‘It doesn’t have to be this way’ –Pappas’ message of hope

Political will in the face of strikes and go-slows, strong managers and directly addressing the real or manufactured obstacles in the way of good service are behind uMngeni Municipality’s reduction of its overtime bill from around R900 000 to about R400K. Mayor of the DA’s flagship municipality Chris Pappas addressed 100-odd Makhanda residents in the Albany Bowling Club on Thursday May 9, explaining the nuts and bolts of turning around a municipality from being severely dysfunctional to a star act.

“It is possible to take something broken and change it,” was Pappas’s message of hope to an audience weary of worsening road infrastructure, widespread sewage spills, financial distress and a water crisis now approaching a decade in duration. 

The processes Pappas spoke about could in theory be applied by any local government that had the political will to turn around the declining state of any small town in South Africa. 

But with the national and provincial elections less than three weeks away the DA isn’t bringing out its rock-star mayor for nothing. Pappas emphasised the party’s key election message: “The harsh reality is that if you want to make things different in your town, you have to change the government.”

Pappas explained to the audience why the DA’s victory in Umngeni was momentous and how it was achieved.

The party successively gained ground each local government election cycle and in 2021 won by a slim margin of 43 votes – a point he used to stress the importance of every individual making sure that they vote. He said that within two years, the DA-led municipality had turned around.

“Within seven months of taking over the government we had our first unqualified audit in many years,” Pappas said. He also said that 12 months after the party moved into the hot seat, the number of households receiving free basic services increase from 133 to 1 700, including 200 kw.h of free basic electricity.

Equipment to maintain and service the town’s infrastructure had been bought, to the tune of R33 million, including R7m-worth of machinery required to effectively manage the town’s landfill. Like Makhanda, Howick and Mphophomeni had suffered the detrimentasl effects of poor management of that facility for many years.

Alongside getting the basics of service delivery right, Pappas said, was tackling the roots of corruption within the administration. 

Instead of calling it a “hit list” (actual hits are a terrifyingly frequent reality in KwaZulu-Natal politics) Pappas dubbed it the “You’re not invited to Christmas” list.

Cadre deployment had to be tackled before any real changes could be made to the way a municipality is run.

“You start with the HR department,” he said. Then supply chain management. Once you tackle those two key departments, you can begin to break down those entrenched systems of patronage.

Using the term ethical compromise (“you can’t break the government”), Pappas described how the Umngeni turnaround had systematically focused, in turn, on compromised departments and processes.

“The evidence of [illegal activities] is everywhere if you are on the inside,” Pappas said. “Follow the numbers, because numbers don’t lie. Be robust, but without breaking the government.”

The first requirement was a strong civil service that is independent of the governing party. Citing the example of the City of Cape Town, he said the reason it was so functional was because citizens respected the administration.

“They respect it because there is a clear separation between party and state,” he said.

Alongside a strong civil service and separation between the prty and the state, Pappas said, citizens’ active involvement in government at all levels was crucial.

“Stop just talking about what’s wrong,” he said. “Get involved; get active. Hope is powerful but it’s not enough.

“Because it doesn’t have to be like this, it really doesn’t. You don’t have to be forever in reverse gear. We did it – you can do it too,” Pappas said to applause. 

Pappas was flanked by provincial leader Andrew Whitfield and Frontier constituency leader Kevin Mileham, who said that things would not immediately change for the better if a DA government were elected to South Africa or the province.

“However we would be able to use our influence in parliament and the province to intervene locally.”

  • This article was first published in Talk of the Town, 23 May 2024. The newspaper serving the communities of Ndlambe and the Sunshine Coast, with a weekly wrap of Makhanda news, is available at stores from early on Thursdays.