COGHSTA Budget Vote Debate

Andrew Louw, MPL

DA Provincial Leader

Note: The following is an extract from the speech delivered by the DA Provincial Leader in the Northern Cape, Andrew Louw, during the COGHSTA Budget Vote Debate today in the Northern Cape Provincial Legislature.

Local government is the place where service delivery does or does not take place. Unfortunately, in the Northern Cape we have become accustomed to the latter. This is where COGHSTA comes in, or at least is meant to come in. This is because COGHSTA is the department charged with overseeing that people enjoy responsive, accountable and highly effective municipalities.

However, based on what we all know from experience, this is not happening. Instead, our municipalities move from crisis to crisis. Debt is growing, billing is mismanaged, residents are mischarged, water and electricity cuts are frequent and taxpayers have no choice but to stare exasperating rates, water and electricity hikes in the face.  Based on the latest audit outcomes, as many as 19 of the Northern Cape’s municipalities received disclaimers of opinion.

In other words, we can draw only one conclusion: COGHSTA is not doing a very fine job of effectively monitoring our municipalities and holding them to account.

Perhaps this is most clearly seen in the exceptionally high levels of under-spending by Northern Cape municipalities. Although the number of municipalities that underspent their capital budgets reduced from twenty-eight to twenty-four in 2012/13, the level of under-spending increased from R439,556 million to R451,867 million.

That this huge amount of funding has sat unused in municipal coffers, is the greatest possible insult to the many citizens living within these respective municipalities, who don’t have access to the most basic of services. And worryingly, the underspending situation seems not to have improved, with 11 municipalities having been threatened with the withholding of their Municipal Infrastructure Grant because of low spending. MIG funding is provided precisely to ensure the roll-out of basic municipal infrastructure for water, electricity and sanitation. Given the “bad story” on spending, we therefore can’t help but feel sorry for:

–        the children of Klein Mier, who make use of bushes for toilets;

–        the people of Britstown who continue to use the undignified bucket system;

–        the people of Ritchie who don’t have access to running water;

–        the people of Kommagas who have no sports facilities;

–        the people of Olifantshoek, who have no street lights;

–        and all the other people of this province suffering from local government’s inefficiency.

There is no doubt that government is under-spending where we need it most!

According to the Northern Cape Provincial Government’s own reports, over 20 % of households in this province still do not have access to sanitation services, and 36% don’t have access to refuse removal services. Political and administrative bungling on behalf of the municipality’s leadership appears to be the key factor in municipalities’ inability to spend their budgets effectively.

If this administration is serious about tackling poverty and unemployment, it must be prepared to take the tough steps necessary to ensure that funds allocated to infrastructure development are rolled out on budget, on time and to specification.

In this regard, the monthly reports meant to be compiled by COGHSTA on conditional grant spending, need to be taken seriously. They must serve to alert the department on underspending and other anomalies, such as the illegal practise of utilizing conditional grants to pay salaries. They must also serve as an early warning system and trigger an emergency response intervention to ensure that funds do not lie dormant and do not get misappropriated.

Despite a commitment by the Premier during her State of the Province Address that government will increase spending on Human Settlements, this does not translate into reality. Instead, the province faces a reduction in the housing delivery grant on the number of units to be delivered in the next five years.  As a result, the target for housing units to be completed this year is halved from last year’s 3 542 housing units to only 1 735 housing units to be completed this year.  This target is set to decrease further to 1500 and then 1200 in the remaining two years of the MTEF.

In the meantime, the housing backlog has grown from 53 000 last year to 57 000 this year.

The housing dilemma is further exacerbated by the fact that most municipalities do not follow proper procurement processes in their appointment of service providers for housing delivery. As an intervention, the department now plans on centralizing procurement to ensure that SCM practices are improved for housing delivery as from this year. While we understand the department’s motivation for wanting to take such action, what concerns us is that centralization of powers could also have the unwanted effect of delaying payments to service providers.

The DA appreciates that government is slowly starting to venture into increasing GAP market housing but this is also not enough to solve the housing dilemma. It is the DA’s submission that this government needs to accept that the housing delivery model simply cannot address the current need for housing. As such, this department should focus more attention to upgrading the provision of services, such as clean water, sanitation, electricity and refuse removal of already established informal settlements, as well as security of tenure.

This will require reprioritizing funds in order to drastically up-scale the current target of only 819 households to be connected to basic services. This will also require the department to speed up the issuing of title deeds, of which the backlog currently stands at 28 430.

There can be no denying that, over the past 20 years, this department has underperformed on title deeds. The DA has taken to heart the commitment of the Hon. Botes, who assured the portfolio committee that by this time next year, we will see a significant improvement. We hope this means that the department intends exceeding its target of issuing 1500 title deeds for 2014/15.

In increasing people’s living standards, this department also needs to improve performance on its mandate of Disaster Management. From the department’s apparent failure to appropriately address disaster management in its APP, and during its budget vote presentation, it would appear that the cessation of the conditional grant for Disaster Management has been accompanied by a pause in the progress of this important mandate.

Section 29 of the Disaster Management Act of 2002, mandates all provinces to establish disaster management centres. In the Northern Cape, such a centre is of critical importance, as disasters such as droughts, floods and fires are familiar events. Yet, based on the department’s silence on this matter, we assume that this province has still not set up a required disaster management centre in the province.

In closing, I therefore call upon the COGHSTA MEC, Hon. Alvin Botes, to champion the issue of disaster management. At the same time, we would wish for him to launch an audit into the standard of municipal emergency services and their readiness to deal with major disasters.  If municipal emergency services are ill-equipped and under-staffed, as we expect is the case in most of our local governments, then it poses a serious risk to the readiness of the Northern Cape to respond to a major disaster. And this will put the lives of many citizens at risk.