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18 October 2017 16:53 (South Africa)
Opinionista Steven Boykey Sidley

State of municipalities: A smouldering keg under national politics

  • Steven Boykey Sidley
    steven-sidley.jpg
    Steven Boykey Sidley

    Steven Boykey Sidley has divided his adult life between the USA and South Africa. He has meandered through careers as an animator, chief technology officer for a Fortune 500 company, jazz musician, software developer, video game designer, private equity investor and high technology entrepreneur. He currently lives in Johannesburg with his wife and two children. Entanglement, his first novel, was sparked by a whiskey-fuelled dinner party debate and Stepping Out is his second novel. Steven’s third novel, Imperfect Solo, released in February 2014. Entanglement was awarded the 2013 UJ Debut Prize and was shortlisted for the Sunday Times Fiction Prize. Stepping Out was shortlisted for the UJ Main Fiction Prize in 2014

The deformations and illnesses in local services have moved smoothly from fractured to shattered. Mangled and irresolvable municipal bills, tyre-shredding potholes, dribbles from faucets, functionless street lights, snarled traffic jams at broken robots, lost building plans and title deeds, sewage crises, poisoned water tables, uncollected garbage, endless queues at unclean and peeling municipal offices ending at sullen officials staring at computers that are frequently “down”.

Not too many years ago, in another life, I was retained as a consultant by a certain municipality to assist in taking charge of a division whose service delivery was both central to their mandate and, well, largely broken. I was reporting to senior executive structures, so I had authority to dig quite deep.

Within one day of arriving, and asking some questions of junior staff (always ask the junior staff, I was once taught, that is where you hear the truth) it became evident that corruption was endemic, part of the DNA of this critical division. Large vendors had set up camp at the offices, taking directors and managers out for lunch and drinks and making deals that enriched everybody but the taxpayers on the ground who would eventually foot the bill. Policies to prevent financial malfeasance were simply ungoverned and sidestepped. The con was visually evident too. There were those attired in clothes befitting a lower management civil service salary, arriving by taxi every morning and swimming against the tide. And then there were those in Armani suits and driving Mercedes and working 4-hour days.

I found endless evidence of chicanery, but I was not hired as an investigator, it was not my remit. So we duly reported our findings up the chain of management, where they disappeared into a very large pothole, and I continued with the job I was hired to do.

For most of our lives local elections were of little interest. Few knew the candidates, few understood the boundaries of municipal services, the whole thing seemed not worth the effort, even if you knew where the polling stations were. Local elections were barely a distraction, a few column inches on page four of the city newspaper.

But then a number of things happened, and they have converged on 2016 like the proverbial perfect storm.

The first is that the deformations and illnesses in local services have moved smoothly from fractured to shattered. Mangled and irresolvable municipal bills, tyre-shredding potholes, dribbles from faucets, functionless street lights, snarled traffic jams at broken robots, lost building plans and title deeds, sewage crises, poisoned water tables, uncollected garbage, endless queues at uncleaned and peeling municipal offices ending at sullen officials staring at computer that are frequently “down”.

I do not know why these services lie in shards, but I suspect that after the municipal budgets have been filtered through grasping hands there is simply no money left to do the jobs for which these funds were allocated. And redirecting money takes time and effort – one wonders how much productive time is being used to gild the lilies.

The second is the emergence of an opposition now differentiated by intent rather than race, bolstered by legacy rather than promise. The DA can point to many Cape Town successes and shrieky nonsense about the “party of the oppressor” now look more like a parody than a political positioning, with black candidates staring out from DA posters nationwide.

And third, front and centre, is the proxy vote on the Zuma-led national party. There is a direct line from the breathtaking multibillion rand crookery up on high (with the silent consent and complicity of its once proud officers) to the 10% price uplift on an order of stationery in some small municipality so that someone can bolster a salary. No accountability up there surely emboldens all but the morally pure down here.

And sitting like a smouldering keg of fuel under all of this is the certain knowledge of all involved – the ANC, the DA, the EFF – that a friendly and efficient voice at the end of a toll-free line to a municipal call centre with a hold time of 30 seconds to quickly unravel a small but nagging problem with a local sewage pipe will ensure a swift and sticky switch in party loyalty, with the certainty of being played out again in the next national elections.

It is an old cliche that all politics is local. To which we should add, local politics has now become the tail that will wag the national dog. DM

  • Steven Boykey Sidley
    steven-sidley.jpg
    Steven Boykey Sidley

    Steven Boykey Sidley has divided his adult life between the USA and South Africa. He has meandered through careers as an animator, chief technology officer for a Fortune 500 company, jazz musician, software developer, video game designer, private equity investor and high technology entrepreneur. He currently lives in Johannesburg with his wife and two children. Entanglement, his first novel, was sparked by a whiskey-fuelled dinner party debate and Stepping Out is his second novel. Steven’s third novel, Imperfect Solo, released in February 2014. Entanglement was awarded the 2013 UJ Debut Prize and was shortlisted for the Sunday Times Fiction Prize. Stepping Out was shortlisted for the UJ Main Fiction Prize in 2014

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