Deputy finance minister David Masondo has hailed the high court order compelling the national government to intervene in an ongoing financial and service delivery crisis in the Lekwa Local Municipality as a victory.
Masondo, in an address to the ex-municipal council of Lekwa municipality, said the Mpumalanga-based council would not be the last to have a court give the national government the right to intervene at a local level.
“While this may be the first order of this kind to be handed down to national government, I am confident that it will not be the last.
“The events in this municipality will in all likelihood blaze a trail for other communities that have had their fair share of poor service delivery and general municipal ineptness.”
On May 12, cabinet dissolved the Lekwa municipality, meaning the salaries for councillors will be paid until the end of May 2021. The Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs has ordered a stand-over of the bi-elections pending the local government elections later this year.
The Pretoria High Court forced the government to intervene after Astral Foods took legal action because it could not get regular access to clean water and electricity from the council.
The situation was so bad for Astral that in June 2019 it took the unprecedented step of warning shareholders that up to 40% of its production was under threat because of the water issue.
Masondo, who runs Operation Vulindlela, a joint project between the treasury and the presidency to push through economic reforms, says the national government is not blind to the challenges when it comes to dealing with problem municipalities.
“Lekwa is not the only municipality to have failed in terms of the constitutional and developmental mandate assigned to local government.
“Regrettably, 25 years into a new local government dispensation, after the introduction of progressive and enabling municipal legislation, extensive capacity-building efforts and increased grant allocations, there are 39 other municipalities in a situation as critical as Lekwa.
“There are also 163 municipalities in financial distress and 108 municipalities that have passed an unfunded budget in [the] 2020/21 financial year.”
Masondo says that while it was unfortunate that government had to be ordered by the high court to intervene, as it “goes against the very essence of our cooperative intergovernmental system”, it did provide an opening to do something different.
“But in any crisis, there are also opportunities. Opportunities to redefine what is acceptable and what is not, opportunities to remind ourselves of our duty to serve, opportunities that force us to rethink our approach.”
This new approach has seen appointment of an administrator, Johann Mettler, to “fulfil the legislative and executive functions of the council”.
Mettler is a lawyer by profession and has extensive local government policy and regulatory experience. He is also a former municipal manager at the Nelson Mandela Bay Metro and “played an instrumental role as the administrator in the intervention at Msunduzi Municipality in 2009”.
“Mr Mettler has been conferred with the necessary authority by the minister of finance to ensure a smooth and swift recovery in Lekwa,” said Masondo, adding that full cooperation will be given to Mettler in this assignment.