GUEST COLUMN Miriam Tose Majome
THE Auditor-General’s (AG) Local Authorities Report for 2018 makes for some serious, but disturbing reading.
It reports the state of financial management of local authorities and shows the extent of the gross financial mismanagement of public funds and the parlous state of human resources in local authorities.
Local authorities consist of city councils, municipal councils, town councils, local boards, and rural district councils.
The 95-page report is chock-full of evidence of gross mismanagement, fraud, negligence and general ineptitude by councillors running different local authorities. In other countries, the contents and revelations of the report would have been serious scandals with severe consequences.
Here, it is grudgingly expected and accepted that officials who preside over public funds may abuse the funds in one way or other. The AG’s report on local authorities is complimentary to the other reports on government ministries and parastatals which have been recently released, leaving the nation reeling.
It is apparent from the report’s introduction that many things are very wrong.
The AG’s slightly masked rebuke reflects the general lack of seriousness or ineptitude by councillors in their management of local authorities. The AG noted with concern that for the 2018 financial year, out of ninety-two local authorities, only three (Bindura Municipality, Tongogara Rural District Council and Marondera Rural District Council) had current (2018) financial statements audited and reported on. Seventy local authorities failed to submit their financial statements for audit.
We have previously discussed the role of councillors and noted the very low qualification criteria and standard requirements for the job. In Zimbabwe,
councillors have no need for academic or professional qualifications.
Their only qualification is to win elections for a job that requires sophisticated skills and expertise for policy interpretation and implementation. Councillors control and manage large sums of money collected from rates, permits and licence fees.
They also manage health and welfare decisions and facilities and amenities for residents, including managing very valuable real estate and lucrative pension
funds, among many other complex roles.
Councillor positions cannot be entrusted to people who are not qualified and skilled, yet this is done in this country without a second thought. Little wonder that we cry foul when service delivery fails.
Some exonerate the local authorities and blame central government for the general economic malaise, yet some of the failures are due to the individual deficiencies of elected councillors, who have absolutely no clue what they have to do except attend meetings and tow their party lines. This applies in equal measure to urban and rural councils and local boards.
Councillors are elected in terms of the Electoral Act and their selection criteria is set out in Sections 115 and 119.
No minimum academic qualifications are prescribed, other than being resident in the ward they wish to represent; be citizens and registered voters; be at least 21 years old and not have a criminal record.
The failure to prescribe academic and professional qualifications is problematic, because it trivialises the significance of local governance.
The AG noted with grave concern that the Harare City Council’s Finance and Audit Committee did not have a single person with finance and accounting qualifications or skills.
This is one example of fiddling about while Rome is burning – (Harare in this case) You would think Harare, being the country’s capital city with more than two million people and a large population of accountants and finance practitioners, would deserve more seriousness and intent of purpose than this.
It is unbelievable that the largest ratepayers’ funds in the country are managed like a halfway home in a desert.
In her own words, the AG noted that “Among the essential skills required in the Finance and Audit Committee are accounting/financial expertise. I noted that there was no representation of this discipline on the committee.
This expertise will assist in ensuring effective oversight role on the internal control environment and integrity of financial reporting’’.
Popularity with the electorate and guts are seemingly the only qualifications for the position of councillor.
This is the reason almost all the books of local authorities in the country are in complete shambles.
Local authorities are performing poorly because they lack the critical education and professional skills required to understand the complex legislation and policies they have to grapple with in running council affairs.
This mirrors recent reports that the Speaker of Parliament bemoaned with regards to the calibre of legislators and suggested that they should at least have some academic qualifications. It was reported that only 10 of the 270 MPs debated the Companies and other Business Entities Bill, because it was deemed to be too technical and complex by the very people making the law and selling it to the public.
Councillors should be conversant with reading and interpreting legislation, particularly the Urban Councils Act, Rural District Councils Act, the Regional Town and Country Act and all other laws. Acts of Parliament and Bills and draft by-laws are typically voluminous and complex and require specialist expertise to read, understand, interpret and apply the law in service delivery.
Popular party functionaries are easily overwhelmed.
Councillors have to understand and interpret council budgets, financial statements and by-laws.
The expectation is that they are able to make proper and informed decisions regarding council business.
Council work is complex and residents deserve more than mere sloganeers and career politicians.
Councillors are at the frontline of service delivery oversight. They formulate policies and budgets and oversee the implementation of tangible service delivery like water supply, sewerage, refuse collection, road maintenance and street lighting, among other day-to-day services.
These are complex and intricate tasks, which require solid understanding of what the work entails, even if skilled people are employed to do the actual work. However, councillors cannot oversee what they themselves do not understand.
The Finance and Audit Committee of the Harare City Council could not interrogate the accountants employed by the City Council because they are not qualified to.
The councillors were, therefore, completely unable to fulfil their key role, leaving the city’s finances completely exposed.
For a long time, the issue of the calibre of councillors has been a thorny one.
The often hostile and sometimes violent elections discourage educated and skilled people from participating in elections and taking up positions that require their skills.
However, before blaming the elected officials for their deficiencies, the calibre of the electorate itself must be questioned. What do we expect when we elect under qualified people to represent us at national level? We are still to properly understand and accept that we deserve the leadership we get. Next week, we will unpack some of the pertinent details of the AG’s local authorities report.