It's difficult as a community journalist to take on local politicians and officials. The municipal officials and council members are so interwoven in all aspects of society that the media need to speak to them on a daily basis in order to do our stories. Not that we always get satisfactory responses as the one-liner, "The municipality will not comment on this", is a stock answer.
On top of this we also run into the city leaders at local events where we have to rub shoulders in a reasonably amicable manner - difficult if you recently slammed them in the local rag. Journalists are also quickly branded as biased, and if you're white, racist. But here goes.
I find it hard to swallow that the director of municipal department who takes home R1,3 million a year can be called a public servant. Just like "military intelligence", "public servant" is fast becoming a contradiction in terms, and it just doesn't sound right that a 'servant' earns in excess of one million a year. Our public wage bill is a third of the annual budget - a mind boggling R587 billion.
The quality and capacity of some of these Directors - a very corporate title - begs the question: how do mere politicians - most who have little or no technical and business experience or training - qualify to influence decisions pertaining to the appointment of supposedly highly specialised personnel?
Politicians taking it upon themselves to decide on or influence these appointments is akin to tasking me with appointing the head of the George Herald printing press.
As a printing novice, the only possible interest I could have in choosing the operations manager would be to appoint someone who would toe the (my) line and for example close his eyes to missed editorial deadlines and the accompanying cost to the company in overtime.
Many more reasons exist why journalists should not interfere or have a say in the appointment of a printer. Why then is the appointment of public servants who have to keep cities and towns afloat, influenced by power-mongers whose main interest is climbing the political ladder?
In George we have just seen what happens when politicians interfere in the day to day running of the municipality. The wheels come off. At this stage the details of the reasons for Monday's raid by the Hawks on the municipality remain murky, but alleged political interference, self enrichment and the resulting lack of capacity are factors at play.
Although South African legislation sets the borders that should be maintained between politicians and officials, an almost impossible balancing act is expected of Municipal Managers who are often pressured by councillors to make payouts or award contracts that would favour the party or a specific councillor in the next election. Cadre deployment is rife and many councillors and officials have family members and friends who work at the local municipality. Of course you can't discriminate against family and friends, but the accounting officer - the municipal manager - must make damn sure these appointments are on merit and not along buddy-buddy or bloodlines. He has a tough job and is often threatened that heads will roll if he and his team don't bow to political pressure. And I promise you, if the politicians want to get rid of an MM, they will do everything to find dirt on him.
That's why the head of a municipality must be as tough as nails and act according to the very letter of the Municipal Finance Act. NEVER EVER, must he bow before political pressure or show any favouritism - because when the day comes that he has to defend his actions to a disciplinary committee or at trial, his hands must be squeaky clean.
The only problem is that Municipal Managers are in the first instance appointed by the council in power - and will they ever knowingly appoint someone who is impossible to manipulate or influence?
At national level Directors-Generals of government departments can no longer be fired by the minister of the department, as they now report directly to President Cyril Ramaphosa. This is good news as it removes a certain degree of political interference from these appointments and provides some stability. A new minister cannot just bring in his own DG at will.
But, while we can hopefully rely on Ramaphosa to take the interest of all South Africans to heart, what if he should take ill, or God forbid, die?
Then Deputy President David Mabuza takes over, and those in the know says his tenure will be a reign of terror that will make the Zuma era seem like a walk in the park.