South Africa

South African municipal skills crisis

South African municipalities are suffering from a skills crisis, with many lacking the ability to implement ambitious policies and plans. 

Research fellow at the Department of Public Administration at the University of the Free State, Dr Harlan Cloete, told eNCA that the number one issue at local municipalities is a lack of ethical leadership. 

Cloete referenced the Auditor-General, who reported that “accountable and ethical leadership is the main problem in South African municipalities.” 

Aside from a lack of leadership, there is a distinct lack of skills in South African municipalities. 

“The individual competence set is not there, and municipalities lack the capability in the form of structures and processes to get the work done,” Cloete said. 

Local municipalities simply cannot deliver on their mandate of providing high-quality services to their constituents. 

“There is a lot of goodwill and grand policies, but these are at the behest of administrations that do not have the capacity or capability to deliver.”

This has spiralled into a crisis of confidence in leadership, with citizens no longer trusting politicians to deliver on their ambitious promises. 

This makes it more difficult for politicians to engage with local populations to understand and meet their demands. 

“They are interested in the Merc and the perk but not necessarily in doing the work,” Cloete said. 

Cloete noted that disasters, such as the gas explosion and the building fire in the Johannesburg CBD, result from a lack of skills in local municipalities. 

The building fire “would never have happened if the government did not abandon the building and fail to enforce its own bylaws.”

Cloete also called the creation of a commission of inquiry “a waste of time and money” as it would not address the root cause of the disaster. 

Skills destruction at municipalities

South African Institution of Civil Engineering (SAICE) president Steven Kaplan shared data earlier this year revealing the tremendous skill destruction in South African cities and towns.

Kaplan said the most important thing to improve local service delivery and infrastructure is ensuring municipalities have the right people and skills.

In South Africa, local governments have lost many qualified and experienced professionals over the last 15 years.

Research by former SAICE president Dr Allyson Lawless showed that junior technicians had replaced senior engineers working in local government.

Her research showed that there had been a migration of skills, especially professional engineers, towards the private sector and global markets.

There has been a displacement of older, experienced engineers in municipalities between the ages of 45 and 60.

“In 2005, there was a balance between the senior engineers, technologists, and technicians at local government,” Kaplan said.

The situation changed dramatically over the last decade, with virtually no senior engineers left at municipalities.

The senior engineers were replaced by an abundance of new graduate technicians and technologists with no experience. Very few new engineers were employed.

“It means the young incoming graduates don’t have anyone in the workplace to provide structured mentorship programmes,” Kaplan said.

These programmes are essential for skills development and service delivery and guide new graduates to become productive professionals.

He said many municipalities don’t have a single registered professional engineer to guide the young graduates.


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