The true cost of moving House
Déjà vu! Déjà vu! Déjà vu! Yawn! Yawn! Yawn! Yawn! This is how many would have greeted the latest iteration in the “Parliament must move” debate. Introduced during the state of the nation address last week, it was interpreted by some as an attempt to divert attention from the travails of the speech maker. Since then, the argument about whether South Africa should put the administrative and legislative capitals in one place – namely, Gauteng – has raged on every media platform.
It has generated a great deal of heat, though not quite as much as it did in the mid- to late 1990s, when the merger of capitals was first mooted. But for a few days, it did share the attention of the public with other real issues that the nation is grappling with. Thankfully, it receded by the end of this week and will hopefully only be revived when another politician needs to distract us.
On the face of it, moving the national legislature to Gauteng makes absolute sense. Gauteng may not be geographically central, but it is as central as you can get in terms of accessibility and importance. Gauteng is also home to key institutions such as the Human Rights Commission, the Public Protector, the Constitutional Court and Orlando Pirates.
So there should be no argument about this, especially since the speech maker explained that “the biggest expenditure we would like Parliament to consider is the maintenance of two capitals. The cost is too high for the executive. This is an urgent matter.”
He was supported by his archnemesis in the red overalls, who reminded us that the current arrangement “is a result of colonial compromises and settlement of the Anglo-Boer War”, whose ultimate outcome excluded and marginalised indigenous Africans.
Given these financial and historic considerations, opponents of the move should shut up and move aside, one might say. But before we shove them aside, we should explore some of the reasoning.
When the merger of capitals was quietly shelved all those years ago, a major consideration was the prioritisation of resources in the new democratic state. An ambitious programme of addressing the backlog of the fallen discriminatory state was under way. Houses, services and infrastructure were being rolled out to millions who had been left out in the cold by the apartheid system. The unification of the formerly Balkanised state was being bedded down. And, lest we forget, we were also about to buy shiny new weapons for our military. In the context of these needs, and many more, the relocation of an arm of government seemed an unnecessary expense.
This was the correct decision and it remains so. The debate is being resuscitated during our lowest economic ebb in two decades, supposedly as a cost-saving measure, which is rather strange because a modern parliamentary complex – with the attendant housing needs of legislators and staff – would require an investment of billions. We would need to go to the markets with our nearjunk status to borrow this money.
How a country with a fiscus under pressure from a sluggish economy, a stagnant tax base, demands for free tertiary education and a crippling drought can even be thinking about this extravagance is difficult to understand.
In an age of advanced technology, it should be easy to find a solution to the two-capital conundrum before rushing to a massive expenditure decision. We just need the proper application of minds.
But there is a much more pertinent reason for Parliament to stay put – it is a nation-building and national cohesion consideration.
Before the decision in the 1990s was put on ice, one of the opponents of relocation was the ANC’s Western Cape contingent. They fought hard with the national leadership, telling them that such a decision would cost the party support in the delicately hung province. They argued that opponents would use the move to convince the people of the Western Cape that the ANC did not care about the province, where coloureds are by far in the majority and where distrust of African domination runs deep.
Strip away the self-interest of these politicians – who are politicians, after all – and you will find lots of sense in their argument. There is already a sense of disconnect from the rest of the country among many in the Western Cape. This is as much a result of geography as it is of demographics. It also hasn’t helped that election races in the province since 1994 have been racialised, with the “swart gevaar” bogey subtly creeping into the messaging of some party campaigners on the ground.
The past decade has seen an exodus of corporate headquarters up north, with financial services giants and petroleum majors ditching their traditional Cape base for proximity to markets north of the Limpopo. This has reduced the Western Cape’s importance on the national grid. It has also robbed the province of its attractiveness to talent that would have enhanced its diversity.
Having Parliament in Cape Town is more than just a relic of our colonial past. It is a heavy-duty chain link keeping the Western Cape culturally, mentally and politically connected to the rest of South Africa.
Moving Parliament from Cape Town would be a regressive step that would be tantamount to granting the Western Cape quasi-independence. The cost of the unity and cohesiveness of the republic cannot be counted in rands and cents.