AIDS Cuts Swathe Through Councils. 17/03/09
Many ward councillors are dying young, probably of Aids-related illnesses, which could contribute to "ineffective local government" in future.
These are the conclusions of an Institute of Democracy in South Africa (Idasa) study by Kondwani Chirambo and Justin Steyn, who warn that their findings are a wake-up call for policy makers.
They found that the age expectancy of councillors appeared to be 51 years.
Of the ward councillors interviewed, 17 percent knew of a fellow councillor who had died of Aids-related illness and 59 percent said they had lost a family member, friend or relative to the syndrome.
The researchers also found that 285 of the 589 by-elections held between February 2001 and December 2007 had most probably been held because of the deaths of councillors.
Most of these councillors were 49 or younger and 70 percent in this group had probably died of Aids-related illness.
"We are talking about a large pool of people dying in just six years. To have lost them all is, I think, quite frightening," said Chirambo.
He said an estimated 28 000 South Africans a month died of Aids-related illnesses.
The calculations were based on work by the Actuarial Society of South Africa, and assumed that young councillors' deaths could be attributed to the same causes as those of the general population.
Their study concludes that "the high rate of deaths among councillors is likely to compromise South Africa's ability to build an experienced corps of politicians at local level. Similar impacts on the administrative system might contribute to ineffective government."
The shortage of skilled staff in municipalities, anecdotal evidence of high absenteeism, illnesses and deaths "are all indicative of a silent but worrying impression of institutional incapacity in South Africa's local government structures", the study concludes.
Interviewed, Chirambo said: "There is hope, providing the right measures are put in place.
"The age ranges and life expectancy of the councillors certainly are striking and the picture is gloomy. But it is not hopeless, particularly in this age of (Aids) treatment."
Municipal managers and HIV and Aids officers interviewed said HIV and Aids had increased absenteeism among all levels of staff, although there were variations across municipal boundaries.
There were "consistent suggestions from administrative staff that indicated infections within low-income grades", the study found.
"Although it cannot be pinned on HIV and Aids, the description fits advancing HIV related infections. This has key implications for productivity.
"As key players succumb to infection, effectiveness can be expected to decline, takingwith it accountability," the report says.
The research, published in the Idasa publication Aids and Local Government in South Africa, is believed to be the first of its kind in a hyper-endemic zone.
It was carried out in 12 municipalities in the Western Cape, Northern Cape, Free State and KwaZulu-Natal, and aimed to investigate how HIV and Aids affects political systems, rather than measuring this impact precisely.
The Department of Provincial and Local Government
expects municipalities to play a pivotal role in fighting the epidemic, but this is unrealistic, "given capacity issues".
"Municipalites in this study present a picture of desperation in terms of how they handle this - Policies are in place in some, but not all."
The researchers focused on 3 895 directly elected ward councillors out of 8 951 nationwide. They interviewed many of them, as well as managers of HIV and Aids programmes, of the Independent Electoral Commission, of municipalities, and of the Integrated Development Plan.
Steyn said Aids deaths would deplete expertise in local government, causing a widening gap between the electorate's expectations and the ability of municipalities to deliver.
"This has the potential to bode really ill. But like everything else, it is problematic only if government does not take action," Steyn said.
Neither the Health Department nor the SA Local Government Association responded to a request for comment.