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SONA 2022: A bold statement that now is the time to walk the talk

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Long before delivering his fifth State of the Nation Address (SONA), concerns reverberated in the political and social corridors surrounding President Cyril Ramaphosa, urging him to make conclusive statements, to have the heads of those implicated in corruption roll and to report on achievements and challenges.

However, the somewhat overwhelming dismissive responses from prominent opposition party leaders may seem as if they are not eager to engage with the SONA constructively.

Thus, it seems that no matter how well the SONA is delivered, there will always be those who dismiss it as a trivialisation of South Africa’s challenges.

There were times during one or two of the ‘family meetings’ – live broadcasts by the president, addressing the nation on the status of the COVID-19 pandemic and the regulations to be amended – that it was vividly evident that Ramaphosa was taking strain.

However, all this was gone when Ramaphosa delivered the SONA like a true statesman, without any visible signs of the ambush he was facing from within and outside his own political party.

In fact, the need to be bold and resolute about the government’s stability has never been stronger after recent attacks on several national key points across the country.

In a recent reading group session of the Department of Sociology at the University of the Free State, we discussed the assumed power of documents when conducting research.

The emphasis was on the need to avoid an over-zealous reduction of a research question to documentary evidence without considering the document’s terms (or context).

Similarly, it is interesting to note that since 2018, Ramaphosa has established 24 advisory panels, advisory councils, task committees and commissions.

While it may seem rather obvious that some of these panels have been designated by statute for a specific purpose, the assumed powers of the reports produced are sometimes the most difficult to unravel.

One such instance is the report of the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into State Capture, which was viewed as a magic wand that would root out corruption and strengthen the rule of law.

In the face of the complex set of interlocking challenges that are hampering structural growth and change in South Africa, reports from committees may provide an in-depth examination of issues.

However, there are at least two problems with policy makers who invariably think that these reports, including national addresses such as SONA, are solutions to the country’s myriad challenges.

First, a recent publication of Transparency International highlights how some governments are trivialising the results of its Corruption Perceptions Index.

The trivialisation mainly happens when leaders who have come into office with a strong anti-corruption narrative fail to make inroads against this scourge.

For example, in South Africa, pronouncements on corruption – one of the leading causes of the state’s failure to deliver on promises – have been so subtle that those involved in corrupt practices may not even notice the seriousness of their acts.

The other problem is the reluctance to change non-performing accounting systems that are susceptible to abuse.

South Africa has been trying to fix the puzzle of corruption long before the arrival of the Zondo Commission.

Therefore, acknowledging that public institutions and state-owned enterprises (SOEs) have been infiltrated by a criminal network intent on looting public money is merely a starting point but not a satisfactory explanation in its own right.

Moreover, it does not account for the government’s glaring failure to act upon the Auditor-General’s annual findings on irregular and unaccounted expenditure.

It would have been more desirable for the government to insist on better financial accountability than its over-reliance on commissions or advisory panels.

As the nation waits with bated breath to see how corruption is tackled ‘once and for all’, as the president announced, a further qualification needs to be made regarding the proposed disposal of the government’s non-strategic SOEs.

Estimates of global trends in privatisation indicate that privatisation activities are on the rise.

In South Africa, there is a great deal of evidence that a handful of politically connected individuals often benefit from the privatisation of government assets.

This raises important questions that are beyond the scope of this contribution – for example, how SOEs will be further weakened to hasten the process of privatisation.

Ramaphosa made a bold statement through his promise and commitment to revitalise the country’s weak economy, deal with Eskom’s unreliable electrical supply and bring about changes to security agencies, among others.

The extent, urgency and sincerity with which the government will implement these and many other commitments will determine whether we will ‘emerge victorious’, as Ramaphosa announced.

Mr President, we know the road ahead will not be easy.

But in many ways, there has been an improvement.

One possible solution to continue this trajectory of accountability and improved service delivery is to take full advantage of the benefits of the digital age.

A digitisation drive underscored by a consequence management approach may assist in implementing the SONA promises and commitments in a more efficient, flexible and sustainable manner.

In this way, South Africa will begin to ‘walk the talk’ against poverty, unemployment and inequality.

  • Professor Sethulego Matebesi is the academic head of the Department of Sociology at the University of the Free State

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Opinion

Time for AG to audit HR practices at municipalities 

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FOSTERING GOOD GOVERNANCE . . . Municipalities, including Mangaung Metro, are audited annually by the office of the AG

“We have been looted since the days of Bophuthatswana, and every five years a new mafia comes to loot us; we suffer from incompetence, corruption, and politics – it’s bad,” says a colleague about her lived experience in the Mahekeng municipality in the North-West.

The latter, together with the Free State, share the spoils of not producing a single clean audit in the 2020/21 Auditor General (AG) report.

The worst is the Free State, which has consistently failed to produce a clean audit over the past five years.

Despite the fact that the AG is religiously pointing out these glaring anomalies, municipalities have regressed over the past five years.

Municipalities heard but simply did not listen.

And this is our national shame.

The audit findings, however, come as no surprise, drawing a curtain on the municipal financial and performance reporting of the fourth administration.

To say that municipalities are in a state of perpetual depression would therefore be an understatement.

But let us get to the genesis of the AG report.

For the sake of good governance, municipalities are audited annually by the office of the AG.

At the completion of such an audit, opinion is expressed.

An unqualified opinion with no findings (clean audit) means the municipality has produced quality financial statements free from material misstatements and has produced quality performance reports that measure and report on performance in a manner that is useful and reliable and complied with key legislation.

Only 16 percent achieved this.

An unqualified opinion with findings means the municipality was able to produce quality financial statements but struggled to produce quality performance reports and/or to comply with all key legislation.

Only 40 percent achieved this.

A qualified opinion with findings means the municipality’s financial statements contained material misstatements that were not corrected before the financial statements were published. The municipality’s performance report and/or compliance with key legislation is also not adhered to.

This is true for 30 percent of municipalities.

Financial statements with an adverse opinion with findings mean the AG disagreed with virtually all the amounts and disclosures in the financial statements.

This is true for two percent.

A disclaimed opinion with findings means the municipality could not provide evidence for most of the amounts and disclosures in the financial statements, resulting in the AG being unable to conclude or express an opinion on the credibility of the financial statements.

This is true for 10 percent.

And four percent simply did not bother to submit documentation for scrutiny.

So, the audit opinion does count and gives an indication of the state of financial governance.

The March 2022 Municipal Skills and Capacity Assessment Study is yet another report confirming that our problems in local government stem from a number of known problems.

The number one problem, however, is people and behaviour.

But it is the brazen use of consultants that is an indictment of our failing skills development initiatives.

A staggering R1.26 billion was spent on consultants in one year.

And only seven percent of municipalities used consultants to bridge a vacancy gap, whereas 62 percent appointed consultants to provide for the skills deficit in finance departments.

The inability of municipalities to master credible financial reporting means that they continue to appoint consultants, without the vital element of skills transfer.

In total, 79 percent of municipalities reappointed consultants used in the previous year.

So, instead of using the enabling Skills Development legislation (in operation since 1998), managers simply take the easy route and employ consultants instead of growing their own timber.

To top it all, most of the consultants were not even used to solve complex accounting matters but were rather contracted for basics such as the recording and valuation of assets, which are the fundamentals of good asset management.

Added to that, the expected benefits of using consultants to enable quality financial statements were not always apparent, according to the AG.

So, despite the mandatory and discretionary grant system from the SETA, a ministry dedicated to local government, and the South African Local Government Association programmes, municipalities continue to decline at a too rapid pace.

So, what must be done?

The new municipal staff regulations come into effect on 1 July 2022 and are the perfect restart for local government.

Not only does it clarify the recruitment and selection process, but also sets the competency framework for municipal staff.

It further clarifies the skills development and performance management protocols that place managers at the centre of human resource development.

But the implementation of the regulations must be subjected and policed through an audit process akin to that of the AG.

Using evidence-based HR auditing will go a long way to ensure that the credibility and integrity of local government is restored.

Municipalities simply cannot be trusted to implement the regulations on their own.

They must be supported through evidence-based processes to ensure success.

And this is the challenge for the fifth administration – for politicians and administrators alike to behave themselves into a new implementation culture of excellence.

The institutions of higher learning, together with the AG, LGSETA, SALGA, NSG, and COGTA, must form a war room.

It is that big a national crisis, tantamount to a state of disaster.

There simply has to be better coordination and collaboration, as envisaged in the District Development Model.

But for goodness’ sake, let us get it right and lead – not loot.

Not through our fancy words and speeches, but through our deeds.

We must heed the advice of Peter Drucker, who said the best way to predict the future is to design it.

And may I add, to find the courage and patience to implement and see our collective local government dream to fruition.

This may very well be the last chance for municipalities to fix a broken system.

To restore hope and the confidence of South Africans.

To stop the waste.

To create pathways out of poverty, unemployment and inequality.

Decisive action is needed.

It can be done.

It must be done.

  • Dr Harlan Cloete is a research fellow in the Department of Public Administration and Management at the University of the Free State. His main research interest is exploring evidence-based HRD governance systems in the public sector, with a keen interest in local government. He is the founder of the Great Governance ZA Podcast https://anchor.fm/harlan-ca-cloete

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Opinion

An attack on student activism is an attack on our democracy

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Universities remain one of the most unequal and untransformed spaces in South Africa.

One may argue that the country itself is one of the world’s youngest democracies and faces many of the challenges that new democratic states face.

After all, the apartheid regime was “demolished” just over five quinquennials ago.

However, one may also argue that after 27 years the country should not be facing the same challenges it was facing at the dawn of democracy.

One of the most urgent issues that South Africa is facing is the failure to invest in active youth empowerment in order to enable young people to be active citizens who may tackle our country’s wide array of issues.

This is characterised by the attack of active citizenship by student activists at South African universities.

At most institutions throughout the country, university management has criminalised activism so as to easily get away with the failed project of transformation and social injustice.

The last seven years and a half have been defined by mass protests of the ongoing #FeesMustFall movement.

As we may all know, the #FeesMustFall movement is a student-led protest movement which began in 2015.

This saw a massive eruption of protests at universities across the country in a movement that redefined politics in post-apartheid South Africa and presented the evidence of a “born-free” generation telling their own story and leading discourse as well as action on transforming South Africa through the quest of free and accessible education.

After seven years, the concerns of the first #FeesMustFall generation of students are still very visible in society.

Although relative accessibility has increased due to a slight boost in public and private sector funding, many issues such as accessible, safe and secure student accommodation, food insecurity on campuses, decolonised university curricula and first-generation entry into universities still remain present.

But why has the #FeesMustFall movement lost momentum over the years?

Universities in South Africa as well as the government successfully quashed the movement by harassing and victimising student leaders and activists.

A 2019 investigation report by the Independent Police Investigative Directorate revealed that over 33 million South African rand was spent spying on #FeesMustFall activists during the 2016-17 academic calendars.

Many student activists also attested to their phones being tapped and their places of residence and those of their loved ones being put under surveillance during the period.

In order to win the fight against the #FeesMustFall movement, universities such as the University of the Free State (UFS) adopted strategies to intimidate and victimise student leaders.

In this way, they were actively infringing upon the right to protest which is enshrined in Section 17 of the Constitution, which states: “Everyone has the right, peacefully and unarmed, to assemble, to demonstrate, to picket and to present petitions.”

This is to be done peacefully and without weapons.

On March 30, 2022, UFS vice chancellor Professor Francis Petersen wrote an article titled ‘When a protest is not a protest but a crime’.

In the article, Petersen narrates the challenges faced by South African universities while strongly condemning student protests on the UFS and University of Kwazulu-Natal campuses.

On the surface level, it may seem as if this article is a genuine expression of concern about issues faced by universities throughout the country.

Unfortunately, for many student activists and student leaders, the article in subject is a manifestation of the continued attack on student activism and the victimisation of student activists at South African universities.

This article serves to outline the strategic and organised syndicate by the “old guard” collective, which seeks to crush student activism on all fronts on its campuses in order to replace it with prefect-like anointed leadership in student representation.

This collective includes government and university officials in different capacities.

They have used and are using different tools and tactics to quell activism on campuses.

As part of the fourth generation of #FeesMustFall activists, I have seen first-hand the unfair university managements’ response during peaceful demonstrations and protests at the UFS campus.

Private security companies are hired and they brutalise students engaging in peaceful protests.

It is needless to say that most universities face the same issues every year.

While we may attest that some of the issues leading to protests are sector challenges that have little to do with registration, most of the issues are operational challenges that are created by universities themselves in light of incompetence.

Issues such as on-campus and off-campus accommodation for students have been prominent during registration periods.

The UFS itself has only 5 790 beds on the Bloemfontein campus while it has over 32 000 students enrolled.

Very little has been done to fix this matter.

Accreditation of off-campus student accommodation has also been failing at the UFS for over three years.

Other issues such as verification of funding of students between the financial aid office and the finance office are always prominent every year and affect predominantly disadvantaged students.

These operational issues could easily be solved through consultative dialogue with activists and student leaders to find sustainable and efficient models.

But, no!

Universities continue to criminalise activism and harass student leaders.

The UFS has guidelines to operationalise the right to protest.

According to the said guidelines, “the UFS is committed to not only protecting or tolerating, but also enabling and indeed fostering protest.”

Yet, in 2021, the UFS took out a court interdict to ensure that student activists, including those affiliated to the South African Students Congress (SASCO), EFF Student Command and even the Student Representative Council (SRC) could not carry out their fundamental purpose of representing students views and protecting their interests.

Twenty-four students were arrested at a protest on campus and spent time in prison.

Although the university withdrew the charges in February 2022, the intention was not to serve justice against criminals, but to intimidate and victimise students and their leaders into silence.

On February 23, 13 student activists including myself were arrested at a peaceful demonstration regarding late allocation of students’ allowances.

We spent multiple days in holding.

Contrary to what Petersen claims, the situation on South African university campuses is not a situation of criminality.

It is a result of the old-guard tactics that have made it difficult for organised activism to continue, leaving students and their leaders with no option except adopting guerrilla activism for their voices to be heard.

Such tactics should be seen as nothing more than institutionalised vigilantism that seeks to undermine the highest law in the land through legal means.

Although Section 35 of the Higher Education Act, No. 101 of 1997, as amended, compels all institutions of public higher education in South Africa to have SRCs as part of their governing structures, they do not compel universities to have capacitated and conscious representatives of students.

For this reason, universities in South Africa are attacking and quelling all forms of organised activism in order for the SRC to be merely a box to tick on their campuses.

In this way, they can do as they please with the lives and future of students, with no capacitated student activists to keep them accountable or ensure sustainable transformation.

These efforts by universities are part of their fight against the #FeesMustFall movement, which continues to this day in many forms and shapes.

Stances such as those of Petersen are a danger to society because they threaten the fundamental principles upon which our democracy is built.

Such views threaten free speech, the right to education, expression and organised protest.

There is no question that student movements have played an important role in South Africa’s path to and development as a democracy throughout the years.

Organisations such as NUSAS, SASO and SASCO ensured that South Africa’s gross apartheid policies were kept on the agenda in international advocacy spaces.

In addition to this, the #FeesMustFall movement ensured that relative access to higher education is not only for the rich and privileged in South Africa.

In conclusion, institutions of higher learning that criminalise activism directly render freedom and democracy immaterial.

If solutions to the country’s sector problems in higher education are to be found, it will be through collaborative and sustainable engagements with stakeholders in the sector alongside student activists and leaders.

Any other means that claim to be putting forward solutions by criminalising the expression of those issues are mere criminality.

  • Siphilangenkosi Dlamini is an undergraduate student in political governance and transformation at the University of the Free State. A student activist and researcher, he is also the author of the book ‘Magic and Other Authentic Experiences’.

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Opinion

Time to protest against protests

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It is becoming increasingly difficult for institutions of higher learning in South Africa to maintain the delicate balancing act of finding sustainable funding solutions amid mounting pressures caused by rapidly altering learning and teaching environments, dwindling government subsidies and the massification of higher education.

And uncontrolled, violent student protests might just be the final blow that sends many tertiary institutions over the precipice.

There is no doubt that student protests have over the years played a vital part in South Africa’s journey towards and maturation as a democracy.

During the anti-apartheid struggle, student organisations such as NUSAS, SASO and later SASCO kept South Africa’s human rights violations on the international agenda through unrelenting campaigns and protests.

And more recently, the #FeesMustFall movement in 2015 and 2016 has raised important awareness around ensuring access to education for students from the lowest-earning households.

The recent spate of violent protests on some university campuses, however, seems to transcend the boundaries of what can rightfully be termed as “protest action”.

When students at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) and the Durban University of Technology caused severe physical damage and disrupted classes at the beginning of the year, UKZN vice-chancellor, Professor Nana Poku, condemned their actions in no uncertain terms as “organised crime”.

And he is right.

This kind of behaviour is nothing but opportunistic criminality in the guise of legitimate protest.

A few weeks after the violence erupted on campuses in KwaZulu-Natal, students on the University of the Free State (UFS) Qwaqwa campus went on a similar rampage, throwing stones at protection officers, vandalising buildings and raiding the university dining hall.

There are distinct differences between these acts and the majority of past student protests.

In most cases, current issues represent a much narrower interest than in the past, affecting only a certain section of the student population, and often revolving around the administrative processes concerning funding.

At UKZN, the main issue seems to have been students demanding to register even though they had historical debt.

At the UFS Qwaqwa campus, it was about a decision by the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) to pay accommodation allowances for students residing off campus directly to landlords and not to students themselves.

Apart from affecting a relatively small number of students, the “fight” was not per se with university management.

Universities South Africa (USAf) pointed out that many of the issues raised by students this year were actually sector challenges and fell outside the control of tertiary institutions.

Regardless of this, institutions regularly bend over backwards in an attempt to find workable interim solutions and making financial concessions to accommodate affected students.

Professor Poku relates how at UKZN the concessions made towards students with historical debts amounted to more than R1 billion.

At the UFS, apart from similar concessions, we also offered students allowances for food and books amounting to more than R71 million this year, while they are waiting for their NSFAS subsidies to be released – a major impact on cashflow management.

Despite these gestures of goodwill, a small group of aggrieved students still went ahead with violent acts, causing millions of rands of damage on campus and creating an atmosphere of intimidation and fear.

University campuses today are vastly different spaces from what they used to be in the 1970s and 1980s, as a result of drastic and far-reaching changes in the educational landscape over the past few decades.

Access to higher education has opened up and is no longer restricted to high-income households.

The total number of students enrolled at higher education institutions increased by almost 70 percent between 2002 and 2020, growing to just more than one million in number.

Coupled with that, tertiary institutions have gone through radical transformation processes, ensuring that they not only embrace diversity, but respect human rights and social justice through fair process and policy.

At the UFS, for example, we have had well-considered, comprehensive transformation over several years in all spheres of operation, enabling us to become an institution where diverse people feel a sense of common purpose and where the symbols and spaces, systems and daily practices all reflect commitment to openness and engagement.

We also have various initiatives to ensure that students are successful in their studies, ranging from tutorial programmes to language, writing and psychological support.

Policies and structures are continuously being implemented and reviewed to embrace social justice in all its forms, with deliberate dialogue opportunities and avenues created for raising concerns and addressing them.

At the UFS, student success is a social justice imperative.

Great care is also taken to involve our student leadership in governance on all levels, with a high level of student participation in all UFS governing structures.

Despite all the different recourses available to them, and a genuine culture of participation and caring cultivated on our campuses, disgruntled splinter groups in the student body still routinely reach for the most destructive weapon in their arsenal of options, namely violent protests.

These protest actions also often seem to jump the gun, as they happen in tandem with and despite fruitful, progressive negotiations with elected student leaders.

Not only is this incredibly frustrating – it disrespects the rights and wishes of the overwhelming majority of students, and completely challenges the notion of “negotiation and engagement in good faith”.

There are no winners in the wake of ill-considered, violent acts of vandalism.

Offending students are no closer to a solution – in fact, they may find themselves suspended and in trouble with the law to boot.

By disrupting classes and preventing access to campuses, they are effectively robbing their fellow students of the opportunity to work towards obtaining a qualification.

Affected institutions are impacted in their ability to provide quality education to students and in fulfilling their wider society-focused mandate.

On top of that, potential donors and investors in the South African higher education sector are discouraged.

The sustainability and very survival of higher education institutions are ultimately at stake, as especially small and medium-sized universities simply cannot continue to bear the financial and operational burden that each violent protest brings.

It has become necessary to take a tough stance against offenders who perpetrate senseless acts of violence and place students and staff members in danger on our campuses.

At the UFS, we have always been very accommodating towards protesting students, not only as a constitutional right, but our approach in dealing with student misconduct has a strong element of restorative justice.

But we have decided to take a hard-line approach against the offenders in these latest acts of violence and destruction – opposing bail and instituting emergency disciplinary processes against them, resulting in immediate suspensions and sanctions which could lead to expulsion.

We need to send a clear message that blatant acts of criminality will simply not be tolerated on university campuses.

We also appeal to political parties under whose banners many of these destructive activities are undertaken to publicly condemn these acts and to call their members to order.

Throughout the course of history, we have come to associate university campuses with arenas where free speech is encouraged, and social ills are pointed out.

This role should be cherished, continued and encouraged – “reclaiming” back the university campuses as spaces for discourse.

But equally important is the responsibility to use your right to freedom of expression in such a way that you do not violate the rights of other individuals or jeopardise the continued operation of the very institution you all form part of – and, by implication, negatively affecting the wider interests of the society it serves.

The role of universities is, after all, not only to provide good workers and innovative thinkers for the job market.

We need to cultivate good citizens, who can make a meaningful difference to society.

Teaching and encouraging mutual respect should be a vital part of any university curriculum.

By letting criminality go unpunished and not speaking out to these acts, we are contributing towards a culture of entitlement, where people readily resort to criminal acts when they do not get what they believe they are entitled to.

This cuts directly across what institutions for higher learning aim to achieve and bodes for a dangerous future.

  • Professor Francis Petersen is the rector and vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State

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