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Going “Back To Normal” Is Not An Option – COVID-19 And Local Government

washing hands

We will not “go back to normal”. It is time to reset to 00:00:00 and start building a better society. The question is how.

Going forward differently is essential. How that will happen is unclear.

“So no, I don’t want us to return to normal. I want us to use this as an opportunity to change, to create systems and social structures that create deep and lasting equity and a world where we work together for the common good. One can dream, right? If anything, this crisis should teach us that we are all connected.” – Anne Price1

Navigating the new normal

If anyone thought life would go “back to normal” after the lockdown ends, perhaps with some slight changes, they were wrong. Very wrong. The end of the initial extended lockdown will see us entering an uncertain period of phased restrictions and graded regulations, based on emerging evidence of where, when and how fast the COVID-19 virus spreads. 

At a time when most of South Africa’s middle and upper economic classes are coming to terms with the shock that life as we knew it is history, that times are tough now. And will be even tougher as the crisis unfolds, In its aftermath, those who are less fortunate and are familiar with economic hardship may hope that government responses to COVID-19 may be a shimmer of hope that a long-neglected service delivery crisis may be taken more seriously in future. 

Upscaled service delivery under the COVID-19 state of disaster

Under the current disaster management regulations, the burden on local government to respond quickly is evident. Amongst the plethora of other things that have to be implemented under the disaster management regulations, Municipalities are, for example, directed to provide water and sanitation services and to make immediate plans where these services are not generally available. Such as in high population density settlements, rural communities and informal settlements. And to provide “other appropriate means, like water tankers, boreholes and storage tanks in water constrained communities that have limited access to municipal water supply”2

Interestingly, a review by Van Niekerk (2014)3 of the South African Disaster Management Act No. 57 of 2002 and the National Disaster Management Policy Framework of 2005, pointed out that while this policy framework “placed South Africa at the international forefront by integrating disaster risk reduction into all spheres of government through a decentralised approach”, a state of good practice had not been achieved at the time.

Van Niekerk (2014) was of the view that the absence of clear guidelines to local municipalities was one of the weakest aspects of the Act and Framework. “A significant finding of the research is the emphasis placed by all respondents on the silence of the DMA and NDMF with respect to the exact role and responsibility of local municipalities in South Africa (van Niekerk, 2014: 871 – 872). 

Government response

Now, with an actual national state of disaster in action, Local Government is guided by Government Notices4 from the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (COGTA), and the overarching guidance of the National Command Council under the leadership of President Cyril Ramaphosa.

The responsibility placed on Premiers, Members of Executive Councils (MECs) responsible for local government in the nine provinces and Mayors and Traditional Leaders institutes to implement the regulations, and SALGA’s responsibility to disseminate information, support municipalities and advocating for the interests of municipalities is highlighted in a recent Local Government Bulletin published by the Dullah Omar Institute5.

There has, however, been some questions regarding the composition and powers of the National Command Council6. “They7 said, among others, the command council ‘appears to us to constitute a centralisation of power that is impermissible under the Disaster Management Act’.”. The establishment and set-up of the command council was also questioned: “…problem is that the NCC only consists of 19 ministers; where are the remaining ministers?”.

Some concern has also been voiced about the powers given to Municipal Managers during the lockdown. According to De Visser and Chingwata8, the disaster regulations change the constitutionally regulated system of delegation in municipalities: “They (the regulations) instruct each municipality to make sure that all decisions that would normally require the approval of the council, a committee of the council, or the mayor (whether executive or not), will now be taken by the municipal manager.”

While the regulations only allow Municipal Managers to make decisions that “cannot wait until after the lockdown”, De Visser and Chingwata cautions that decisions taken by Municipal Managers under the current dispensation will have to be reported and ratified in the first Council or relevant Committee meeting. And that elected representatives have to continue to exercise oversight over the executive and the administration during the lockdown, and that the COVID-19 disaster should not ever become an “excuse to do away with democracy”. 

Cape Town town hall

Silver lining

Soon after the declaration of the state of disaster in March 2020, the South African Local Government Association (SALGA) has given municipalities a pat on the back, for “adhering to the range of directives issued by the Minister of COGTA in direct response to the COVID-19 pandemic”. And continued to “call on Executive Mayors and Mayors, working closely with the municipal troika, provincial and national government public office bearers, to play their role and assist the nation in curbing the spread of COVID-19.”9

In some media reports, the upscaled COVID-19 service delivery to under-serviced communities was hailed as “a silver lining” in the crisis. Others pointed out that “it is too soon to say whether – or the extent to which – the Covid-19 emergency makes immediately possible what has been impossible for the previous 26 years” (Rudin, 2020)10.

In the same article, Rudin refers to alarming figures in the Department of Human Settlements’ Master Plan, launched in November 2019: ”Buried on page 400 of her [Minister Lindiwe Sisulu’s] report was the admission: ‘The current percentage of the population receiving reliable water services [is] lower than it was in 1994.’ This means that more than 5.3-million households and 21-million people don’t have clean water, and 14-million people not having safe sanitation. Rectifying these shameful infrastructural deficits almost 26 years after apartheid would not only take a further 10 years but would cost R898-billion’, she said’.”

Sustainability of the current response may be unrealistic

The severity of the current crisis is such, both in terms of the extent of the crisis and the rapid pace at which it develops; and its potential direct impact on loss of life, that the government has no choice, but to do everything it can to assist vulnerable and under-serviced groups. In a highly uncertain situation, there is an appreciation for what is being done, but there are multiple questions on sustainability and the future.

There is no certainty on the duration of the additional support that is being provided at present. Will it last for the duration of the pandemic? And how long will it take for South Africa to get COVID-19 under control? Does the country have the resources to sustain this level of support during the pandemic? Are all vulnerable communities reached? 

Perhaps more importantly, are questions regarding the post-COVID-19 phase. It may not be possible to provide water trucks and portable sanitation for an indefinite period. But what then? How will the transition be mediated? 

municipal deliveries

Municipal service delivery, capacity and accountability crisis

The local government service delivery, capacity and accountability crisis has been with us for decades, and despite many capacity-development plans, turnaround strategies, and other initiatives, the situation remains dire.

When Auditor-General (AG), Kimi Makwetu released municipal audit results for the 2017/18 financial year mid-2019, the headlines read: “Auditor-general reveals shocking state of South Africa’s municipalities”11. This BusinessTech report highlighted various performance deficiencies regarding infrastructure, and pertaining to water and sanitation the following was noted: 

  • 48% of municipalities did not have a policy or an approved policy on water maintenance; 
  • 29% did not assess the condition of water infrastructure; 
  • Water losses were above 30% at 39% of municipalities; 
  • Water losses were not disclosed at 9% of municipalities;  
  • 49% of municipalities did not have a policy or an approved policy on sanitation and maintenance; and 
  • 31% did not assess the condition of sanitation infrastructure.

Audit outcomes

In addition to service delivery constraints, municipalities have been struggling with accountability and governance issues for many years. The same BusinessTech report quotes Makwetu as saying that “deteriorating audit outcomes shows that various local government role players have been slow in implementing, and in many instances even disregarded, the audit office’s recommendations…”. This means that “the accountability for financial and performance management continues to worsen in most municipalities”. 

The Auditor-General of South Africa (AGSA) audit of for the 2017/18 financial year showed significant regression in audit results12:

  • Out of the 257 municipalities and 21 municipal entities audited, the audit outcomes of 63 were worse than in the previous year, while only 22 improved; 
  • Only 18 municipalities have received clean audits, and this is 33 less than in the previous year; 
  • The percentage of unqualified opinions on the financial statements of municipalities decreased from 61% to 51%, and according to the AG but the quality of the financial statements “was even worse” than in the previous year; 
  • Only 19% of the municipalities were able to provide financial statements “without material misstatements”; and 
  • 65% of the municipalities that produced performance reports, had “material flaws” in their reports, and that these reports were, therefore “not credible enough for the council or the public to use”.


In the committee discussion, it was mentioned that deteriorating accountability had a detrimental impact, not only on the financial health of municipalities but also on service delivery and municipal infrastructure maintenance. The committee discussion highlighted several factors that contributed to this situation, amongst them lack of consequences for transgressions and irregularities, and the high number of municipal managers and Chief Financial Officers (CFOs) who were in acting positions. 

Some municipalities are doing well. Some are consistently achieving clean audits despite having the same challenges as their under-performing counterparts; and the AG mentioned that best practices at well-performing municipalities included stable leadership, commitment to a strong control environment and effective governance. Such municipalities also took audit action plans seriously and proactively addressed audit findings and emerging risks. 

Municipal finances

Already before the COVID-19 crisis, various challenges with municipal finances were discussed in the NCOP Select Committee on Finance. Following a briefing from National Treasury on the state of local government and financial management (status as at 30 June 2018)13, National Treasury officials reported that more municipalities found themselves in “financial distress”: 125 municipalities in 2017/18 (almost half of all), compared to 95 in 2012/13.

This was due to more municipalities approving unfunded budgets, coupled with a seeming inability to collect revenue. The impact on municipal creditors was that municipalities were unable to pay them within the required 30-day period. In addition, “51% of municipalities had overspent their operating budget, and 36% had overspent their capital budgets.14”.

On the positive side, it was reported that “municipalities closed the 2018/19 financial year with a positive cash balance of R50.1 billion”, and that the major contributors were the metros and local municipalities. However, already then, with the exception of the metros, municipalities had been experiencing an increase in creditors, and this, together with non-payment by consumers were increasing financial pressures. 


Accountability in a state of disaster

Irrespective of these concerns, it can be agreed that the local government is at the forefront of responding to the implications of the social and economic implications of the crisis triggered by the pandemic. The need for local government to respond swiftly to a rapidly-changing landscape in the time of the pandemic puts the spotlight on accountability and emphasises the importance of a well-functioning local government sphere, and inter-governmental structures.

The need for accountability in a state of disaster should not be forgotten. In this regard, Van Niekerk (2014) pointed out that a robust monitoring and evaluation system should accompany the NDMC, covering all aspects of disaster risk management, with feedback loops that enable corrective actions. 

COVID-19 and recovery plans

By mid-May, three metropolitan municipalities Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini , were applauded by the Chairperson of the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs for presenting their plans to combat the spread of coronavirus (Covid-19) in their cities, as well as their recovery plans to the committee. 

The committee recognised the cities’ efforts regarding initiatives to provide food and shelter to homeless people and to sanitise public spaces and transport hubs. At the same time, the responsibility of cities to be transparent and accountable for the spending of COVID-19 emergency funds was emphasised15.

Future prospects for local government

The COVID-crisis is showing us exactly how important local government is. However, it can be foreseen that the local government will be in a weaker financial state than before.  In some instances, the current crisis has presented sterling examples of joint efforts and collaboration across divisions of class, race, creed and many other divisions.

This is what gives hope in a time when it is not clear how the terrain of heightened need and expectations coupled with more limited resources will be navigated in future. Amidst these challenges, the opportunity exists to start afresh and create a new normal, which may be a more equal society, where access to basic services is permanently improved in an accountable manner. 


[1] There are words I really hate right now

[2] COGTA COVID-19 Disaster Response Directions, 2020

[3](PDF) A critical analysis of the South African Disaster Management Act and Policy Framework

[4] Government Notice 43291, 7 May 2020.

[5] Municipalities and COVID-19: A summary and perspective on the national disaster management directions

[6] Lawyers mull action on powers of Covid-19 National Command Council

[7] Advocates who questioned the powers of the COVIC-19 National Command Council

[8] Municipalities and COVID-19: What the national disaster management directions mean for municipal governance

[9] SALGA News

[10] Covid-19 has a silver lining – The Mail & Guardian

[11] Auditor-general reveals shocking state of South Africa’s municipalities

[12] Ibid.

[13] This briefing covers the same period as that referred to in the above-mentioned AGSA report.

[14] State of Local Government Finances and Financial Management: National Treasury briefing

[15] Three metros reveal Covid-19 response plans