slacken their efforts and let go of steering this ship forward. Firm and consistent leadership over the next five years will be the most important ingredient that will ensure a tangible improvement in the lives of the local people.

Zubeida Jaffer
Journalist and Honorary Research Associate
Centre for African Studies, UCT

Special thanks to Fundile Feketshane, the office manager in the mayoral office, for facilitating this research. His inobstrusive efforts speak loudly of a growing understanding of the necessary separation of roles between political office bearers and municipal staff in Mnquma.

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