OFTEN on the eve of local government elections, political parties are almost as passionate as missionaries in professing the nearness of local government to communities.
To be honest this belief in the proximity of the two is probably the only common ground to be found between different political parties at the time of Local Government Elections.
According to this consensus, Local Government is the coalface of politics, the arena, where in an ideal world, voters interact regularly with public representatives, and also where they vote directly for their representatives.
If this is true, does this sphere of government have a role to play in skills development and youth entrepreneurship?
For years, the democratically elected Government focused on eradicating poverty, creating jobs to move millions of South Africans out of unemployment and build sustained economic growth.
Local government has been regarded as pivotal in attaining growth and development objectives. In terms of constitutional obligations, local government is also required to play a crucial role in promoting social and economic development.
Because of their local economic development policies, municipalities have assumed a central role in the quest to create jobs, boost local economies and drive back poverty.
However, local government has its own problems, with poverty, particularly exacerbated by the stagnating economy, leading the pack.
Massive unemployment levels, a huge shortage of skills necessary to drive growth and development, an acute absence of administrative capacity and an ineffective implementation of policies are other culprits.
But what is the situation in 2017, given the country’s economic downgrades?
According to the respected and credible international non-governmental organization, Oxfam, poverty, inequality and unemployment form a triple challenge to South Africa.
Ominously in a research paper called ‘Is South Africa Operating in a Safe and Just Space?’ Oxfam warned that the
future of South Africa depended on the country’s ability to end social deprivation, manage environmental stress and enable its people to live in a space that was both safe and just.
Confirming what its generally being said about inequality in South Africa, Oxfam said that at 25% the country has one of the highest official unemployment rates in the world and was also one of the most unequal countries, with a Gini coefficient of 0.69.
Oxfam said over half of South Africans lived below the national poverty line and more than 10% live in extreme poverty, on less than $1.25 (R15.85) per day.
There is no need to guess the colour of the bulk of this group. While poverty does not distinguish between different colours, in South Africa blacks, women and the youth form the majority of those afflicted by it.
The Oxfam report said the South African Government was investing over 20% of its annual budget on education, but with poor results.
“This investment needs to be targeted to ensure that skills are developed that ultimately result in reduced inequality, job creation and poverty alleviation,” said Oxfam.
“As global and local environmental changes accelerate, it will be critical to have the best possible science, technology, data and monitoring capabilities in order to adapt and make the right decisions. For this reason, investing in technological and scientific education should be a priority,” the report said.
Internationally it has been shown that district and local municipalities can play a pivotal role in initiatives for poverty alleviation. Municipalities are also strategically placed to do long term planning in the alleviation of poverty, particularly where it is related to relationships with non-governmental organizations, community-based organizations and the private sector.
Being so close to communities, local government theoretically should have a bird’s eye view of what’s going on and also be able to identify, drive and implement programmes aimed at addressing growth and development challenges facing South Africa.
However, local governments can only make a meaningful and lasting impact if they function efficiently, see their involvement in communities as being more than collecting bills, and also find out in discussions with communities what they think is best for them.
Before local government moves into communities to enhance skills, it should, however, start with itself and finesse areas where there’s a dearth of skills.
High on this list should be improving professionalism, being courteous and helpful to the public, as well as accessible and responsive to complaints.
A change in attitude will filter down and be noticed by those who get services from municipalities. Once this stage is reached, Local Government can confidently launch big housing, road-building and other infrastructure projects.
As for the youth, the warning by Oxfam is sobering. They form the biggest part of the population and should be the country’s hope for the future. But unemployment is casting a huge shadow over them.
Introducing them to entrepreneurship, and making it a policy for local government to use their skills in economic development projects should be a priority. There is nothing more frustrating than adding to the skills bouquet of young people and then ignoring them. Not using their skills is a sure way of delegitimizing these projects, as well as adding to the youth’s anger and disenchantment with
Local government has a role to play in skills development, as well as youth entrepreneurship. But that role is alongside and not over communities.
Sources: Dr DF Meyer, School of Economics, Department of Public Management, Vaal Triangle Campus of the North-West University; research report by Moshakobo Johannes Moja for his Master of Business Administration in the Faculty of Management and Law
(Turfloop Graduate School of Leadership) at the University of Limpopo and an article by S B Koma of the School of Public Management and Administration, University of Pretoria, which was published in 2012 in the African Journal of Public Affairs.