The SA engine below deck is in deep trouble – Patrick McLaughlin

Patrick McLaughlin uncovers the harsh reality of South Africa’s divided society and its impact on local governance in this thought-provoking article. With a stark contrast between affluent areas and impoverished townships, McLaughlin sheds light on the urgent need for long-term planning and infrastructure development in underprivileged communities. He explores the challenges faced by local government and the dire consequences of underfunding and lack of vision, and provides insight into the role of business and industry in driving change and building economic growth from the ground up. Dive into the complexities of South Africa’s governance system and the call for constitutional reform with Patrick McLaughlin. Don’t miss this compelling analysis that urges us to confront the deep-rooted issues and strive for a better future.

Parliamentary Comment: Local government could become a helpless passenger

By Patrick McLaughlin*

Living one thing and hiding from another seems to be a way of life in South Africa.  This habit of adopting a split personality – or to be technical, taking on a dissociative identity disorder (DID) – is regularly manifested in how we live and how we govern ourselves. 

We live in two communities, rich and poor, illustrated by the famous aerial photo which went worldwide of Alex township leaning up against the plush edifices and homes of Sandton.  Street lighting, sidewalks, waste collection, road draining, water supply in one area are far better than the other and this has been predominantly the case for years since any spend on less people in smaller, well-developed areas is usually more effective and more visible. 

Surprisingly, the amount government money spent for the two in all service delivery areas is not all that different.   However, what is totally out of sync because of history and culture diversity is that the poorer areas of local government urgently need capital diverted from present wasteful state spending or under-spent budgets into infrastructure projects.   

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More is needed right now for the tools to create lifestyle improvements, skills training for tradesmen and small hotspot 24-hr centres, all geared to pass on better commercial use of mobile communications and digitalized commerce.  Perhaps the re-gearing of Vodacom and the promised communications spend by them might bring some of this about but it all has to be part of one big overall plan that is currently missing.  

A move by business from the current emphasis on academia and higher education, if only temporary, to a serious adoption of capital injection into small and minor “people” projects must be the call.  A focus on local governance; the adoption of developmental ground training, commercial and trade skills; coupled with inspired thinking in planning the appropriate facilities, is in everybody’s long term interests if the country is to survive the downturn, now so evident.  

With current local governance unable to deliver and with municipality after municipality destroyed by cadre deployment, whole sections of South Africa have been damaged by underfunding and an absence of vision in national economic planning. Who is to blame for this is no longer the issue.

In such a crisis, only short-term answers at present are being found. For example, when an electricity crisis arrives, the one community learns very quickly to rely on expensive inverters and lithium batteries online, the other can only afford, if lucky, candles and torch batteries from a spaza. Anybody who knows township life will tell you that the lack of 24-hr ATMs in load shedding hours cripples the circulation of cash immediately, with commerce dying in tandem.  In poorer areas, if you are not lucky enough to have a job with some sort of state public service, then it must be with an employer who has a generator.

We have therefore become experts at short-term answers but to live properly in South Africa we all know that we must have long-term planning.  Again, when a drought creeps in, the one half of our community learns to put a brick in the toilet system, cover the swimming pool and still can get spring water at the supermarket and a percentage of the other half has to walk maybe to a tanker or, worse, spend hours walking to a river or lake with a tin.  

Somehow, we all carry on with charade, but the real difference is in the comparison of economic growth patterns.   The one half has stalled, maybe growing a fraction, but the other half is going backwards. 

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Richard Quest of CNN News, on arriving in Cape Town three weeks ago, after looking about, absorbing the mountain and meeting a few business heads, said that South Africans have an extraordinary ability to weather out whatever situation their government has failed in, or whatever nonsense the authorities get up to.  Despite such issues as loadshedding, corruption, sudden political crises and a falling rand, the citizens of this country have developed a magic coping formula.

The formula is, said Quest in broken Afrikaans, “n boer maak n plan.”  Somehow this phlegmatic approach works and life goes on, he said and then he continued with his world business programme.  Quest is so right.  That is what we do best.  Short term answers for the long term.    

For example, in rural areas where things are really getting out of hand for the poor, the short-term answer is a cash grant from SASSA as pocket money.  Dishing out money is, of course, no plan but in the absence of one, businesses, industry, chambers of commerce, financial institutions and banks must surely chime in quickly, joining together and producing such a plan.  With government in election mode they surely have to assist in funding the plan and executing it, if only to save the Rand but at the same time, they will be building economic growth bottom up. 

Looking at the problemas if it were a crisis of identity or a DID problem,one can easily see that we live at the moment as if split into three persons – national, provincial and local persona.  According to the Constitution, each of these three entities receives revenue from National Treasury for it to function and provide basic services.  The formula is, however, weighted heavily against local government having any success, even if corruption and schmooze were eliminated. 

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In the case of local government, a grant goes annually to eachh of the nine provincial governments who extract their much larger share, passing what little is left to municipalities to provide the most basic of services. So, if the province is not working properly, life down the line gets even worse.  Yuri Ramkissoon, researcher at the SA Human Rights Commission, indicates that last known figures report that 64 out of 173 municipalities have negative cash balances, none of these being cities higher up on the distribution line but medium and small towns lower down. 

Two institutions provide oversight on the money, termed as appropriations, as they pass down the same line.  We know these parliamentary institutions as the National Assembly and National Council of Provinces.   However, municipalities have no direct contact with ‘the parliament of the people’ other than representation filtered through the SA Local Government Association (SALGA).  This body has a constitutional brief to soothe our divided personality problem and deal with local government for us at a distance.  Somewhere, the department of co-operative governance and traditional affairs fits in to see that the plan works

Little is going to happen with our slow-moving government to change anything at the moment, especially the political elite who show no will do as things work well for them.  This is unless business and industry start grappling with the problem and initiate a spark, accompanied by strong follow through.   Local government is an area where electricians, technology developers, water, computer technicians and agriculturists should be learning how to trade in townships and rural towns, where small businesses are born and where new world technologies and business systems must be taught. 

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 It is here that communities meet and express their needs but are not being heard.  Some are incredibly angry about the silence. 

Tracking the money is one thing but In terms of communication, full representation of any citizen in the area of local government affairs is not really existent in Parliament other than at a political level by MPs, most citizens have never met one and who are mostly never heard from.     Constitutional reform of this system has been called for by the Constitutional Court, the legislative answer having been purposely delayed and a watered-down in the Electoral Reform Bill, pushed through Parliament a few days ago and reminding some of the remark made by Richard Quest.  

Currently,from Mpumalanga to the Free State the collapse of local government is growing all the time and evidenced in daily news programmes.  A few business corporates understand the full meaning of the threat and have answered the call in their own way, as can be seen from corporate presentations in Parliament to various portfolio committees, but it needs a coming-together of business interests generally to tackle the issue of local government failure. 

In the interests of economic growth, the subject of local development plans have to be separated out from other national issues pressurizing National Treasury; a revival plan adopted and an urgent infrastructural development programme drafted by outside experts considered and executed.  Minister Ebrahim Patel and his Department of Trade, Industry and Competition are just not up to the task, nor is the current Cabinet or any national executive formation.

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Business advantage follows only consumer patterns that show real economic growth and which are known to be based on a good plan. Ideology must be kicked out and good business economics substituted.

It follows therefore that community development, local public services, localised transport alternatives and properly focused job creation must be a primary consideration for business and industry, third after energy issues and transport.  Adverse labour legislation and international affairs problems can be left to lawyers, but a confused and lame marketplace with poor economic growth cannot be left any longer to an unimaginative public service and anti-business politicians.

The door is ajar, according to Deputy President Paul Matashile, and it needs pushing open.  

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*Patrick McLaughlin started Hof ten years ago, monitoring Parliament for major business institutions. Hof Communications supplies parliamentary affairs and government policy updates in the form of its private publication, “ParlyReport”

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