He spoke to us; he joked; took his shirt off. He acknowledged problems. He gave interview on interview. How nice! How unusual!

President Thabo Mbeki hit the hustings over the past fortnight to boost the flagging fortunes of his party and to ward off a low turnout in the election.

Its victory never in any doubt, the real benchmark for the African National Congress is the percentage poll. At the time of going to press, it appeared the turnout was not substantially lower than that in the local poll of 2000 — about 47%.

Next week, Mbeki will put his suit back on and return to his jet plane and his laptop. And, as we outline in this edition, the government is putting in place a battery of measures to fix local government, the ANC’s Achilles heel. The party has chucked out close to two-thirds of the councillors elected in 2000. Its newly elected representatives will work under a pledge to live in their communities and to keep their hands out of the till.

Municipal managers, responsible for some of the biggest graft and mismanagement scandals of the past five years, will now have to meet strict performance criteria to earn their salaries and bonuses. Many earn more than Mbeki for doing a lot less.

From Mangaung to Cape Town, the ANC’s local representatives have caused red faces: Mangaung mayor Papi Mokoena, for example, ran a Free State mafia that “won” juicy tenders. He was forced to quit.

In Cape Town, mayor NomaIndia Mfeketo managed to alienate the coloured community by hiring her alleged boyfriend, Blackman Ngoro, to assist with “communications”. Her shenanigans may have probably cost the ANC the city.

No wonder the Presidency is planning a huge monitoring and evaluation system, while the Treasury is going to insist on getting more bang for its bucks. Everywhere Mbeki has gone on the hustings, he has heard demands for the simplest quality of life enhancements: an end to the feudal bucket system; performance on promises of cheap electricity and water.

The changes are necessary and overdue.

But so is another. As the hustings revealed, people want to be in regular touch with their representatives. Ward committees must be made to work, and public representatives must be out there, regularly seeing to the needs of communities.

That is what we pay them for; not to sit in endless meetings, workshops and strategy sessions that go nowhere.

As government moves to fix local government, it should be careful of entangling the system in top-down bureaucracy, with all attention focused on fancy new government structures, meetings and form-filling and report writing, overseen by Big Brother in the Union Buildings.

There is nothing like a little touchy-feely to make democracy work.

Separate but equal

This week the Mail & Guardian publishes a 7 000-word article on the question of whether Israel can fairly be described as an apartheid state. In it, The Guardian‘s Jerusalem correspondent, Chris McGreal, finds differences, but also substantial parallels.

No doubt this decision will provoke the same flood of letters and debate as when it was first published in The Guardian; no doubt some readers will accuse us of anti-Semitism for this publishing decision, as they have done on other occasions. They are entirely off the mark. We believe that in the 21st century, the need for open debate and constructive criticism is more necessary than ever.

Our aim is, firstly, to open up debate on one of the world’s most intractable conflicts. In South Africa, there are efforts to shut down this debate. The Jewish Board of Deputies believes articles like these which criticise Israeli policies amount to anti-Semitism, because they create conditions in which Israel’s legitimacy is questioned.

The M&G follows the South African government in believing that the only realistic hope of peace lies in creating viable sovereign states for both Palestinians and Jews. But minimum conditions for this are Israel’s recognition of the Palestinians’ elected representatives, followed by complete withdrawal from the occupied West Bank and the acceptance of East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital. Even Hamas has set this as a bottom line for a “truce”.

Yet Israel refuses to speak to Hamas — indeed, it is trying to isolate it internationally, while planning to starve Palestinians into switching their support to Fatah in a fresh election.

It continues to build houses in East Jerusalem and expand West Bank settlements. Israeli leader Ehud Olmert has announced that his government will unilaterally set borders that would annex more than half the West Bank.

Such measures are a guarantee of continued conflict with Palestinians and the Arab world.

McGreal’s special report will spark much discussion for the parallels, and differences, that it finds between Israel and South Africa.

But we believe the time is right for Israelis and Palestinians to emulate elements of South Africa’s political settlement: hard, honest talk and the ability to give up in order to gain.

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years. We’ve survived thanks to the support of our readers, we will need you to help us get through this.

To help us ensure another 35 future years of fiercely independent journalism, please subscribe.


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