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Is the SA municipal model still relevant?

In South Africa, glaring disparities between municipalities and metropolitans on their efficiency and effectiveness in the delivery of services are widely known. In some cases, the more rural local municipalities are teetering on the verge of collapse. But all is not lost.

The article first appeared in ESI Africa Issue 4-2020.
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The structural problem of municipalities in the country is a long-standing and complicated conundrum. While the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated disparities, it also highlighted the relevance of municipal services in supporting economic growth. However, to be effective municipal managers, executives must consider the move to smarter operating and financial models.

Heed the call for technologically-enabled municipalities

The operational and financial challenges, amplified by the pandemic in various ways, have forced municipalities to adjust or face insolvency. It’s an opportunity to change operating models, prioritise efficiency, and increase the uptake of technology. To this end, various structures of government have taken up the call to drive the 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR). Various programmes and portfolios will be implanted to drive the country as a whole into the next revolution.

However, to date, only small strides have been accomplished and the full effects of the 4IR have not been felt.

Conversely, COVID-19 has created greater urgency to get national government and municipalities working together to expedite this journey. There is a definite need for an overall strategy to move municipalities to the next revolution with a key focus on:

• Internet coverage for residents as remote work and schooling become part of the ‘new normal’.

• Intensifying the IT infrastructure of municipalities, revolutionising departments such as human resources and eliminating the ‘paper element’ for recruitment.

• Upskilling the current and incoming municipal workforce to be able to adapt to the changes that the revolution brings. This also means municipalities finding innovative ways to retain critical skills in an ever competitive market.

Leading the ‘new normal’

Stellenbosch Local Municipality and the City of Tshwane Metropolitan have had success in rolling out WiFi to their residents. This is a model that should and can be replicated throughout the country provided national government and municipalities retain the communication lines that have developed as a response to the pandemic. Where there was previously a clear gap between the two structures, online meetings have facilitated better communication channels.

Nhlanhla Ngidi, Head of Energy and Electricity, at the South African Local Government Association (SALGA), stated that the organisation is also reviewing its annual performance plan to ensure that the services that they provide to municipalities are in line with the current need. For municipalities to respond to transitions, and for SALGA to be able to facilitate this transition by providing opportunities for partnerships in technology – such as smart grids and smart meters – there is a need to also relook at how technology can be used in conducting business.

The question still remains: Could COVID-19 be the catalyst for municipalities in the 4th Industrial Revolution? Admittedly, there are infrastructural challenges and more support is needed to move towards the revolution and beyond. However, one lesson from the pandemic is that by pooling resources to respond to a key objective, nothing is outside the scope of possibility. Hopefully, smarter municipalities will be the norm for South Africa post-COVID-19. ESI

The Digital Energy Festival hosted a by-invitation-only Municipal Leaders Forum (18 – 19 November 2020) with its strategic partner, SALGA, and the lead expert partner, Ntiyiso Consulting.