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The professionalisation of local government would assist municipalities to get the basics of service delivery right, City of Johannesburg City Manager Trevor Fowler said at the weekend.

Fowler was speaking during a breakfast briefing, sponsored by The New Age newspaper and televised live on SABC2, on the sidelines of the eighth edition of the South African Municipal Managers Forum’s conference held at Ehlanzeni Conference Centre in Nelspruit, Mpumalanga, on Friday.

Members of the panel – who were interviewed by SABC2 Morning Live anchor Peter Ndoro – included Xolile George, Chief Executive Officer of the South African Local Government Association (SALGA); Hugh Mbatha, Municipal Manager of the Ehlanzeni District Municipality in Mpumalanga; and Mxolisi Mbatha, Municipal Manager of the Msunduzi Local Municipality in Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal.

The panel discussion examined service delivery issues as well as other challenges facing the various levels of local government 20 years into South Africa’s democracy. The theme of the two-day conference was: “Road to 2016 – Strengthening Local Government.”

During the discussion, the SALGA CEO said the conference was taking place at a time when “we have recently received a report from the Auditor-General that shows that, with all the complexities local government is faced with, there is a steady rise of confidence around financial management, with a number of municipalities receiving improved audit outcomes …”

Fowler said the professionalisation of local government was one of the key issues that emerged from the first day of the conference.

On his views on the benefits of the professionalisation of local government, Fowler was supporting a point made earlier by George, who had told the live audience that the professionalisation of municipalities was seriously being looked at.

“Professionalisation of local government is not a standalone thing; it’s a building block from the commitment our country has made around the National Development Plan … We now have a much more longer projection of planning as a country.

“For us as a country to reach that stage, we need to make sure that the agility of the stage is recognised and that the ability of local government is much more strengthened,” George said.

Fowler said another key factor that would drive municipalities to get the basics of service delivery right was financial sustainability.

He said, for example, the City of Johannesburg had serious cash problems in 2010, which led it to borrow R3,4 billion “just to ensure cash and incomes matched and able to pay the bills.

“In 2013-2014 … our cash equivalent stood somewhere in the region of R5,4 billion. [We also had] a surplus of R3.4 billion. We were not borrowing any money during the course of the year and payment on interest dropped 5%. In fact, it enabled the Mayor [Councillor Parks Tau] to make an announcement that we were going to spend R100 billion on infrastructure over the next 10 years. As a result, we’ve increased our capital expenditure,” Fowler said.

Asked by Ndoro if a municipal manager could say “no” to a politician, Fowler said there had to be a balance between one’s ethics and what was required from one by law.

“I think the key issue that we must address is not just calls to politicians but also the business ethics that allow for this to happen. In Johannesburg, we found collusion between people who work for the City – not politicians – and businesses that avoided paying for services. Eighteen people have been arrested over that issue. It’s not just one issue; it’s an ethics issue in our society that we have to address,” Fowler said.

He also spoke about the involvement of communities in the City’s service delivery projects.

“Given the unemployment situation in our country, one of the key things we want to look at is ensuring that people are involved in service delivery. In Johannesburg, we are launching the Jozi@Work Programme, which draws people’s assets to ensure they are part of the delivery of these services … Instead of us picking up waste, we get people in the community to pick up the waste at the local area and take it to an assembly area. That’s the kind of thing that will also proactively assist us in delivering this question of service delivery,” Fowler said.

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