A view from the inside

Former municipal officials dissect issues of corruption and integrity in South African urban development processes in roundtable discussion hosted by the Cities of Integrity project. In this article Christian Alexander summarises the key takeouts from the discussion. 

It was not the latest Eskom revelation or COVID-19 relief scandal discussed at a virtual roundtable panel discussion early last month to close out the 2020 Southern Africa City Studies Conference. Instead, a panel of former high ranking municipal officials, Moektetsi Mosola, Johann Mettler, and Crispian ‘Chippy’ Olver, joined ACC adjunct professor and moderator Stephen Berrisford to delve into the roles that corruption and integrity play in local governance of urban land use and development.

Manipulated regulatory procedures, beset by undue political influence and connections to private interests, resulting in huge private financial gains for a few well-positioned insiders; all three panellists were well-placed to discuss these and other challenges faced by local government in regulating urban development. As former municipal managers of two of the largest cities in South Africa, Mosola and Mettler were each ultimately responsible for the administration of urban land regulations and procedures in Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay municipalities, respectively. Olver previously held senior management positions at both local and national levels of government and has written two books on corruption and governance in Cape Town and Port Elizabeth.

The panellists all agreed on the crucial role municipal regulatory and administrative processes played in shaping South African cities and urban development, as well as their vulnerability to exploitation and manipulation. Olver noted that the property market in South Africa, whose value stood at R6 trillion (roughly $350 billion USD) pre-COVID-19, had increased by R1 trillion in just the past four years. Given the many ways municipal processes impact land value, from establishing zoning schemes and approving land use applications to building and maintaining roads and sewer connections, Olver suggested that each decision made in this regard had enormous financial consequences. Yet, unlike in other areas such as public tendering processes, the connections between governmental decision-making and private financial gain are harder to track.

As Olver jokingly put it, “If you are wanting to fiddle and do backroom deals, let me tell you land is a much better place to get involved in, just for those of you who are taking notes.”

Olver, Mettler, and Mosola agreed that there was too much private influence in many urban land use and development processes impacting decisions that should be assessed objectively in the public interest. Mosola and Olver pointed to the cosy relationships between private developers and their consultants on the one hand and public officials and politicians on the other, which led to influence and pressure on public decision-making. Olver called the “incestuous” relationship between developers and authorities in Cape Town “gobsmacking”, while Mosola recounted that in Tshwane  it was a common—and legal—practice for private consulting firms to poach public officials to bolster their influence within public departments. Mettler noted the intense pressure on mid- and lower-level municipal planners and other officials to go along with irregular or questionable processes, or at least not object, in the context of disabling and disempowering office cultures. Even where technically above-board, the political micro-managing of planning processes and the appearance of undue private influence exhaust the morale of professional staff, undermining their performance.

In the face of vulnerable land and development processes, opportunities for political interference, and high financial stakes, all three panellists called for stronger support for municipal planners and clearer boundaries between private and public conduct. Mettler and Mosola both emphasised the role that ethical leadership and accountability played in setting standards within institutions, arguing that senior leadership should seek to insulate professional staff from political interference. Mosola also noted that local governments had a responsibility to support planners in their professional development, training, and accreditation, for example, by both requiring and sponsoring their planners’ professional association memberships. Olver believes that planning associations themselves should act as stronger advocates on behalf of their members and the profession.

None of the panellists believed that more regulation was the answer, as processes could always be undermined if individuals with power over those processes allowed for it. As Mosola put it, “a transparent system, run by people without integrity, it’s equally corrupt.” While transparency serves an important purpose, Mettler and Olver agreed that fostering and supporting ethical decision-making was just as critical to making progress against corruption. Olver argued that increasing the red tape intended to stem corruption in South Africa had failed to serve its purpose, and that increased regulation may even encourage corruption. While procedures are important, so too is the manner of their execution.

YouTube video

The roundtable discussion, a video record of which is available here, is part of ACC’s Cities of Integrity urban research programme, which is considering the role professional integrity plays in addressing corruption in planning and urban development. The programme, funded by the U.K. Aid through the Global Integrity Anti-Corruption Evidence initiative, is specifically assessing integrity in South Africa’s and Zambia’s planning professions.