When the City of Cape Town’s mandarins produce their annual budget for public comment to draw attention to their commendable openness, transparency, and devotion to the interests of the ratepayers – the glow of self-congratulation is almost tangible.
For that reason, it is odd that so few citizens took up the offer – only two thousand of them out of a city population of four million. While some complained that the time given for public scrutiny was too short, even when extra time was given it made little difference.
Can Capetonians be so trusting of their municipal servants that they are willing to let them get on with it?
Is the principle of “If it isn’t bust, don’t fiddle with it” being applied by everyone? Are all ratepayers happy to see the cost of living in the Mother City rising every year, while potholes remain unfilled, or 100-year-old steel lampposts in heritage areas being replaced with gum poles, and these not even installed vertically?
Does Joe Citizen merely shrug when an old stone wall, once erected by a skilled mason is botched by someone without skill?
Does no one coordinate the traffic lights?
Probably the answers to such questions is “Yes”. The reason may well be that ratepayers have grown tired of complaining. But it is more likely that council officials either love it being so or think all is well because they are comfortably immune to economic realities.
Take the following statement by the Mayor, Dan Plato when he tabled the budget:
(Bragging about cuts in expenditure) “Among these cuts is a commitment that there will be 0% in the salaries and wages provision…”
This statement is not what it might seem for it does not mention the “notch increases” awarded automatically based on time served. Nor does it mention the wage demands of the various unions that all have a finger in the municipal pie and are demanding a lot more than 0%.
Then there is the arrangement operated by the South African Local Government Association that has wangled things so that even those employed by wrecked municipalities get the same percentage annual salary increase.
This allows Cape Town employees, even those enjoying multi-million salaries at the top of the municipal tree, to accept inflation-beating increases with clean hands and clear consciences.
So, the chances of a 0% increase all round for municipal employees (as private-sector employees may have to accept) are slim to the point of invisibility.
The truth is that while Covid -19 continues to take a heavy toll on private-sector jobs, especially those in small-to-medium enterprises, those employed by the State or local governments, are a protected species, immune to the realities of the economy on the back of which they all ride, but rarely acknowledge.
If this also seems harsh, how else can one react to that section of the City Budget that reveals on the one hand extremely generous debt forgiveness of those unable to meet the ever-rising rates and utility charges – while on the other, allocating millions of Rands to pay for private lawyers and debt collectors.
It may appear to be a generous recognition of the financial strains of so many households in the Metro area, but it forgets that the entire ratepayer base that funds the City payroll is under stress, and assumes that it can be fleeced like sheep for ever.
Without a growing economy, the present assumptions of the City budget are not sustainable, and not transparent. It is time these simple truths are recognised.