South African municipalities heading for collapse

Kgalema Motlanthe

South Africa’s municipalities are heading for collapse, with 90% of them facing distress or dysfunction and 66 being completely dysfunctional.

This warning comes from former President Kgalema Motlanthe, who spoke at his foundation’s Annual Drakensberg Inclusive Growth Forum.

Motlanthe said his foundation has focused on issues with local governments since 2019, as they are where the majority of service delivery failures are occurring. 

Furthermore, it is the sphere of government that is closest to the people and is “at the coalface of service delivery”, Motlanthe said. 

The former President urged the national government to drive municipalities to increase their efficiency and capacity. 

According to data from the Ministry in the Presidency for Planning, Monitoring, and Evaluation, 90% of municipalities face distress or dysfunction. 

Motlanthe said 66 of them are totally dysfunctional, and 163 are currently distressed. 

Data from the Auditor-General shows that 38 municipalities and only 2 out of 8 metropolitan areas achieved clean audits for the past financial year.

Furthermore, many of these municipalities are underspending their infrastructure grants from the National Treasury despite the dilapidated nature of municipal infrastructure. 

Motlanthe’s call for the national government to intervene in municipalities comes on the back of calls from the South African Municipal Workers’ Union saying that urgent intervention is needed to prevent a total municipal collapse.

Dr Anthony Turton, water scientist and Professor at the University of the Free State

The collapse of municipal infrastructure and lack of service delivery can be seen in the country’s looming water crisis, with water shortages becoming a real possibility. 

South Africa has enough water to supply the population and businesses comfortably. However, the water supply is being mismanaged, resulting in shortages in some parts of the country. 

“If we manage our water wisely, we certainly have enough to grow our economy and population. The problem is that we are not managing it wisely,” water scientist Professor Anthony Turton said

An estimated 50% of the water from bulk water suppliers in South Africa does not reach the end consumer due to leakages, theft, and failing infrastructure. 

“It is not a water scarcity issue. It is an institutional failure issue,” Turton said. 

It is not a national institutional failure but rather the local failure of municipalities to maintain and upgrade their water infrastructure. 

Local municipalities have shown they cannot correct things that have gone wrong despite multiple warnings and signs of failure. This is a clear sign that they are dysfunctional. 

“We can say that places like Johannesburg Water are a perfect example of state failure at a local level.”

Some solutions are on the table, with the private sector likely having to step in to provide funding for infrastructure projects and expertise. 

“It is in the great interest of the majority of society to resolve this issue. If we do not get this right, there will be an external correction through legal intervention in the courts or a suspension of the Constitution through some or other kind of popular uprising and extrajudicial means.”

To prevent this in the short term, the government has implemented what it has called ‘water shifting’ to avoid the entire collapse of some local water systems. 

“Water shifting is to the water sector as load-shedding is to the energy sector,” Turton said. 

“This essentially prevents a local angry mob from taking to the streets and protesting. That is really all it does. It keeps some people happy for some of the time.”


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