Fixing SA must be begin with local govt

Douglas Gibson says turning rotted municipalities around won’t be easy however

Local Government must lead the way

We travelled from Osaka to Kobe in Japan on Thursday morning. For someone from Johannesburg, this was an eye-opener. During the 90-minute trip by bus we travelled on an elevated roadway all the way, skirting the sea and fringed by the most extensive – clean – industrial area I have ever seen. Mile after mile of it. The over-riding impression was one of surprise at the fact that everything is so clean. Everything works. We saw not one pothole or anything approaching it.

I am aware that Japan is one of the rich countries of the world. It can afford to have on this one route hundreds of bridges like our single Nelson Mandela Bridge in Johannesburg. It can afford to have hundreds of kilometres of motorway. But all the industrial and other buildings we saw were clean and in good repair. There was no grime; there was no litter; there was no graffiti.

My thoughts turned to Johannesburg specifically and to all our South African cities generally. Do we have any chance at all of replicating Japanese conditions in our part of Africa? The differences are great: they are a rich First World country; we are a middle-income country with immense disparities of wealth and poverty among our citizens. They have a minute unemployment rate, whereas ours is vast. We have a big section of our population receiving free or virtually free services because they cannot afford to pay. We also have a big problem of citizens who do not have the dignity of proper sewerage, proper lighting, proper housing. They do not.

One cannot change South Africa in a few months or even a few years. After all, it took the previous government decades to bring us to the brink of bankruptcy as a country And it has taken the ANC government a generation to bring us to the point where nothing much works properly; where there has been little or no maintenance of anything for decades; where state owned enterprises are a byword for poor governance, corruption and mismanagement, with constant begging for government bailouts instead of rendering service to the public and making a contribution to the national purse. If we are to halt the deterioration and the slide, it is essential to start somewhere. That place must be local government.

Urban dwellers, especially those in Gauteng, but also in the Eastern Cape and other parts of South Africa, became weary of the lack of reasonable service from their councils and disgusted by the skewed spending priorities, the evident feeling of entitlement by public representatives in office and the all too prevalent corruption. This explains the new politics that swept through local government in August last year and has brought unlikely coalitions to power in many of our Metro Councils.

Living in Johannesburg, I know more about that city than any of the others but it is clear that the new mayors of all these Metros are just as keen as Mayor Herman Mashaba is to put things right. Governing without a majority is often a difficult feat, requiring loads of good sense, tact, sensitivity to the feelings and wishes of people from other parties, a willingness to compromise (except on matters of conscience or principle) and a recognition that there are limits to what can be achieved in a single term of office. It seems to me that the new mayors are doing well thus far. Can South Africa aspire to emulate the apparent good government in other parts of the world? Why not? That should be the answer.

A great responsibility rests upon the new local governments to prove that they can change things and can be trusted to act in the interests of citizens. It is no easy task to fix what is broken: there is such a shortage of money that it is extremely difficult to follow pro-poor policies, spend what is essential on the upliftment of communities that have been left behind and at the same time to provide an improved standard of service while finding the money needed to maintain and improve the crumbling infrastructure. That is the exact challenge faced by all of the new mayors.

One of the problems is that the provision of water and power traditionally provided surplus funds for local government. Somehow, this is no longer the case. (Disclosure: I have been appointed a non-executive director of Johannesburg City Power). Nowadays, the City has to make up the shortfall and the inevitable result is a growing backlog of maintenance with no prospect of replacing and updating electricity installations that are in some cases seventy years old, creating the near certainty of power outages and minor or major problems. It is essential that these utilities and all the others become sustainable as net contributors rather than consumers of city money.

Skewed priorities, vastly outdated socialistic theories and pervasive mismanagement by officials and politicians clearly not fit for purpose means that the amount of money available for subsidies from central government and provincial government is limited. Until the next election when it is becoming more likely that the ANC will lose its majority and be replaced by a coalition government from the opposition, local councils cannot expect the outside help that they need.

Local government will just have to get on with the job, knowing that a major responsibility rests on their shoulders to be seen to be doing well and making a difference by doing more for less. If they can demonstrate that there is life after the ANC and that life can actually improve without ANC control, the chances of bringing about real change in our country will be vastly increased.

Douglas Gibson is a former opposition chief whip and former ambassador to Thailand. His website is http://douglasgibsonsouthafrica.com/

This article first appeared in The Star.