Gambling with Public Funds

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Kae Matundu-Tjiparuro Recently, the Governor of the Hardap Region was quoted in the media as reading the Riot Act to local and regional authorities in her region. Should one join her or not in her crusade at this juncture? I am not quite sure. Hold on, don’t jump to conclusions! Lest you misunderstand me I am not saying our local and regional governance structures somehow and at some point do not need ironing out. Examples of a system gone wayward abound. One need not look further than to the concerns often expressed by the principal officers of the Ministry of Regional and Local Government, Housing and Rural Development at various occasions over governance – rather mis-governance – at these levels. I am just unsure whether reading the Riot Act to them is the remedy or cure that they may need. In fact, how has the Honourable Governor decided that what their malady (ies) is/are that need the remedy of a Riot Act? I am inclined to think that it is easy reading the Riot Act to the converted. Are these officials converted? If there are any converts among them they may only be a handful. And by converts in this context I mean those having had a basic introduction and induction to their working environment for a start, and disciplined in one or the other aspect of their work before being thrown in at the deeper end. In a nutshell, are these officials, both elected and appointed, equipped before being entrusted with the duties they are assigned, some of which are fiduciary in nature. I wouldn’t think this is the case all the time and for most of them. In that sense, what these officials need is more than a mere Riot Act. How can they make sense of this Riot Act if in the first place they are not qualified, however rudimentary and broadly defined this qualification may be. Yes, I am sure our principals would be quick to point out to the formal preliminaries often undertaken to prepare these officials, among them workshops and what-have-you. Obviously one cannot discard them but one doubts their comprehensiveness, especially in view of the fact that most of our officials may be coming from a zero knowledge background at worst. I would argue that such preparations should be thorough if they are to be meaningful in supplanting the scant qualities these officials already possess if they do at all. I think this is the crux of the matter and not so much whether a Riot Act exists and how often and loud it should be trumpeted or not. Have we been choosing the best on offer in any locality or region? The best in this regard does not only mean scholarly qualifications or truthfulness to whatever political ideals. In fact, in the eyes of most politicians or political parties, party loyalty, a euphemism for cliques, has often been the number one qualification criteria. The interest of the local community has in most cases been subjected to the presumed greater interest of the party and its big shots at head office, remote-manoeuvring the situation through local agents who are at the end of the process are rewarded with positions, as undeserving of these positions some of them may be. This has been the context in which the rolling out of governance to the local and regional levels has been taking place, a fact that political parties would not readily admit to. This is also the environment in which the Riot Act is read and applied. Out there in our localities and regions, we have people with integrity to occupy these offices and bring to these public offices and our people there the dignity, diligence, dedication, commitment and a sense of duty needed in uplifting these communities. Yet, such people are most of the time bypassed for political yes-men/women with little track records, be it in terms of serving these communities in one aspect or another, or in terms of having instilled the public with the requisite confidence that they can in reverse deposit their trust in them. This is not to ignore well-meaning officials in our local authorities and regions, but they are few and far in between. It seems meritocracy, however you may define it, whether it is in terms of academic qualifications, good standing and service, to mention but a few, hardly applies when it comes to electing and appointing officials at the local and regional levels. Certainly, elected bodies at these levels must reflect the diverse make-up of their constituent communities if they are to champion and carry these diverse interests. A healthy balance must be struck between elected officials dedicated to service for their communities, politically conscious, not with regard to party politics but local interests and commitment to service to these communities at the one end of the continuum, and good standing, which includes financial stability, at the other end. There is no denying that some of the woes at these levels of governance, particularly as they relate to the misappropriation of public funds by our officials, are induced by financial instability among some of our officials. We are living at the end of a double-edged sword in the sense that between the two strands of those entrusted with public affairs, the appointed and elected officials, none seems to be prepared well for the task and duties at hand due to historical legacy. It is a case of the blind leading the blind. One obvious disqualification for those wishing to assume office, elected or appointed, is failure to pay for services. If anything, this is an indication of financial instability, and electing or appointing someone like that to public office is not only gambling with public trust but also risking public funds. The temptation is great of him/her helping himself/herself to pubic funds to lessen his/her financial burden or either somehow cooking something up to write off his/her debt. The probability of one or the other misdemeanour is high. Yes, I agree that Rome was not built in a day but I do not think sporadic piece-meal administration of remedial doses is the answer. With hindsight one would tend to think that the seemingly slow pace at which the rolling out of governance to the localities and regions has been taking place is a blessing in disguise. What use is it to roll out mismanagement? Certainly I do not subscribe to the pre-Apartheid notion when we submitted in the face of Apartheid apologists that we had the right to rule and misrule ourselves. Let’s work at our own pace and according to our own agenda to roll out real democracy and not mismanagement to the regions and local authorities. If the time has not arrived for us to devolve functions to these levels of governance, it has simply not. However, the first thing must come first. This first is to ensure that those to whom these functions are to be entrusted are in a position to carry them out with the minimum hitches, inhibitions, and not tempted by material cravings to help themselves to public resources. In that event the Riot Act would barely be necessary. Ineffectiveness, corruption and lack of skills amongst council officials contributed to the mismanagement of public funds, which resulted in the non-improvement of service delivery, the Minister of Regional, Local Government and Housing then, JoÃÆ’Æ‘Æ‘ÃÆ”šÃ‚«l Kaapanda, stressed in 2003. He did not end there but added: The problems being faced by you are quite complex and will require systematic long-term support. Need I say more? There are simply no quick fixes. Neither is the Riot Act the answer. Merit is the guide. Service is the goal. Upliftment is the mission. Humbleness is a virtue. Craving is a vice.