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What have you done for me lately? Local elections the first step in asking difficult questions in our young democracy

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Ismail Lagardien is a writer, columnist and political economist with extensive exposure and experience in global political economic affairs. He was educated at the London School of Economics, and holds a PhD in International Political Economy.

It is at the local level where we may measure in material terms the successes and failures of governance. Local government is precisely a time to be honest — never mind the revolutionaries, the gradualists or the free marketers. Now is the time to ask: What have you done for me lately, and can I trust you to do better the next time around?

It’s official. The country will go to the polls on 1 November to vote in 2021’s local government elections. There’s no use in complaining that electioneering, mass meetings and voting people standing in line will be superspreaders. Nobody will listen. And those who will listen believe, like those who have always considered South Africa as exceptional, that we will beat Covid-19. They may be right. At the time of writing, there is a downward curve, or at least a levelling out of infection numbers and deaths, with an increase in vaccinations.

Voters should be clear about their choices when they head to the polls. Some politicians may say “we liberated you”, but you have every right to ask: What have you done for me lately? Others may bang on about taking back the land, or White Monopoly Capital, but the voter has every right to ask: What have you done for me lately? Yet another group may point to their clean linen, but the voters may ask: What have you done for me lately?

The point here is that municipal elections are, as the tired old phrase goes, where the rubber hits the road. It is about where and how you live. It is about whether you have running water or a reliable supply of electricity and a functioning sewerage system. It is about whether your streets are cleaned, and whether rubbish is collected regularly. It is about the availability of libraries, functioning traffic lights, local healthcare facilities and, perhaps most importantly, it is about community safety.

Sure, some of these public goods and services are heavily dependent on national departments, but it is at the local level where distribution happens. Local government is where elected officials are meant to get things done.

South Africa is a terribly fractious country. If there is a pothole or a dysfunctional sewer in Okiep, President Cyril Ramaphosa is blamed. If there is a shortage of housing, and people in the precariat scavenge for food, push wobbly shopping trolleys filled with what some of us consider to be junk, “white monopoly capital” or “white privilege” is blamed. If the streets are cleaned in Fresnaye, it is said the Democratic Alliance looks after its own.

There may be a sliver of truth in some of those claims, but Ramaphosa does not micromanage the country, Malema and Meshoe may not even have representatives in Okiep or Kakamas.

Forget Ramaphosa, Malema or legends of the past

For most of the past 30 years, or at least since the Reagan-Thatcher revolution and notwithstanding the promises and prospects of the decade of globalisation (1990s), inequality has spun out of control. Between the East Asian Crisis of 1997, and the global crisis of 2008, the world has been turned upside down. Altogether, we may feel like the world is running away from us and we are no longer in control, at the local level citizens still have a say. This makes it more important for local communities to vote for their most urgent daily needs and requirements to live a full life and build prosperous and stable communities with high levels of trust among citizens.

Let’s be honest, Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Adam Smith, Milton Friedman, Karl Marx, Thomas Sankara or Frantz Fanon are not going to build or improve a new police station in Khayelitsha or Soshanguve. Forget the legends of the past. This is not a paean for pragmatism or draining the blood from ideology, it is the time for asking politicians: what have you done for me lately? The provision of local public goods and services traverses ideological boundaries. The electorate cannot be withheld from intellectual trespassing.

With this year’s local elections there is a grand opportunity to take a hard and intellectually honest look at politicians. Look at what they have achieved in their current or previous positions and determine whether they can do better or work harder. Bear in mind that one can work harder at doing a terrible job. One can work harder at finding ways to become more venal or shoring up privilege. Local governance is also about courage. How do you secure public transport when there are taxi organisations running around in a lawless world of their own, commuters are held to ransom while trains or buses are set alight, and train stations are in a state of decay or they have been completely stripped of every brick, window or door frame?

Again, some of these may fall within the purview of national departments, but local governments and locally elected officials are responsible, in the main, for the provision and maintenance of public goods. Julius Malema, Cyril Ramaphosa or Kenneth Meshoe (among others) are not directly responsible for potholes, or trains that don’t run on time. Of course, Ramaphosa’s central government is responsible for the disbursement of funds, but it is up to locally elected officials to gain access to those funds and spend them wisely.

It’s time for the citizenry to stand up

Time will come, in three years from now, when voters have to elect national office bearers; a new central government and a new president. For now, however, the local government elections have to be a trial run. Voters have to send a message to the people who govern. Voters also have to play their part. Citizens should not wait around for the government to come and solve all their local or community problems.

The government may provide schools, but parents should make sure their children attend school. The government can print textbooks, but parents have to make sure those books get to the children. Locally elected officials must be available, willing and able to improve the lives of the citizenry (and make sure that textbooks reach the most distant communities). If we cannot prevent 10- and 12-year-old girls from unwanted pregnancies — things for which Malema, Ramaphosa or Meshoe cannot directly be held responsible — the citizens have to look at themselves.

Children emulate their parents, parents or teachers (adults) who, in turn, emulate prelates and politicians. So elect politicians who set examples of moral and ethical respectability. It is at the local community level where people build communities (I’d like to add that it is at the local level where politicians break up communities, but it’s probably unfair). The electorate has to do its part.

The informal settlements along the N2 between Somerset West and Cape Town are a heart-wrenching sight. This is not a time for blaming people for the shacks they themselves have built, but we cannot ignore the new houses that have been built in places along that highway. We also cannot ignore that the people who are caged, in a manner of speaking, behind concrete fences break through and play with death when they try to cross the N2, or when children play ball games along that stretch of highway. All of that represents the successes and failures of governance. For this reason, the local elections serve as a time to be honest and ignore the revolutionaries, crackpot economists and professors with axes to grind, the gradualists or the free marketers. Now is the time to ask: What have you done for me lately, and can I trust you to do better the next time around?

In the coming weeks, as part of the local elections and especially in the long build-up to the 2024 general election, I will use this space to lay out the political programme of the main parties, and evaluate them on the basis of what they stand for. Most important of this would be to expose the immanent contradictions or the irreconcilable differences as well as their ahistorical rhetoric, manipulation and the scapegoating that form the basis of so many political orations.

Name-calling and the customary vacuous encomia are no guarantee that you will have a consistent and reliable supply of electricity — unless, of course, you steal electricity from a nearby power source…

For now, the electorate has to be intellectually honest and ask if their garbage is collected regularly (will they themselves use refuse bins), if their children are safe in schools (once they have made sure their children are actually in school), if there is street lighting (and the lamp posts and fittings have not been stolen and sold as scrap), if stormwater drains exist or whether they would actually be built…

Finally, after 25 years of riding on the coattails of liberation’s intoxication, the electorate may ask whether those in office have actually made communities better off or if South Africa is actually a minimalist democracy — where you go and vote every five years, then you sit back and scratch your head at politicians who plunder.

Then they come back to you again when they need your vote so they may keep plundering. DM

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  • Very good article Ismail. But will voters (or potential voters) indeed asked the question come election time: “What have you done for me lately”? I dare to say, loud and clear: “No!” I will be most surprised if 30% of the adult population will vote at all. Most new potential voters will not even bother to register. People have become totally disillutioned with poor service delivery (mainly ANC controlled municipalities), with unemployment, poverty contributing factors. Your article in DM will be read by a tiny percentage of the population, mostly whites. The same can be said about Media24. The largest percentage of our population only watches TV1, 2 or 3, or listens to the SABC vernaculer radio stations. And news, at least news about governance failures, are minimal on those media outlets. So, most people simply don’t know, or for that matter care, as they have become used to it. New parties like ActionSA will have little impact outside Gauteng. By and large, the outcome of the elections will be broadly-speaking remain as before. Maybe some changes in the Metro’s, but in rural areas it will remain. So, will adults (not only registered voters) ask that question? No they won’t, and South Africa will continue going down the spiral to total despair!

  • But is not voting, not a vote? The ANC (whoever they are, for that is far from clear) will at least learn in a more clinical way they will have to explain why fewer support them, why fewer go to the polls and why fewer care. They will continue to be hamstrung by internal battles, by factional politics in local politics and by unprincipled actions. Policy won’t matter anymore, for principle will continue to undermine any ANC credibility.

    • How quickly we forget and lose sight, just think back 15 years compared with the present and more consciously events over the last two years. Has there been no improvement ? I dare say there has.
      We need to manage our expectations.
      Thanks to all the publications, journalists, politicians, judiciary and the general public who try to keep the governing party accountable.
      Keep the faith.