SAPS members keep the peace as Soshanguve residents shut down the streets with burning tyres and rocks demanding service delivery while Tshwane Mayor Stevens Mokgalapa delivers his first State of the City address. Picture: Thobile Mathonsi/African News Agency (ANA)
The fact is that newly elected President Cyril Ramaphosa has little or no reason to celebrate. The enormity of the challenges facing him - especially since the ruling party is already in its most vulnerable and divided state in post-apartheid history - is enough to worry the most confident incumbent. The relatively poor election results for the ANC and the reasons why must be of great concern to him.

In the months prior to the election many townships across the country exploded in angry protests against a wide range of degrading conditions black people have been subjected to for many years. Ramaphosa saw with his own eyes this sordid degradation.

Crippling poverty, unemployment and atrociously poor services is the lot of residents in many townships, a quarter of a century into a democracy which has been an appalling and unmitigated failure in this regard.

Those living conditions have caused deep and palpable unhappiness with basic services, such as housing, water, sanitation and electricity, which is why millions of eligible voters stayed away from the polls.

Regarding the dire lack in many townships of basic services and the related social injustices the farcical and fruitless national democratic revolution has been a dismal failure. The problem is not that the ANC does not know exactly what the problems are. They do. The far bigger problems are a combination of neo-liberal policies governing basic services, its heavily constrained budgets and rampant corruption among its own officials.

This brings me to a repeated fallacy all the ANC leaders have peddled since the 1990s: they have the right polices, but the problems are with the implementation thereof. Nowhere is this charade more blatant than with basic services. There are many research reports, from both universities and the NGO sector, which have repeatedly found that the biggest problem underlying these services in townships is neo-liberal policies which have commercialised, corporatised and commodified them.

What this simply means is that except for the subsidised indigent policy of the municipalities, all basic services must be paid for in full. To take water as an example, in 2017 municipalities ended the free universal 6kl for all households, without any community consultation, which they replaced with a means-testing indigency policy that targets only the poor for relief. But there are two major factors which should make limited free water for those poor households easier to subsidise and implement.

First, by ending universal provision of the 6kl, municipalities made a big saving, which they should have utilised towards subsidised free water, of at least 10-15kl, for poor households. My research showed that the 6kl was grossly insufficient for poor households. Second, whereas there was not much administration costs to implement the universal 6kl water, by now only targeting the poor and expensive, complicated and time-consuming bureaucracy has been spawned to implement a differential regime of poverty relief, depending on how poor you are. Without such means-testing it will probably be cheaper to implement free water to all poor households.

Besides, the poor are publicly stigmatised by the indigent policy. As a result, of a population in the greater Johannesburg area of about 10 million people, only about 321000 are registered as indigents. But more importantly it is ludicrous that the poor only qualify for this subsidy if they earn less than R3366. How anything above this meagre income does not qualify for the subsidy is in fact a cruel exclusion. Besides, does the City not know about the concept of the “working poor?”

Why also should poor black people have to painfully prove their poverty while their leaders live in blissful and untroubled opulence? Perhaps members of the ANC should demand that these issues also be taken up by the ANC’s ethics committee. They are after all matters of governance.

Finally, so urgent is the crisis in townships that Ramaphosa must trim budgets elsewhere, like in defence and security services, and allocate much more funds into building infrastructure in townships. That is the only way in which the ANC might begin to recover some of the huge loss of electoral support. The biggest threat to the ANC is not from rival parties but from disgruntled black township residents. This is indeed the last chance for the ANC. Otherwise, I suspect they are going to probably lose the 2024 elections.

* Harvey is a political writer and commentator.

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