By PEDRO MZILENI
Makhanda resident Sive ‘Madala’ Gumenge recently argued in Grocott’s Mail (11 August 2020) that the recent collapses of the Eastern Cape local municipalities will negatively affect the education institutions in those regions. Specifically, he referred to the Amathole District Municipality where Alice is located and the Makana local municipality that hosts Makhanda, as two local government
institutions faced with challenges of maladministration, corruption, and poor provision of basic services.
Comrade Madala then goes further to underscore particularly the case of the University of Fort Hare that has found itself faced with the same challenges as that of its local municipality – maladministration, corruption, and substandard provision of quality services to its students. He particularly underscores corruption as the major problem that has visited Fort Hare. According to Gumenge, this problem slowly shifted from the local municipality of Alice into Fort Hare.
By extension, the predatory corrupt class that captured both the local municipality of Alice and Fort Hare University drove a consistent value chain of depleting these two public institutions of their resources – mainly through illicit procurement processes.
Gumenge then cautions that the same fate that has visited Makhanda’s local municipality could spread into Rhodes University and the neighbouring schools of that town.
Put differently, when the predatory corrupt classes deplete Makana Municipality of all it has, the looting spree will also gain entry into the remaining public institutions in the area – particularly these education institutions which seemingly remain the only functioning public enterprises.
Madala’s submission is broadly true, but incorrect when it gets down to specifics.
Corruption, wasteful expenditure
First, the reasons for the collapse of local governance in South Africa as an institution generally cannot be overemphasised. The country’s Auditor General for the past 19 years has consistently highlighted the high levels of corruption, wasteful expenditure, and inappropriate appointment of underqualified personnel across all levels of this institution.
Elected leadership is primarily responsible for this – both politically and administratively.
- Politically – because the municipal institution’s bureaucracy is overseen by the elected leadership of political parties who craft its financial architecture, then recruit and appoint the personnel fit for its strategic objectives. Political parties have not taken the weight of this responsibility seriously. This is particularly true of the ANC which leads the overwhelming majority of the country’s municipalities. The local government sphere has been characterised by political deployments that are grossly mediocre. It has been a site of vulturine forms of factionalism which breed plunder of public resources; high rewards for shady work performed by outsourced business syndicates; an environment of constant instability, including political killings. This is the kind of a political environment that took the life of Sindiso Magaqa, the former secretary general of the ANC Youth League.
- Administratively – because political oversight is in a state of crisis as I’ve indicated, the net effect of this irregularity is that systems of accountability, monitoring, evaluation, performance, ethical considerations, and law enforcement are all completely undermined. The municipal institution becomes a rent-seeking enterprise for a few to collect their monthly salaries and for the predatory business class to unremittingly make illicit earnings from unfulfilled contracts. Because the latter is in intimate contact with the political leadership, the whole municipal ecosystem becomes a refined ground for repeatedly bleeding the state of its resources at the expense of communities.
As a result, communities that should have been far better developed are faced with the same challenges they had before 1994: lack of water, electricity, sanitation, housing, and economic underdevelopment.
There is no political party that is interested in resolving this matter comprehensively and the obliteration of the country’s law enforcement agencies in the past 15 years has weakened accountability.
As institutions of higher learning tasked by the public to rollout consistent and world-class programmes of teaching, learning, research, and community engagement, Rhodes University and Fort Hare are severely affected by these inadequacies.
Without water and electricity, the University cannot have classes and utilise its technological infrastructure to drive research innovation and quality teaching and learning on a daily basis. Without sanitation, housing, and local economic development, the university cannot attract the best professoriate and the necessary talent needed to directly and indirectly ignite local economic growth and urban renewal.
These interrelationships between universities and municipalities are microcosms that remain understudied in the South African context – both from a productive point of view (municipalities as assets to universities) and the opposite (municipalities as liabilities to universities).
Economically and politically, universities are still understood as assets that belong to the domain of a national Minister who must utilise his/her leadership collaboratively with the higher education executive and student leaders to mobilise a political economy that will serve the macro-priorities of the sector – such as access, success, free education, equity advancement, anti-racism, anti-sexism, and social justice broadly.
In other words, universities and local government do not have a traditional working relationship – both from a strategic point of view and from a task-orientated understanding.
In addition, the sustainability matrix of universities as public institutions does not depend on local government; neither does the institutional design of universities allow local government to have any influence on their autonomous operations.
Importantly, universities are ‘accountability intensive’ – with a robust culture of tight management mechanisms, monitoring, evaluation, and auditing principles. From human resource appointments, financial management, procurement systems and examination control measures to research ethical obligations, universities have placed the value of their qualifications and brand reputations on instilling these highest standards of practice and human conduct.
It is nearly impossible for any illicit business class to capture universities for their own corrupt ends in such a tight working environment.
Of course, this does not exclude potential risks that universities can be exposed to.
For instance, the University of Fort Hare is in a state that it is currently, as far as its financial management status is concerned, primarily because, at one stage of its institutional life, it was occupied by an executive leadership that did not have any regard for the ethical measures I’ve outlined.
The necessary obligations were eroded for short-term gains – including the monitoring, auditing, and prosecution bodies needed to rescue the university.
Without these internal mechanisms in place, the corrupt political class that emanates from municipal structures, as Madala argued, would not have gained such a significant entry into the operations of Fort Hare.
These are the same weaknesses that the white capitalist class exploited under apartheid to gain entry into the fiscus of former white universities to plunder them up to the current epoch.
Our higher education system, for many years, has been bleeding resources made from the taxpayer to the monopoly local industries owned and controlled by the white minority in university towns and cities. These local monopolies are the same cartels that are beginning to emerge from the context of former black universities such as Fort Hare and they all carry the same mandate – which is to maximise their profits and padlock universities as permanent sites of accumulation.
None of these forces are concerned about the academic project that these universities are supposed to maintain for their intergenerational sustainability.
Moving forward, the student leadership of the working-class and organised labour must fight for the professionalisation of university structures. These structures must have auditing, accountability, monitoring, and evaluation strictly embedded in them. The recruitment of the best talent and experienced executive and professoriate needed to manage and lead these university structures must be a non-negotiable. A university that will produce graduates with the highest reputations and talent to serve the country’s economy and its people adequately can only be generated out of a well-managed university. In other words, a university that operates within the rule of law is useful for our revolution.
Municipalities then must be seen as strategic partners of higher education to generate the necessary urban renewal frameworks needed that will drive local economic growth and sustainable communities. These relations must be legally and autonomously guided for purposes of ensuring that both the municipality and the university share their talents and expertise to optimise the intellectual project to best serve society.
- Pedro Mzileni is a lecturer in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology in Nelson Mandela University, Port Elizabeth, and writes in his personal capacity.