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Floods give rise to political imagination

As heavy rain fell over Durban, Independent reporters and photographers witnessed the damage to people’s lives first-hand. Zubair Mohammed was sad to see his car submerged under water in his yard in Bonela. Many Durban residents had to leave their homes because of the flooding, while others were trapped in them. Some were not so fortunate to escape from their properties alive. Picture: Theo Jeptha African News Agency (ANA)

As heavy rain fell over Durban, Independent reporters and photographers witnessed the damage to people’s lives first-hand. Zubair Mohammed was sad to see his car submerged under water in his yard in Bonela. Many Durban residents had to leave their homes because of the flooding, while others were trapped in them. Some were not so fortunate to escape from their properties alive. Picture: Theo Jeptha African News Agency (ANA)

Published May 2, 2022

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By Xola Pakati

Last week, South Africa marked the 28th anniversary of freedom and democracy. Unfortunately, this year’s celebrations were marred by flooding in the Buffalo City Metropolitan Municipality in January.

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Flooding also took place in KwaZulu-Natal early last month, and in the Ngaka Modiri Molema District Municipality, in the North West province, last week.

The affected areas have been declared disaster zones, and the aftermath will be felt for a long time to come. Hundreds of our fellow citizens have tragically lost their lives, and some are still missing, while vital infrastructure has been damaged irreparably and the “normal” course of life twisted and upended.

In Buffalo City, the most destruction and highest number of deaths occurred in Mdantsane and Duncan Village. Here too infrastructure – buildings, roads, and electrical and water facilities – was not spared.

Such acts of nature remind us of human fragility as they underscore our permanent struggle to subordinate nature to our interests. They also stubbornly point to social fault lines. Their victims are invariably the poor. Most are residents of informal settlements whose dwellings are constructed along flood lines and low-lying areas, often on illegally occupied land and against warnings from local authorities.

This problem affects especially metro and peri-urban municipalities countrywide. It reflects land hunger – especially land for residential purposes in the cities – poverty and inequality and their unholy symbioses with apartheid spatial patterns.

Global trends suggest that South African cities and others elsewhere in the world will continue to attract internal and external migrants for a long time. They will be expected to provide desperately needed services and opportunities to greater numbers of people, often under unfavourable economic conditions.

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Insofar as housing is concerned, individual stand-alone units will neither stem the tide of informal settlements nor address the existing backlog. As the economy contracts, so government revenues are stretched to the limit. On the other hand, urban land is not only expensive: it is a scarce natural resource for which, its imperfections notwithstanding, high-density housing will be a better answer.

But, more broadly, imagine if leadership sections in our country appreciated the importance of promoting consensus on a Marshall Plan as an urgent national priority. We should rekindle public discourse about local socio-economic development much as we need to do national development. In doing so, we should endeavour to mobilise every social institution and sector of society behind the development process.

The effort also requires a cadre of development workers and practitioners at a local level. Capacity-building programmes should be conceived for these foot soldiers because they will not achieve their objectives on the strength of their wishes.

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In the case of political leadership, we come to occupy our positions primarily through the electoral process. We may not necessarily command the skills and sufficient know-how that officials are expected to possess as minimum requirements for employment. But the administrative echelon too needs to improve its skills and capacity to execute its responsibilities.

What if every university and technical and vocational education and training college offered training courses to ward councillors, officials and traditional and other leaders on various aspects of local development and governance?

Imagine every district municipality establishing a district development council comprising the private sector, labour, the professions, women, youth and other local players to mobilise the resources, skills and energy towards local programmes as part of a nationwide Marshall Plan we need to turn our socio-economic fortunes around.

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It is evident that municipalities, in particular, need to enhance their capacity to manage disasters and the resultant potential social and political fallouts.

Hopefully, the looting that we have witnessed in some areas will not become the post-disaster new normal. But what if all political formations spoke with one voice to dissuade residents from such actions, including the illegal occupation of land, and worked together with local government structures to persuade people to vacate dangerous places like flood lines?

As we enter the fourth decade of freedom in two years’ time, we should advisedly expend a fair amount of our intellectual resources in search of ways to enhance our democracy. This includes ways of enhancing the relationship between the government and the people.

By the middle of the last decade, the government had employed thousands of Community Development Workers. In 2009, the late Deputy Minister of Public Service and Administration, Roy Padayachie, described the role of the Community Development Workers programme. It was, he said, to improve the ”dissemination of information to the poor about benefits and services to which all citizens are entitled; assist the poor to access and benefit from the services that could materially improve their lives; and provide an interface or bridge between municipalities and communities to enhance the existing local government structures so as to improve the level of participation between communities and the Integrated Development Plans, Urban Renewal Projects and Integrated Sustainable Rural Development Programmes.”

This programme needs to be resuscitated across the three spheres of government. As Padayachie intimated, they could be a good part of the government’s interactive architecture which strengthens democracy. More specifically, they could make the district development model a reality.

In this way, the hard-won freedom and democracy we celebrated as we marked the 28th anniversary last week will deepen their roots; every day and at every nook and cranny of the Republic. But one cannot stress the point enough: there will be no development state without development workers.

* Pakati is executive mayor of the Buffalo City Metropolitan Municipality, chairperson of the South African Cities Network Council and deputy president of the South African Local Government Association.

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