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A new paradigm: The people have spoken… we have to re...

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A new paradigm: The people have spoken… we have to reset the functionality of local government

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Darkey Africa is South Africa’s Consul-General in Lagos, Nigeria. He is the former MEC for Local Government in North West (1994-2004). He writes in his personal capacity.

The state of South Africa today is depressing. Despair and decay abound. Services have collapsed. Most towns and cities are in dire straits, characterised by decay and decline. The low voter turnout is a clear expression of the people that they will no longer countenance the apathetic state of governance at local level.

Bertolt Brecht once opined, “Power comes from the people. But where does it go?” As political parties ended their campaigning and went into the local elections in South Africa, the people exerted their power and appraised those parties.

They principally appraised past events, past performance and past actions to make their choices. They used their vote — or non-vote — to demonstrate this. The low voter turnout is their message to the parties; a painful indictment of democracy and popular participation.

But all the people are saying is that they need a responsive system that can address their bread-and-butter issues, at least for now, at local level. 

No doubt, Covid-19 somewhat dampened voter enthusiasm. At the same time, the impact of negative national politics and the aggressive type of discourse in our Parliament and legislatures cannot be ruled out. Our people believe that they are the least consideration in these forums when they watch the drama on television.

But at the same time, there is also growing empirical evidence globally that elections do not necessarily produce responsive governments, and data abound to explain why that is always the case. As some would say — politics is always about the local — and that is why communities are rising up to demonstrate their consistent unhappiness at the way things are being done, mainly and quite clearly not in their interests.

Real remedies rarely emerge out of manifestos. Remedies at local level must be seen in the happiness of the people and the resultant stability where it matters most. Good governance is the prerequisite for the people to realise, consistently, the dividends of a democratic system.

Governance is unfortunately not about rousing speeches. It involves hard work and dedication to public service. The sustainable provision of services to the people is at the centre of such a commitment. The state of things in South Africa today is depressing. 

Our towns — big and small, urban and rural, cities and metros — are not what they used to be. Despair and decay abound. Services have collapsed. Electricity is epileptic. The environment at local level is compromising the health of communities. Most towns and cities are in dire straits.

And the people are not oblivious to this. They felt the pain and they expressed their disdain with the only power they had — the vote or non-vote. The low voter turnout is a clear expression and statement by the people that they will no longer countenance the apathetic state of governance at local level.

But is there hope? Where do we go from here?

If the new system is devoid of councillors with capacity, we will simply be presenting more of the same, and this is unlikely to yield any results to assuage the anger and despair of the people. Political parties and new civic and community-based groups joined the fray to articulate the future of local government and their menu of services in an attempt to capture the imagination of the voters. But the enthusiasm of the people was muted.

It would appear that the people are simply fed up and have given a clear warning of their intentions. This could be a trial run for 2024. Any party that will run a municipality must prove itself by providing the services the people are entitled to, and not lure them with a litany of lies and false promises.

 It is now probably trite and uninspiring to repeat and emphasise that the people want simple things such as water, electricity, housing, refuse removal, fixing potholes — in partnership with the community.

While it is never easy to project the ideal scenario for local government, it is very clear that the people yearn for the sustainable provision of basic services. But, when we serve to impose pain on our people, we destroy all prospects for them to believe in these “simple” things democracy can offer — we give them freedom devoid of happiness.

In most cases it is the behaviour of incumbent political parties, which are detached and alienated from the people, that push them away. This has the effect of rendering elections irrelevant in the eyes of the people. When their circumstances remain unchanged, or even deteriorate, their voting behaviour changes and political parties are evidently unable to anticipate this. When the people entrust their hope to any party, they expect their conditions to change for the better.

And now with the likelihood of coalitions, the stability of governance at local level is uncertain. This is going to impact in a very significant manner on the provision of basic services on a sustainable basis. The prospect for restoring the confidence of the masses in the system could further erode if the situation of despair engulfing our towns, cities, metros, rural areas and hinterlands is not urgently addressed.                                                                                                                                              

In fact, their hope for a better life at any given time diminishes, despite claims to the contrary. Much has been recorded over the last period about the pathologies of local government. A system founded to do good for the people, but inevitably compromised by those who populated it while frantically trying to convince us otherwise in their vain pretence to lead.

Something has gone badly wrong in our relationship with power. Without constant and vigorous renewal, the future of local government looks even bleaker. The question, “what is to be done?”, has lost meaning because of ceaseless, action-less repetition.

The problems of local government have transformed into crises, accompanied by conflict, which is likely to multiply post November 2021. Only a new civic commitment, coupled with honest leadership and acts of kindness, which are not detached from local realities, will ensure new hope and commitment in serving the interests of the communities.

It is now almost 21 years since the first local government elections on 5 December 2001 after the common voters’ roll was introduced in 1999, with the new local government system introduced in 2000. And yet the pathologies of local government seem to be unyielding and unresponsive to remedy.

Maybe our diagnostics have been self-fulfilling. There can be no gainsaying the fact that good governance at local level is a critical catalyst for socioeconomic development and the foundation for the sustainable provision of basic service to the communities.

To achieve this, local government must cease to be in the stranglehold of putative “leaders from hell”. It would be insidious, 21 years hence, to allow local government to go down the rabbit hole. Any envisaged economic growth and recovery is unlikely to occur with the state of local government we have now. Local government will need to function optimally. How this will happen, we are yet to fathom.

Post November 2021, we need to reset the functionality of local government. A betrayal of the hopes of the people needs to be avoided and a new trajectory of localised development initiated. Development challenges are not necessarily stubborn. Their perceived stubbornness is mainly the result of institutionalised incompetence, policy fluidity and unbridled populism.

Of course, the capacity of the local system and resource availability are also crucial. And within the realm of long-term planning and implementation, the results are always impressive. Introducing and strengthening new mechanisms to ensure greater community participation in local policy and decision-making would enhance the effectiveness of ward committees to participate in local governance and programme implementation.                                                                                                                                  

It is never easy to attempt to project or anticipate the ideal scenario for local government post November 2021 given past experience. Trying to even imagine a sustained effort to fix potholes, resurfacing local roads and consistent provision of water, electricity and the removal of refuse, which has now become our “new” decorations and the “aesthetic” of our townships, is like chipping away at granite. We pretend to be busy, but nothing is discernible and results are never discernible.

The questions to ask are these: is the new core of leaders at local level going to be the old one pretending to be the new? Is the same pain of lofty sentiments, but broken promises going to continue?                                                                                                                              

I hope we will not, once again, be made to tolerate a repeat of the pain. 

Apartheid local government was bad and useless. We must never allow local government in a democratic dispensation to be its reincarnation. As an activist, I am trying to compel myself and others to imagine a better dispensation of local governance, better leadership and a future without questionable, unethical and reprehensible management of local affairs.

And of course, including the frightening prospect of inflicting new forms of corruption on the people to deny them reprieve from this bitter pain and life which continues to characterise our country up to now, 27 years later.

The tentative good news, however, is that we could start with new credentials and commitment. Better still, a new agenda for a new beginning is possible. The call here is to ensure that none of those likely to assume new responsibilities do so with the opprobrium of being closely associated with gangsters and thieves. 

We aspire after leaders who would not want us to believe that governance is an esoteric project. We are certain that the new ones will not be duplicitous, embracing and promoting a very morbid conception of governance. But the brutal truth is always shunned, even though it is always necessary. The brutal truth must always be articulated and embraced. We need a new paradigm, free from the symptoms of decline all around us.

We must avoid a new pain for our people, a hopeless present once again and an uncertain future post November 2021. As Lee Kuan Yew once said, “Most problems stem from incompetence or negative psychology, and as such they have a strong tendency to repeat themselves. Mistakes should never have to be fixed; they should be prevented.’’ This is very instructive if we wish to effect and see real change. Otherwise, we could see a repeat of this apathy.

How local government slipped from the hands of the people is now common knowledge. The people were and are not in charge and are not likely to be in the foreseeable future, given the behaviour and performance of our leaders. But why? The answer is in our hands!  

When conceiving the new system of local government, many worked very hard to ensure that the new system will in no way perpetuate the hardships experienced by our people under apartheid. But 21 years later, the situation resembles the very past many committed to change! Just take a casual stroll in your township/town, city etc to dispute or confirm this. Those who stay in townships until today have their own experiences not dissimilar to everybody else.

So this is the reality we know and cannot imagine in the newly elected municipalities. But maybe, just maybe, there is a glimmer of hope.

In his address to the Stalwarts and Veterans Consultative Conference, Prof Njabulo Ndebele, who is also the chairperson of the Mandela Foundation, sounded a warning which must remind us of our key responsibilities. He advised as follows: “The ultimate threat to South Africa’s achieved constitutional democracy, and which as a nation we have been consolidating with some significant progress, is the loss through a near collapse of state capability.

“Regaining that freedom, protecting, deepening and increasing what’s left of it, regaining that capability and permitting the proven collective genius of the South African people to flourish through a sustainable democracy, is what makes our situation no less than the imperative to embark on a second revolution.’’

The next phase, and more especially after the local government elections, must launch us on this new path articulated by Prof Ndebele. Anything to the contrary will be the end of what we aspire for and the collapse of the democratic project. The local system holds the prospect of changing our precipice into oblivion. Sustainable services to the people at a local level is the only way to salvage the new dawn.                                                                                                                                       

The masses are not on a national or provincial pedestal — they live at a local level. Serve them there: let local government be their hope and their soul post November 2021. 

Cities, towns — small or big — and rural settlements constitute the mirror reflective of good governance, sustained service delivery, a stable society, happy communities who are enjoying the dividends of freedom. This scenario would be an attestation that our society is on the path of progress and some modicum of reform to engender the happiness of the masses. This, then, will become the national index that the country is indeed well governed.

In this context, the importance of local government as the face of the totality of national good governance cannot be overemphasised.

New values, principles and actions must be ingrained in the new leadership post November 2021 — a realisation and deep comprehension of the political economy of good governance at a local level as the epicentre of a second revolution, imperative for renewal and the engendering of progressive values and the socialisation of the “economics of happiness” within the polity.

As Mandla Nkomfe avers in Daily Maverick of 22 September 2021, “We require compatriots who have a passion to make our country (at local government level, my addition) a better place to live in while rebuilding the interest of so many who have lost hope.”

The “economics of happiness” is the formal academic study of the relationship between individual satisfaction and economic issues such as employment and wealth. This proposition enjoins everyone, especially at local level, to increase the human wellbeing of the people and their quality of life. For this to happen, the local level must have good and ethical leadership, accountability, good governance, sustainable service delivery with effective and efficient systems devoid of corruption, nepotism, mediocrity and mendacity. 

The present must change for the future to be worthwhile and meaningful.

But it seems that for some political parties, the despair and anger of the governed have pushed them from grace to grass! Such political parties will now have to serve the people better and smarter if they wish to move from grass to grace. DM

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