The recent report on local government by Auditor General Tsakani Maluleke is a timely reminder of the prevailing dysfunction in municipalities across the country, and the catastrophic impact that is having on all South Africans.

This is the word from Parmi Natesan, CEO of the Institute of Directors in South Africa (IoDSA), who adds that the auditor general is right to lay the blame squarely on the shoulders of municipal leaders – although she says perhaps we also need to be talking about professionalising municipal management as well.

“There’s a reason that King IV’s first principle concerns leadership because ultimately everything stems from what goes on at the board or council. Principle 1 speaks to the absolute need for ethical leadership, while Principle 10 deals with the imperative to delegate the council’s authority to a competent municipal manager on whom it can rely,” she argues.

“King IV’s sector report on municipalities further recommends that councils ensure they have access to ‘professional and independent guidance on corporate governance and its legal duties’ (King IV, p 85).”

The theme of the Auditor General’s Consolidated General Report is “Capable leaders should demonstrate change by strengthening transparency and accountability”.

The corollary is that we have now to ask whether municipal councils and audit committees have the right leadership of ethical and effective leaders, says Natesan.

What criteria are used to appoint municipal councillors and do we know precisely what competencies they need to have in order to discharge their duties properly? she asks, noting that, as the auditor general pointed out in her report, senior municipal management has been dilatory at best in implementing the detailed recommendations contained in previous reports.

Natesan concurs, saying that this state of affairs seems to be the result of decades of incompetence and even criminal behaviour. “However, as noted, the buck stops with the municipal council. Councils are gravely at fault because they do not hold senior management to account for how they fulfil their duties, and they should, in turn, be held accountable.

She says that, constitutionally, the national and provincial governments are bound to assist in strengthening and supporting municipalities to operate effectively (Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996, s154(1)). Section 139 sets out how, in extreme cases, provincial governments can intervene in local government.

But, says Natesan: “Given that these interventions do not necessarily seem to solve the problem, not least because everything is so politicised, are we now not overdue in simply professionalising local government?

“Municipalities are where most of the really important service delivery actually occurs – or doesn’t occur. As we seem to be entering a period of unstable municipal coalitions that could make the council’s leadership role even less effective, building up a cadre of professional municipal officials who have current and relevant skills, and who can be held to account rapidly via a professional code of conduct might something to seriously consider at this point.”