Pravin Gordhan. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON
Pravin Gordhan. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON

CO-OPERATIVE Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Pravin Gordhan is banking on the government’s new "back to basics" strategy to turn around at least two thirds of the country’s municipalities over the next two years.

The new plan was expected to focus municipalities on getting small things right such as fixing street lights, leaking taps and collecting refuse. It appears to be an attempt at breathing new life into municipalities after the failure of "operation clean audit", introduced in 2009 under the late minister Sicelo Shiceka, with this year as its target.

Speaking at the Presidential Local Government Summit in Midrand in Johannesburg on Thursday, Mr Gordhan said national government would take "a tough view" on the lack of skills in municipalities. He urged them to move away from outsourcing core functions, including financial management.

The summit, attended by President Jacob Zuma, premiers and MECs from the country’s nine provinces as well as mayors and municipal officials from the 278 municipalities, marked government’s efforts to ensure that municipalities focused on delivering basic services more effectively.

Some two years ahead of the crucial 2016 municipal elections, government is seeking to shake off perceptions that it was failing to look after citizens.

"Too many people say they need more money from the fiscus. There is no money from the fiscus. We need to use what we have to create opportunities and develop communities," Mr Gordhan said.

He cited the findings of government research into the state of local government, which he said informed the new "back to basics" approach. The research revealed that communities perceived government officials as "a corrupt lot and arrogant".

Mr Gordhan said communities were not convinced that government was doing enough to meet their expectations. He said these perceptions contributed to the high number of protests, and though they may not be true, "it is our responsibility to remove this perception".

In his own address, Mr Zuma called for a co-ordinated communication strategy across the three spheres of government to explain the context of violent service delivery protests. He said the growing number of public unrests were not primarily due to lack of service delivery, but because of impatience when government delivered in other areas.

However, Johan Westhuizen of the Matlosana Business Chamber in Klerksdorp, North West, disagreed with Mr Zuma. Speaking to Business Day on the sidelines, Mr Westhuizen said protests were not just about citizens being impatient. He said the existing infrastructure was also not being properly maintained.

According to Mr Westhuizen, Mr Gordhan seemed to have done his homework on the new plan but should have gone further and titled the new strategy as "back to basics with pride".

Mr Westhuizen said "some municipalities were delivering the basics not always with pride, but, sometimes with arrogance".

KwaZulu-Natal Premier Senzo Mchunu said the performance of municipalities depended mostly on the strength of municipal managers and whether there were clear consequences for weak performance.

Gauteng Premier David Makhura said institutions which monitor the performance of municipalities needed to be strengthened while Johannesburg executive mayor Parks Tau said urban planning was one of the chief challenges for cities where services were increasingly burdened by urbanisation.