I live in Msunduzi, KwaZulu-Natal, where municipal services have been steadily collapsing. As a resident, I have watched the collapse with despair. For years the municipality has been hobbling along, struggling to deliver equitable services efficiently, but it has now crossed the tipping point on account of maladministration and corruption.
A huge proportion of residents, mostly black and poor, routinely find themselves without electricity or water for days, even months, on end. A recent skills audit of municipal workers revealed that many are not suitably qualified for their jobs, with the city splashing out as much as R207-million on consultants performing core municipal tasks between July 2019 and October 2020. Rank-and-file municipal workers — whose job it is to problem-solve and plug gaps in otherwise well-functioning municipal services — are now overwhelmed by cascading faults that have been called in and abandoned by all parts of the municipality.
The inequality of our circumstances has shaped both the human impact of the crisis as well as the humanity of our responses to it. I have seen first-hand how unexpected power failures trigger shrill condescension in suburban community WhatsApp groups over “corruption destroying our beautiful country”, and how delayed solid waste removal inflames the consternation of residents over the “grime” caused by “pickers, dogs and hadedas” strewing the contents of the piling rubbish bags “haphazardly”.
Those of us who live in relative privilege tsk-tsk and mutter about how “this is the problem with service delivery”, blithely unaware of the real problems in the communities right next door.
The ward I live in, like many in South Africa, has had its boundary line drawn to integrate a well-resourced middle-class community with an under-resourced community populated by historically disenfranchised people. This was the urgent and necessary intervention intended to shake off the effects of apartheid’s spatial planning legacy of segregation and disconnection.
Our ward councillor hastens to prove her responsiveness on the community chat and is always specific in her dishonour of the ruling party. But when I look at the kind of community engagement I see on our community WhatsApp groups, I am often left wondering about our fellow residents on the other side of the proverbial tracks. How do they experience our beleaguered municipality? How does poor service delivery look from their perspective? And do they enjoy the same kind of efficient and detailed attention we receive from this same ward councillor whose equal representation we should, by right, all share?
As a paediatric doctor in the public health system, I see the fault lines of segregation in our communities daily, and how the failure of municipal services is not experienced in the same ways by all South Africans. When I was an intern working in a regional hospital in a township outside Durban I would see it in the unconscious body of an otherwise perfectly healthy, perfectly dressed little girl with a perfect little hairdo, whose family had rushed her to hospital after she was electrocuted by a stray power cord.
My relative privilege had given me no frame of reference for what was meant by “a stray power cord”, or how this tragedy could possibly have happened. Was it the fault of the family for using an illegal connection? Or that of the power utility for not providing adequate electrical coverage? Or the government for failing to provide reasonable housing?
Today, at the peak of a pandemic that requires us to wear our masks and regularly wash our hands, I see it in the distressed eyes of the young mothers whose children come into my care to be treated for diarrheal disease, not knowing whether they’re going to be okay. A disease that is still one of the main contributors to South Africa’s under-five mortality rate and whose major contributor is unsafe water sources, like rivers or communal taps, which are still the primary means of access to water for many communities across the proverbial tracks of our district’s many suburbs.
One night at midnight six children were brought into the paediatric outpatients’ department because they had found a fistful of used insulin syringes on the side of the road and had used them in their game of doctor-doctor. My own children don’t even notice when the refuse removal is delayed. When my family’s water supply is interrupted we grumble and grouch, but have the option to go to our friends to shower. When a power substation blows in our community, the backup LED lights go on and take-away delivery scooters start buzzing. It beggars belief that we live in such totally different realities, and that inequality is only worsening the experience of municipal service failures for the majority of people.
More than corruption and poor governance it is, perhaps, our disconnection that is the greatest of our country’s ills; starting with our disconnection from one another as citizens. It’s in how little we know about the lived experiences of our fellow South Africans — next door, in the next suburb, and the townships on the edges. It’s in how our legacy of segregation and false competition for resources not only fragments the activation of citizen action, but puts us at odds with one another. It’s also in how we treat public servants as the agents of a nameless, faceless homogenous mass of corruption and incompetence.
I know this because I am a public servant. Just one among literally millions of people who are working hard to keep vital services going, even while we see the odds being firmly stacked against us. People who have bad days, bad months — even bad years. People who are grieving over loved ones or going through an illness, but still showing up every day to serve because we are committed and dedicated and capable.
So what is it that we can do? As citizens, I mean. What power do we really have to effect change in the face of the rising tide of municipal collapse? I don’t have all the answers, but think it starts with really seeing one another with empathy. Researcher and storyteller Brené Brown teaches us that empathy is connecting with people so we know we’re not alone when we’re in a struggle. Our country is faced with a lot of hardship, and it will probably only get worse before it gets better. But to conquer, it requires deepening our empathy and strengthening our connection.
It means taking each other by the hand and working together to make what we can work for all, and not just some of us. From neighbours filling in potholes and repairing street lights using their personal resources, like in my community, to the grassroots mobilisation of residents and ratepayers to demand better municipal management, to honouring the selfless, thankless work public servants do every day to keep delivering vital services to people.
For us public servants, we need to press on with our important work and regularly remind ourselves and one another of the unique force for good that we are. More than our salaries or working conditions, it is knowing that our work serves a higher purpose that helps us persevere, sometimes even through our burnout. But being able to persevere in trying circumstances requires our intentional self-care.
Most immediately, this means eating well, being disciplined about our rest and exercising. It is also speaking up and speaking out. Feeling disempowered contributes significantly to anxiety and stress, which in turn drive apathy, but reminding ourselves and one another that we are still able to effect the positive change we are passionate about is itself empowering.
In his letter to the church of Galatians St Paul writes one of my favourite exhortations: let us not grow weary of doing good, for at the right time we will reap a harvest. DM/MC