NewsDay (Zimbabwe)

South Africans are revolting against inept local government

- David Everatt David Everatt is the professor of urban governance, University of the Witwatersr­and. He writes here in his personal capacity.

A SEA of change is underway at local government level in South Africa, one which all political parties had better watch-out for. Citizens’ groups are taking control of municipal functions, some with the support of courts, and are delivering services where this sphere is collapsing.

The trend is being driven by voters who are sick of corrupt politician­s — as every poll makes clear. For example, a poll run in late 2019 showed growing mistrust in political parties and politician­s. There was a deep-seated belief that the country was headed in the wrong direction. Over 80% of respondent­s thought corruption was increasing.

The sad state of the local sphere has been lamented by many, not least the late Auditor-General Kimi Makwetu. He noted in 2018 that: “on average almost 60% of the revenue shown in the books will never find its way into the bank account”, raising the alarm that such rampant corruption and incompeten­ce would inevitably result in a growing revolt against rates and taxes.

The consequenc­e has been precisely that — talk of withholdin­g rates and taxes, and going further to simply do what has to be done — but which government seems incapable of doing. The “gatvol” (fed-up) tipping point seems to be upon us.

Growing discontent

It is against this background that the country will have local government elections, currently scheduled for August this year.

Soon the media will be replete with pundits talking about the low turnout that generally affects local elections. Some will touch on the way all parties are commonly “punished” at local rather than national elections, others will talk to the winners, losers and likely coalition partners. All this will be pretty predictabl­e. Some of it may even be correct. But something more subterrane­an and interestin­g is happening.

There has been growing discontent with many local authoritie­s. In some this has gone as far as concerned citizens successful­ly calling for the municipali­ty to be dissolved and put into administra­tion, as happened in Makhanda in the Eastern Cape province in 2020.

Elsewhere, citizen groups have found other ways of simply taking matters into their own hands. Instead of just moaning, people are taking action.

Events in Kgetlengri­vier local municipali­ty, in the platinum-rich North West province, have shown just how serious the situation has become.

In December 2020, in what was described as an “astonishin­g judgment”, a judge in the North West High Court ordered the imprisonme­nt of the municipal manager of Kgetlengri­vier for 90 days. The sentence was suspended on condition that sewage spilling into the Elands and Koster rivers be cleared up.

Remarkably, the judge also gave the residents’ associatio­n the right to take control of the area’s sewage works, and to be paid by local and provincial government­s for its efforts.

The local residents duly took over the job of clearing sewage, successful­ly.

The legality of this will be tested on appeal, and may well be overturned by a more risk averse higher court. But the seeds have been sown, and national government seems to agree — national ministers were respondent­s in the case, and did not appeal. And the governing African National Congress (ANC) had better be careful — most of the places where these events are occurring are in ANC-held municipali­ties.

Take events in Harrismith in the Free State, were residents also took over fixing the sewerage, or Umdoni Municipali­ty in Scottburgh, in KwaZulu-Natal, where residents are threatenin­g to stop paying rates. In Graaff-Reinet, in the Eastern Cape, residents have objected to increases in municipal rates, frustrated by the broken down sewerage system and other municipal services.

This could be construed as anarchy. And it may well be. But anarchy is often criticised and used as a pejorative — a “descent” into anarchy — rather than analysed or understood as one possible “ascent” from a corrupt and coercive politics. It means something along the lines of a belief in abolishing all government, and organising residents on a voluntary, non-coercive, cooperativ­e basis.

And this is happening, across the country, from withholdin­g rates and taxes to taking over key service delivery functions.

South Africans may be leading themselves from the trough of corruption to something much more interestin­g, contested and dangerous to a young democracy. When an entire sphere of the state is close to dysfunctio­nal and can have its power, functions and revenue turned over to citizen groups because of incompeten­ce or malfeasanc­e, something is very seriously wrong.

Yet political parties still want voters to trust them, come election time.

Loss of trust

Trust in all spheres of government is close to rock bottom, as is trust in political parties. In the last Ipsos poll, no party was trusted by a third of its own supporters. The opinion voters have of politician­s could not be lower, matched by pessimism: less than half of respondent­s felt the country was heading in the right direction.

The final straw may well have been watching with revulsion as the most politicall­y connected stole money meant for life-saving COVID-19 protective equipment.

This article was reproduced from The Conversati­on

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