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Bypassing government — gatvol South Africans are doing it for themselves

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Brij Maharaj is a geography professor at UKZN. He writes in his personal capacity.

Across the country people are coming together with a shared purpose to solve common problems, and start with the basics — like clean-ups and fixing potholes — where government has failed, or tenderpreneurs have scored. 

The bad news folks is that gatvol South Africans know that they can no longer trust or depend on government, regardless of political party affiliation.

After the 29 May elections, regardless of whether the Moonshot Pact reaches astronomical heights to rescue SA; the RET mob get the opportunity to finish their incomplete project to reduce the country to rubble; Mzansi rises (phoenix-like); or the Second Coming is miraculously deferred and the ruling party clings to power by the skin of its teeth; South Africans cannot afford to wait for change and betterment to materialise without also rolling up their sleeves.

Now for the good news folks.

After 30 years, resilient South Africans from all walks of life, across the traditional divisions of race, class, religion and ethnicity, have learnt their lessons and are doing it for themselves. On 4 January 2022, the influential Guardian newspaper carried the following headline: A crisis of faith in South Africa: ‘People have given up on the state’.

The sub-heading of the article read: “Struggling even before Covid, communities are taking it upon themselves to try to fill the gaps left by the government”. And the popular slogan “the people shall govern (themselves)” is fast becoming a reality.

‘We try to help ourselves’

In the Thembokwezi area of Khayelitsha, Cape Town, Phindile George leads a neighbourhood watch with 50 volunteers. This has reduced crime and improved safety. Phindile told The Guardian: “We work with the police… but if we fold our arms as a community, the criminals will run amok.”

Seventy-three-year-old Nondwebi Kasba, who assists in a communal vegetable garden project in Khayelitsha’s Illitha Park, told The Guardian: “Now things are so difficult. We don’t get help from the government. We try to help ourselves”.

After the devastating April 2022 floods in KZN, residents in Shallcross near Chatsworth were literally marooned after the Blundell Bridge over the Pompene River was washed away. Other roads in the area were blocked by criminal elements trying to extort “toll fees” from motorists.

Read more in Daily Maverick: A Perfect Storm: How the deadly 2022 Durban floods hold crucial lessons for the future of the city and others like it

As reported on Timeslive, a group of community activists got together and collected R80,000, and a company assisted with expensive construction equipment. The bridge was rebuilt in five days. eThekwini Municipality had estimated that restoration of the bridge would cost betweenR1.5-million and R1.7-million, but “could not give turnaround times”. Community leader Kader Goolam said that a great deal can be achieved “if communities put their heads together [and] don’t wait for government. If we wait, nothing will get done.”

A team member, Marcus Richard said: “When a group of people with the same vision get together, they can achieve anything… I wish I could explain how we felt when the first car crossed the bridge. People were actually crying. As a group of people, we did this together and on our own. It felt good to see how appreciative residents are.”

In July 2022, the eThekwini Municipality warned residents not to repair damaged infrastructure themselves because of the risk to life and property.

However, when communities are helping themselves, they are not necessarily undermining or working against the government (although many insecure, under-qualified and incompetent, cadre-deployed State bureaucrats, masquerading as public servants, rightly feel exposed and threatened).

Tidy Towns

For example, the Tidy Towns project (as reported in City Press, 26 April 2023), started in Margate on the South Coast of KZN, and works in partnership with local authorities. Stephen Herbst, one of the founders of the project, said: “We first went to talk to the municipality and said: ‘we want you on board. This is what we’re bringing to the table, what can we do together?’ We don’t want to point fingers and blame one another. The past is the past; let’s move forward with a new initiative… We stopped complaining about them and started working with them.”

The initial focus of Tidy Towns was on Shelly Beach, St Michaels on Sea, Uvongo and Margate. It has since expanded to include Port Shepstone, Pennington, Scottburgh and Amanzimtoti.

Herbst explained that the focus was on clean-ups, repairs and restoring civic pride: “We do what no one else wants to do. Well-tended flower beds make it look like a town where people care. If a road needs to be fixed, we approach engineers and get the repairs sponsored. If a toilet is broken, plumbers help us. Everything is sponsored, the people give their services for free.”

Trevor Khumalo, who owns a petrol station in Margate, supports the Tidy Towns project: “I realised that I would have to become part of the community if I wanted to make a success of my petrol station, and I started contributing to Tidy Towns. Over the past few months, my turnover has improved. I hear the same from other businesspeople. Margate is experiencing a boom.”

The Gatvol mix

In Pretoria, a group of church leaders came together in a civic organisation called Betereinders to repair potholes. According to one of the group’s founders, Pastor Johan Erasmus of the Dialogue Community Church in Pretoria, the project is “bigger than most people understand. We are more than a hundred people in 16 teams using five tonnes of Gatvol mix [ready-mix of gravel and tar] to better our community.”

Anglican priest Rev Siphiwe Sibiya from Ladysmith in KZN drove to Pretoria to work with the Betereinders: “We need to try to look beyond our problematic shared history in this country, even if it means we should sometimes grab a bucket and a spade together, bend down and fill some potholes. We are not here as different organisations. We are here as people of God. When the government cannot reach something, it is our duty to try to extend their reach… We learn here that we should not sit on our hands and wait for government to do something that is in our reach. We must use our God-given gifts and talents to better our nation.”

Across the country people are coming together with shared purpose to solve common problems, and start with the basics — like clean-ups and fixing potholes — where government has failed (or tenderpreneurs have scored).

As political parties abandon the non-racial project and try to divide on the basis of ethnicity and skin colour, self-help initiatives cut across these historical divisions and embrace all races, religions, languages, etc.

The last word from Douw Kruger, writing in the online Vrye Weekblad on 23 June 2023: “I want to believe that a community which builds momentum with self-help actions will also develop a stronger urge to hold politicians and officials accountable and vote them out of office where necessary. And that the politicians and officials will get that message.

“It is a step-by-step process. But if a critical mass develops, the message will hit home. Provided we don’t wait too long.” DM

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  • Beyond Fedup says:

    Very commendable, understandable and typifies the resilience of South Africans. The only huge issue here is that we let government and municipalities off the hook to continue their thieving, mismanagement and misappropriation but continue to pay exorbitant rates and taxes, which are basically stolen. Come election time, our despicable and corrupt ruling party will take the credit with their lies and misinformation, at which they are so adept. It is just criminal that it has come to this as it could have been so different had this vile government built on what they inherited in 1994 instead of stealing and trashing the country blind. The only solution is to vote these scumbags out of office – if only the gullible masses would wake up!

  • Peter Tuffin says:

    The next step is to take all the community projects and, on completion, send an invoice for the work and materials to the relevant council /department.

    • ST ST says:

      Yep. Wouldn’t that be something! Reverse cadre tender process that would actually have been by the people for the benefit of the people. An insane concept for the corrupt councillors!

  • Jane Crankshaw says:

    The Tiny Town idea is a brilliant one! Great article, thank you.

  • michael james says:

    Like your article

    Civil society is more powerful than government

  • Geoff Coles says:

    Being optimistic, in spite of Government ineptitude can be good if there are achievable goals

  • Gavin Knox says:

    I live in Warner Beach where Tidy Towns has made incredible changes to restore the once wonderful seaside village to as close to its former glory as possible, however the local monkeypality continues to do its level best to counter their efforts.
    For example there has been ongoing excavation along our Kingsway road which runs through the business area adjacent to the beach, ongoing now over 3 YEARS, no end in sight, the pavement brick paving is in serious disrepair making both driving and walking along this stretch a test of skill.
    Let alone the vagrants, prostitutes, adicits lurking around leaving piles of filth the same monkeypality will not remove.

  • Peter Slingsby says:

    For decades the National Botanical Gardens – now SANBI, “SA National Biodiversity Institute” – sent a South African entry to the Chelsea Flower Show in London, winning more that two dozen Gold medals for our world famous flora. For the past five years this cadre-ridden parastatal has done NOTHING for Chelsea, but this year we have a proud entry again, sent by PRIVATE ENTERPRISE! See also Tim Cohen’s “After the Bell” about load shedding …

  • Indeed Jhb says:

    Great projects and what a positive way to build communities and create a shared source of pride.
    Agree with sending the Invoice afterwards excellent idea!

  • Tim Bester says:

    The SACP/anc/Cosatu triumverate has never been “ready to govern”. We should be thankful for the privatisation of local government functions. Bottom up devolution trumps centralised top down bureaucracy, especially when the comrades are marxists.

  • Coen van Wyk says:

    Your article highlights the commendable survival instincts at work. Unfortunately these private initiatives trigger the survival instincts of officials who have flourished due to lack of effective political oversight. See for instance the “gatekeeper” reaction of Cape Town to rooftop solar installations. Instead of facilitating and even subsidising it, they set onerous regulations and high financial obstacles. We need to reform the political structures, politicians and officials included, to create a system where the citizens are the benificiaries.

  • Thinker and Doer says:

    Thank you very much for highlighting these very positive civil society initiatives, it seems that this is a very important way forward, to at least stopping the slide into decrepitude that many of our municipalities are in. It is also important for civil society to focus on being a very serious thorn in the side of government, continually calling it out for unsatisfactory service delivery, and demanding value for money for our taxes. If government complains about self-help, we need to send a very strong message that they have not sorted these critical issues out, so we are fed up waiting, and if you want to retain jobs and positions, they had better actually deliver.

    I am trying to get more involved and activist in this way. It is really an important means to save the country, as we certainly cannot rely on politicians of whatever stripe, and just periodically voting.

  • Shaheen Mehtar says:

    This is brilliant! Commendable because there is no use in complaining. If this ethos extends to other areas like preventing theft of copper lines, protecting trains and public transport, things will certainly improve. Bravo!

  • Johan Buys says:

    Mind-boggling that communities will DIY but don’t effect the necessary change via the ballot.

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