Residents of Sicelo informal settlement protest against lack of service delivery. Picture: Itumeleng English
Residents of Sicelo informal settlement protest against lack of service delivery. Picture: Itumeleng English

Communities must reclaim their voices

By Professor Saths Cooper Time of article published Sep 19, 2021

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OPINION: The orgy of power gone wrong requires urgent fixing. To do that, we need to attract the wealth of real expertise that goes unnoticed. South Africa can work, if we craft a viable, inclusive way forward that embraces people’s concerns, writes Professor Saths Cooper.

As if our lives weren’t already stretched to the limits of our tolerance, the ongoing saga over the next local government elections contains all the dramatic elements of conspiracy, intrigue, murder and organised chaos.

This grave state of affairs – in our proclaimed Heritage Month – simply reinforces the prevailing view that our deeply-fractured society continues to teeter on the brink of socio-economic uncertainty and increasing public insecurity. Is this truly our heritage?

As we emerge from the remembrance of the brutal murder by apartheid security police on September 12, 1977 of that iconic liberation hero Bantu Stephen Biko, we must answer the question: Is this terrible state of affairs truly our heritage?

Founding father of our democracy and the original troublemaker, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, described Biko as the “spark that lit a veld fire across South Africa”. Mandela said of Black Consciousness: “We know today that when in the life of a nation the time comes for an idea, nothing, not even murder, can kill that idea.”

The poorer we are that the pantheon of heroes killed by apartheid – including Ahmed Timol, Abram Tiro, Dulcie September and Chris Hani – who paid the supreme sacrifice, are hardly officially recognised.

We’ve fast degenerated into an ungracious, uncaring, cancelling society that apparently tries to build itself on the graves of our dear departed. Our political leadership, who we are prevented from directly electing to office, are caught up in their own desire for power and the privilege that accrues to them and their cronies once they are in office.

We’ve seen the strident protests over election lists, the shocking photographs of assassinated candidates, and the clamour to get on the election list amid general lawlessness.

Those who caught our notice through such protests have not considered that they hardly inspire confidence to be elected. Perhaps they do, and don’t care, as the tainted party list system will secure their election.

In ever-worsening economic conditions of rampant unemployment and rising poverty, political office has become a much sought-after and highly contested occupation. In the local government sphere, it is also “the most difficult and dangerous political job”, as one councillor put it in the SA Local Government Association (Salga), 2019 report “Violence in Local Government”.

This is because, unlike in Parliament and provincial legislatures, local councillors “interface directly with the communities”, and “tend to be blamed for service delivery and other issues that local communities have, and as a result, bear the brunt of the anger and frustration of local communities” (Salga).

Despite these obvious risks, if elected, one can instantly get a decent regular monthly salary with all the perks. One not only escapes dire circumstances, one becomes a purveyor of inside knowledge of the workings – and importantly tenders – of that municipality.

Little wonder then that in his last report as Auditor-General of July 1, 2020 titled “Not much to go around, yet not the right hands at the till”, the late Kimi Makwetu highlighted that: “The safe and clean hands that can be relied upon to look after the public’s finances in local government are few and far between.”

Local government is the worst performing and most noticeable sector of government. Persistent barrel-scraping for below-average talent finds refuge here and deterioration and decay seem to be the norm.

So hopelessly irrelevant has our outdated electoral system become, that few of us actually realise that we have almost no say in electing the president to the highest office in the country, the premier of our meaningless provinces, and the mayor of the place we reside in.

When we enter the voting booth on Monday, November 1, most of us are likely to vote for the party that we’re stuck with, rather than consider the calibre of the candidate in our ward. This candidate, supposedly the only directly elected politician we deserve, often also gets elected through the back door of our hopelessly irrelevant and totally partisan electoral system, that is part of the cause of our problems.

How quickly our middling political leadership has forgotten the civic movements that emerged in the 1980s which exposed the failure of the previous system and played a key role in laying the foundation for this democracy.

So deep is corruption in our country that no sector is free from its corroding influence. Civic leaders have been embroiled in corruption and lack credibility. Local political figures actively engage in outwitting one another. Murder of candidates and local councillors is an occupational hazard, rising before and after regular elections, as Salga reports.

If that is not enough, teachers – the bedrock of any society – who are in the leadership of the largest teacher union are implicated in a corrupting pattern of behaviour that must subvert our future: the children they are entrusted to educate. Why salaried professionals would become members of a trade union is a question to be answered elsewhere.

The orgy of power gone wrong requires urgent fixing. To do that, we need to attract the wealth of real expertise that goes unnoticed. While most advertisements for key government positions now require qualifications and training, the existing low base of unskilled, uneducated and uninformed create a cesspool of contamination that has to be seriously addressed.

To make government really work, the pool of candidates of real calibre, commitment and caring have to be contracted, purposed with a mindset that defies past ineptitude, inefficiency and inadequacy.

South Africa can work, if we craft a viable, inclusive way forward that embraces people’s concerns. If leadership is not open to the wealth of expertise available from those many who have contributed to this democracy in their own way, then it’s time to raise our voices, not merely against, but for that change that we crave.

It’s time for unity in citizen action, holding our representatives fully accountable. We can rise above narrow party interests and forge a united front to save whatever we can of our democratic project.

* Professor Saths Cooper is a former political prisoner who was jailed with late former president Nelson Mandela on Robben Island. He was a member of the 1970s group of activists. He is now president of the Pan-African Psychology Union.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL and Independent Media.

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