ASHES: People strip metal from a Golden Arrow bus after it was set alight during service delivery protests in Cape Town. According to the writer, since 2009, local government across South Africa has gradually fallen into dysfunction. Picture: Brenton Geach

Don’t you know they’re talkin’ ’bout a revolution,

It sounds like a whisper…

While they’re standing in the welfare lines

Crying at the doorsteps of those armies of salvation

Wasting time in the unemployment lines…

Sitting around waiting for a promotion…

Don’t you know they’re talkin’ ’bout a revolution,

It sounds like a whisper…

Poor people gonna rise up

Get their share

Poor people gonna rise up,

Take what’s theirs…

Tracy Chapman’s iconic 80s song Talkin’ ’bout a Revolution has resonance not only in South Africa but around the world as people increasingly demand freedom – whether during the so-called Arab Spring, the Greeks rising up against austerity measures or in the French choice of social democrat François Hollande.

As the world faces the consequences of corporate greed and lax regulation of the financial industry, pressure has been brought to bear on governments to deal with rising unemployment and inequality.

South Africa is no different. With youth unemployment at its highest level and in a society where the tenuous social contract appears to be fraying at the edges, cohesion remains a mirage.

Local government across the country is in crisis. A cursory look at the constitution, the Municipal Systems and Structures Acts and the Inter-governmental Framework Relations Act provides proof that what we had envisaged for local government and the status quo are, indeed, worlds apart.

For all the transparency the law requires in relation to municipal financial management and the consultation envisaged as being integral to Integrated Development Programmes (IDPs), the grim reality is that local government is largely dysfunctional.

The auditor-general has repeatedly warned against the state of financial management in municipalities, and the government’s own analysis in its 2009 “state of local government” report indicates how severe the challenges of lack of capacity, mismanagement and corruption are at the local level.

Tackling this complex set of challenges will require a combination of leadership, political will, training and tough decisions on ensuring the rule of law prevails in municipalities that are often run as personal fiefdoms.

The 2009 local government report is frank about the patronage networks many local government municipalities have become. It states unambiguously that party factionalism has led, in many parts, to the “progressive deterioration of municipality functionality”.

It identifies weak oversight, overly complex legislation which municipalities are unable to get to grips with, corruption, skills deficits and tensions between the political and administrative interface as bedevilling local government’s efficacy.

In addition, the pressure on metros has increased with urbanisation. Apartheid spatial development, too, continues to entrench socio-economic vulnerability, the report says.

The findings should shake everyone out of their complacency, specifically the section which deals with access to water. It tells a tale of poor management of our resources, which is as inexcusable as it is unforgivable.

Lumka, the slight waitress at the suburban Cape Town coffee shop I sometimes frequent, tells her story spontaneously. She lives in Khayelitsha where “service delivery” protests have been the order of the day in recent weeks.

She tells of being afraid to walk home from the taxi rank and of how a rock narrowly missed her while she was travelling on a bus to work during one of these protests. She goes on to tell of a truck driver who was stabbed and of fear which stalks her area.

She then asks, plaintively, “Why do people not raise their concerns in Parliament and why must we be afraid to get to work?”

“Parliament?” I ask, “well, perhaps they should speak to their local government councillors first?”

No, she insists. “They drive Jeeps and live in mansions [sic] and are corrupt.”

Lumka is trying to make a better life for her and her daughter, yet it seems as if circumstances conspire against her.

But her insights are real and meaningful. They contain traces of frustration and bitterness towards those [whom she calls tsotsis] in her own community who use violence as a means of protest.

Would that the politicians who so carelessly speak “for the people” and condone the violence by their silence might hear the Lumkas of our communities speak.

Instead, all too often we are treated to a “blame game”.

In the Western Cape, this happens continuously. Where can blame be apportioned when it comes to the protest action in our townships?

This brings us no nearer to creating communities and building trust. Road closures and gridlock are now par for the course on any given morning as protests in Cape Town turn violent with predictable regularity.

We all have to seriously ask whether protesters have the democratic right to destroy property, throw faeces and petrol bombs at the police and shout down the mayor, as a small group did in Khayelitsha when Patricia de Lille attempted to address the crowd.

Communities are frustrated, yet the constitution envisages a proper conversation. It also envisages peaceful, respectful protest.

Among the dead in Cape Town is a child – collateral damage while the politicians carry on with their war of words and a small group of lawless crowds, egged on by those who are opportunistic enough to exploit legitimate concerns, create havoc within their own communities.

Road closures and violence threaten small businesses in Khayelitsha and surrounds and have created streets of fear.

While the City of Cape Town has a unique set of circumstances to deal with, it is not the only province or metro beset with challenges and facing the ire of the people.

Just this week in Carolina township, local government authorities were trying to convince residents that their water supply was fit for consumption when it clearly wasn’t. Yet, where is the accountability?

Parliament, late to matters as usual, held hearings on the issue and has now sought assurances regarding textbook delivery and other challenges in Limpopo.

Parliament’s constitutional mandate is to oversee the executive in order to ensure the just society envisaged in the constitution becomes a reality.

Regrettably, Parliament appears to have lost its way and the past year has been largely marked by skirmishes about security legislation as Parliament has taken a rather executive-minded approach to the Protection of State Information Bill, for example.

It is clear that for there to be social justice, our democratic institutions must work in tandem to ensure meaningful oversight and accountability.

As countless research documents have shown, there are no easy, overnight solutions to poverty and inequality. The danger of high inequality is that it foments anger within society, which makes creating inclusive solutions tricky to negotiate.

Deputy Minister of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs Yunus Carrim rightly pointed out in 2009 that a debate about local government must begin. That was three years ago. But now that we know what the situation is, and local government audits have happened, what will be done?

Can the government be effective when it is continually seeking to placate angry citizens?

A fresh discourse must begin around “service delivery” and it must be based on respect for citizens’ rights in terms of the constitution, while at the same time fostering responsibility within communities.

The report on local government has identified the symptoms and root causes and part of the government’s Turn-Around Strategy is premised on working with municipalities and provinces to create greater accountability within local government.

Of course, the greatest plans can be wrought but, as the report itself acknowledges, much of the success of local government begins and ends with political leadership.

Since 2009, local government has arguably fallen into further dysfunction. It is time sufficient political will is summoned to deal firmly with corruption and cronyism at local level and to ensure that skills are deployed in towns and communities that need them most.

If we fail to do so, poor people will indeed rise up and “take what’s theirs” – and who will be to blame then?

n February is head of Idasa’s Political Information and Monitoring Service (PIMS)