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From crisis to courage in 2023 — Western Cape residents find hope in collective ‘vasbyt’

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Alan Winde is Western Cape Premier.

As we look to 2024, it is the extraordinary resilience of Western Cape residents — our ability to ‘byt vas’ when confronted by adversity — that will stand us in good stead. Just this month, our firefighters and countless volunteers have responded to more than 1,200 fires, with the majority contained in less than an hour.

At the last Western Cape government Cabinet meeting of 2023, I reflected on the year and started looking towards 2024. While it may often have felt as if we were responding to one crisis after another that tested our ability to “byt vas”, we are also planning not just for next year and the next five years, but the next 15 and 30 years.

As the premier of this exceptional province, I am citizen-obsessed, and the needs of our residents are brought into sharper focus now while some of us have time for reflection, relaxation and renewal in preparation for 2024.

I am thrilled that it is also a time of opportunity for so many. This is expected to be a bumper tourism season, with our job-creation drive reaping impressive results. This year alone, the province is 368,000 jobs up on last year and that’s not counting this summer season. This was a 15.7% increase, well ahead of all other provinces. I am sure that when we review the numbers for this year’s festive season, we will see even more much-needed growth.

Unfortunately, while I am always looking for the silver lining, I must be honest that if 2023 has been a tough year, 2024 will test our resolve even further. In 2023, we continued to feel the devastating impact on civilians and children, in particular, of conflict across the world. Violence against children and the innocent is completely unacceptable, whether they are in the Middle East, Ukraine or Cape Town — our children and their future must be protected.

I remain deeply concerned about the growing global shift away from respect for the rule of law and liberal democracy towards authoritarianism and nationalism. So, 2024 will be an important year for us and the world as more than 70 countries and almost 2 billion people vote in elections globally.

I am deeply proud of our province and country’s diversity. In everything we do as the Western Cape government, we strive for inclusiveness and tolerance. I remain committed to a government that protects the most vulnerable in our society, creates opportunities for everyone to thrive and deepens our diversity.

We have ended the year with serious fires across our province; we experienced the devastation of the June and September floods; the worst load shedding on record; the needlessly violent minibus taxi strike; the reality that our province is growing by more than 150,000 people per year; the growing national fiscal crisis; the failures in the country’s logistics sector; and especially the pressures our residents are under due to the rising cost of living and inflation.

But as we look to 2024, it is our residents’ extraordinary resilience — our ability to “byt vas” when confronted by adversity — that will stand us in good stead. Just this month, our firefighters and countless volunteers have responded to more than 1,200 fires, with the majority contained in less than an hour.

Our priorities remain making the Western Cape safer, where job opportunities grow and our residents live in dignity with an experience of wellbeing. Much of our work throughout this year focused on addressing these priorities. But if we are to achieve these priorities, we have to address the horrific energy crisis we are facing now.

Responding to the energy crisis

With more than 320 days of load shedding recorded by late December, South Africa’s energy crisis reached crippling levels in 2023. It is unacceptable that it has become a daily reality, and I will not rest until we make this province energy-secure and free of load shedding. Electricity generation is not part of our mandate, but we have stepped in. Our Energy Council has been hard at work laying the foundation for our drive to make us energy secure and resilient, and we are already seeing results.

We have worked tirelessly this year to ensure that our hospitals and clinics can operate during load shedding — 193 of our health facilities have generator capacity to continue essential services during load shedding; nine of our clinics have completed solar and inverter installations; and 10 of our hospitals have been exempted from up to Stage 6 load shedding.

Through an emergency investment in January of R88-million, we have ensured that municipalities have the necessary generators to protect drinking water and sewerage systems. Thus far, 56 generators have been purchased by municipalities across the province, with more still to come.

A vital component of our work is enabling municipalities to explore and implement energy projects. Working together with the City of Cape Town, Saldanha Bay, George, Hessequa, Mossel Bay and Stellenbosch, these municipalities are already well on their way to achieving energy security. We have taken extraordinary steps of collectively allocating nearly R7-billion over the next three years to cushion our residents from the impacts of load shedding and enable external roleplayers, including the private sector, to invest in our energy future.

Load shedding has a disproportionately higher impact on the poor who, unlike wealthier residents, are not able to protect themselves against its impact, thus heightening the risk of further increasing inequality. This is one of the reasons we started distributing load shedding relief kits to residents in our shelter and care facilities this year. In the new year, we will distribute these kits to learners in our lower-quintile schools because, if we are to change our trajectory, we must intervene now and make sure that our learners are able to study and read regardless of load shedding levels.

We saw the devastating impact of Covid-19 on our learners, and we cannot allow load shedding to exacerbate this. We are investing a massive R1.2-billion into our #BackOnTrack programme over the next three years to improve learning outcomes. In 2023, at least 333 schools were selected to receive targeted support based on the systemic test results, in addition to the 1,100 schools already receiving extra support in the Foundation Phase from 2022. Thousands and thousands of learners are in schools on Saturdays catching up. Thank you to every teacher, parent and caregiver.

A province of opportunities

We know that people will invest and create job opportunities where social and physical infrastructure is invested in and maintained, and where there is stable good governance. I am extremely proud that all our government departments and entities received unqualified audits for the past financial year — the best audit results in years for our province and in South Africa.

The numbers show that our efforts are paying off. The Western Cape’s agriculture sector accounts for more than half of South Africa’s agricultural exports and is the primary driver of provincial export growth, recording a remarkable 219% growth in the 10 years between 2012 and 2022.

We have also seen the post-pandemic growth of the tourism sector, with 154,442 tourism jobs created between 2021 and 2022, bringing the total number of jobs supported by this sector to an impressive 214,909. In 2023, we all shared in the joy and excitement of hosting major events such as Formula E, the Cape Town Carnival, the first Netball World Cup on African soil and welcoming our World Cup-winning Springbok team for their victory parade through Cape Town.

And while the tourism and agriculture sectors have seen significant growth, we are seeing similar growth in the business process outsourcing, technology and information sectors. The Cape Town International Convention Centre is booked years in advance, and the province will be abuzz for the next few months with an array of events and visitors.

Making this province safer

We are working every day to ensure that our citizens see and experience a strong and respectful law enforcement presence, and that they do not have to worry about getting to and from work or school safely. The Western Cape Safety Plan, while facing significant challenges, is having an impact, with our 1,200 Leap officers in partnership with the City of Cape, our two rural safety units and three K9 units showing what is possible. The most notable example of this is the decrease in the per capita murder rate in the Western Cape in the past five years.

The minibus taxi strike in August brought into sharp focus how essential it is that we urgently devolve public transport to competent local authorities and provincial governments, and that we must uphold the rule of law to ensure that our commuters are safe. Scenes of ordinary citizens, including school learners and the elderly, having to walk alongside the N2 and other major roads to get home continue to haunt me.

The strike cost the Western Cape’s economy a staggering R5-billion and the wanton violence that accompanied it was unacceptable. Apart from its economic impact, the strike deeply affected the dignity and daily lives of residents, particularly working-class people who have little choice but to rely on minibus taxis because of the failure of the Prasa rail network.

The violence that accompanied the strike was unacceptable and unnecessary, and it frustrates me deeply that in March this year, when we were threatened with an economic shutdown, with severe threats of violence, we were able to mobilise all three spheres of government to allow democratic protest without violence. It showed that all partners can work together to ensure the safety of our residents.

The impact of the climate crisis

The Western Cape was also hard-hit this year by multiple weather systems, which led to flooding across the province. In particular, the heavy rainfall over the Heritage Day weekend had a devastating effect on our communities. Due to the impact on our road infrastructure, access to several communities was initially cut off and the need for humanitarian aid was felt across the province. 

At its worst, 154 roads were closed, including major routes like the N2, Clarence Drive and the Franschhoek Pass, but many were reopened in record time and, by the end of this year, we had reopened almost all of our roads, with stop/go in place at some of the worst affected roads and work under way to permanently repair them.

And while it is estimated that repairing the damage to our road infrastructure will cost at least R500-million, we moved swiftly to reopen and reconnect communities and businesses. Our road network plays an important role in our economy, and I appeal to everyone travelling during the festive season to do so responsibly — we want this time to be one of happiness, not tragedy.

I am incredibly proud of the way our government officials, first responders, law enforcement partners, NGOs and everyday residents continuously come together to support and assist each other. It was this mobilisation of our resources that helped to bridge the gaps and support our most affected residents.

Conclusion

This year, 2023, has demanded our collective “vasbyt” and we will need to do so again in 2024 if we are to show hope in action. We have continued to maintain and deliver infrastructure, and ensured service delivery continues. We have competent healthcare and education services, and we are growing our local economy amid challenging circumstances.

Part of our strength as a province lies in our resourcefulness, resilience, collaboration, diversity, unity and courage to face these challenges. That courage will sustain us in 2024 as we give hope to our residents and South Africa. DM

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