Local GovtOp EdPublications

Patronage and lack of ethics creates a culture of impunity in municipalities

By Dr Thina Nzo

Patronage, and its cemented co-existence within the bureaucracy, has become the Achilles heel that contributes to poor financial performance outcomes. This makes troubleshooting budget and treasury directorates in municipalities a mammoth task.

“Not much to go around, yet not the right hands at the till” — the 2018/19 Auditor-General (AG) local government audit report reveals that, indeed, the diminishing budget of municipalities is in hands of the wrong public servants responsible for managing the public finances required for distributing public goods and services.

The perpetual audit regression and continuous irregular expenditure have been repeatedly flagged by the Auditor-General since 2011. The AG report findings placed glaring emphasis on how R27-million allocated to build a sports complex at Metsimaholo Local Municipality was recorded as spent, yet there was only a fence and no building visible onsite. This raises grave concern about public servants’ ethos in a time of financial austerity.

This demonstrates a lack of interest in tightening internal control systems for compliance with legislation and enforcing legal sanctions. While the dire need to appoint competent and qualified officials in the budget and treasury, the supply chain, legal services and human resources directorates of municipalities remain unquestionable, the continuous deliberate subversion of legislation tells us that officials serving in these directorates are complicit and compliant in supporting corruption and patronage at local government level.

Public debates about State Capture and grand-scale corruption, implicating particularly politicians and their relationship with business, tend to overlook the significant role played by local officials in shaping and reinforcing the public service culture of clientelism. From senior- to junior-level managers in the budget and treasury directorates, these public servants can exercise bureaucratic power to execute and facilitate irregular financial transactions on behalf of the business and local political elites.

It evokes Crispian Olver’s book, How To Steal A City, in which patronage lays a precursor for corruption and financial mismanagement in municipalities. You may appoint competent and qualified accountants, but if these are complicit and compliant to the particularistic interests of political office-bearers, the public service cannot win against maladministration and corruption. In institutions where patronage is a foundation for mutually beneficial relationships, officials are in need of a politician/s for protection in order to secure a job and social mobility. In return, politicians expect support or favour from officials for economic and political ends. The mutual pursuit of economic benefits is characteristic of these patron-client relations between officials and their mayors, exco members and councillors.

On the other hand, economic relations between rogue officials in the supply chain, budget and treasury, and local business people driven by the need for private financial gain, introduces a different patron-client network. Political relations between officials with prominent political local elites in party structures outside the municipality are largely motivated by the ability to secure hierarchical political protection needed for facing legal sanctions and consolidating access to resources. […]

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