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Wednesday, June 29, 2022

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‘Provincial experiment has been a colossal failure’

South Africa’s first democratically elected president Nelson Mandela with IFP leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi (right), His Majesty King Goodwill Zwelithini (second from right) and the apartheid-era’s last president FW de Klerk during a peace summit in Skukuza, Mpumalanga, in April 1994. SA’s outdated electoral and political system arose through compromised negotiation between the apartheid-era National Party and the then liberation movement, the ANC. A realistic appraisal of our failing political system entails doing away with provinces that are meaningless and inconsequential, says the writer. File picture: Philippe Wojazer/Reuters

South Africa’s first democratically elected president Nelson Mandela with IFP leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi (right), His Majesty King Goodwill Zwelithini (second from right) and the apartheid-era’s last president FW de Klerk during a peace summit in Skukuza, Mpumalanga, in April 1994. SA’s outdated electoral and political system arose through compromised negotiation between the apartheid-era National Party and the then liberation movement, the ANC. A realistic appraisal of our failing political system entails doing away with provinces that are meaningless and inconsequential, says the writer. File picture: Philippe Wojazer/Reuters

Published Jun 5, 2022

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Among the meanings of “provincial” is being petty, insular, narrow, limited, restricted in outlook and understanding, dull, parochial, unsophisticated and outdated.

The dismissive meanings defy the sheer range and scale of the scams that have plagued our provinces, in this massive political duping of the provincial sphere of government that, 28 years after our democracy’s glaring failures, we cannot afford to ignore.

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The provincial experiment has been a colossal failure, which we have to openly and honestly address. In a country with so many negative statistics and sentiments – such as being the most unequal, violent, racist, sexist, unemployed, angry, frustrated, self-absorbed, self-serving and corrupt – the onus is on us to realistically confront our unmitigated failures, and proffer sustainable ways forward.

Besides, the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, South Africa is falling apart all around us. SA is in ICU and needs life-saving resuscitation. We are bombarded almost daily by new and shocking revelations, accusations, counter-accusations and character and other assassinations, while the price of food and basic necessities to sustain life are rocketing.

Our leaders are absorbed in seeking re-election, with nary a care for “the people” they purport to represent. SA is dangerous, expensive and a risk to life and limb, barely emerging from the devastating Covid-19 pandemic. It’s time to take hard stock, and act.

There is clearly emerging consensus – except for a tiny elite who benefit from this sorry state of affairs and whose denialism drives the narrative of self-correction – that our political system has failed and continues to fail us. This significant erosion of the very basis of a constitutional democracy confirms the alienation of most thinking people, especially the youth, that this system seems to serve the few at the expense of the majority SA’s outdated electoral and political system arose through compromised negotiation between the apartheid National Party (NP) – which was then in power – and the liberation movement, the ANC, whose claims to be in power since 1994 are fast disappearing.

A community leader speaks at a Constitutional Review Committee public hearing regarding the expropriation of land without compensation in Pietermaritzburg, in July 2018. While communities are desperate to be heard, our leaders are absorbed in seeking re-election, with no care for the people they purport to represent, says the writer. File picture: Rogan Ward/Reuters

The 1994 compact reached between the NP, the ANC and the IFP has created expectation from the DA, which emerged post-1994 from the Democratic Party and some in the NP. Of course, the DA yearns for a federal system, where it can opt out of SA (if the black “hordes” amass in their backyard) or hop in when things go right.

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Secessionism is a constant undercurrent in Cape Town which, four months ago, the president proclaimed worked. Remove Parliament from Cape Town (a colonial and apartheid seat of power enabling provincialism) and the picture will instantly change.

Even the last ANC conference resolved to revisit the issue of appropriate governance, especially of the outdated and very expensive provincial sphere of government. The next conference will no doubt similarly reaffirm this, and with typically no action following. Parliament will miss this week’s Constitutional Court deadline to amend the Electoral Act to cater for independent candidates. Can we really expect those who constitute the problem, who directly and indirectly benefit from this chaotic and self-serving position, to suddenly wake up morally upright and do the right thing for SA?

Is it possible to cancel oneself from the good life and sacrifice for “the people” in whose name one shouts slogans every couple of years but, in reality, sealing the majority hopelessness, helplessness and interminable suffering?

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A realistic appraisal of our failing political system entails doing away with provinces that are meaningless and inconsequential. Except for the political parties, whose chosen few are paid salaries for basically producing nothing. Provinces are wholly dependent on the national government for survival. None of the nine provinces is sustainable without national government funding.

Besides entrenching a bantustan mentality (and we thought apartheid ended), they show no palpable returns for the huge investment in them, mainly get ting revenue from gambling and motor vehicle licence fees and hospital services.

Motor licence fees should rightly go to local government, with some provinces retaining the local registration identification, making it easier to spot fake number plates. Gambling licensing is a farce, as evident by national advertising, despite obtaining provincial licences.

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There is needless duplication of national government roles to cater for a political system that just doesn’t work, enables “fruitless and wasteful expenditure” (what the auditor-general looks for in public spending), leading to a massive loss of scarce borrowed resources, duping the population and keeping us perpetually in debt.

There are many with competence and skills in the provincial sphere who should be diverted to local government, where they are sorely needed. Local government has become a highly stressful, if not outright dangerous, terrain where all sorts of contestation and incompetence play out.

National government departments often scapegoat the provinces when they wish to avoid accountability for their lapses. The deep fiscal hole caused by loss-making provinces in all material terms must end, sooner rather than later.

Only as a last resort does the national government place certain provincial departments under administration, restoring provincial power when compliance is restored and malfeasance is supposedly curbed. If an administrator can do it, why do we need this puffed-up political play where politicians are paid to do almost nothing of impact in our lives? The national government must be held fully accountable for their departmental remits, and local government needs to be beefed up to serve citizens where they reside and work.

The right-sizing of the Cabinet, national departments and competence is a story for another day. Breaking with our terrible past is unavoidable. But will any of the parties and their highly paid retainers in Parliament and the nine provincial legislatures be brave enough to even raise the question of this exceptionally large wasteful and ineffectual sphere of government that is an imitation salami in the sandwich of essential national and local government?

We can reduce a significant part of our growing debt if leaders really stand up to be counted when SA needs them most. It was pitiful to see the president unable to account at the Human Rights Commission hearings into last July’s mayhem – another blot on his lustreless tenure – for effective intelligence, security and policing, a dangerous and colossal wasteful provincial competence.

We allowed, by active collusion or omission, many of these glaring failures to occur in our name. We can, indeed must, stop the rot from further engulfing us into a cesspool from which there will be no return.

* Cooper President of the PanAfrican Psychology Union, a former leader of the Black Consciousness Movement, a political prisoner and a member of the 1970s group of activists.

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