Editorial: Tweedledum and Tweedledee

The MEC for housing in Gauteng, Lebogang Maile, on Thursday declared his intention to withhold potentially hundreds of millions of rands for housing projects from the City of Johannesburg, citing the city’s failure to use previous allocations.

This is, to some, an indication of an escalation in the war of words that made headlines between the Democratic Alliance’s Johannesburg mayor, Herman Mashaba, and the ANC-run Gauteng province. It’s much like a game of tennis between the city and the province, except the ball being smacked around is the welfare of the people they are meant to provide for.

What has been sorely missing in this blame game is a candid confession of failure in Alexandra. The lives of many residents have not been improved by successive governments in the province and in the city. Time and time again it has fallen to the residents to make this fact known by taking to the streets to voice their frustration.

All the while the tennis match between province and city continues. It makes for fascinating viewing for armchair critics and political analysts, but the erosion of the principle of co-operative governance — and, one could argue by extension, that crucial tenet of democracy, accountability — remains unanswered.

The most recent manifestation of this failure is the Alexandra Renewal Project. While both the DA city and ANC province have correctly pointed to laudable infrastructure projects, including clinics and other public works upgrades, for many residents still living cheek by jowl in cramped spaces on the margins, there is no tangible difference to their lives.

This is especially so for the “C-Form people” — those who have applied for government housing on a C-Form but watch how new housing developments are occupied by others. These “others” are sometimes those who have strategically built beside a river, under electric pylons or on dolomitic ground, forcing the authorities to move with urgency. Or those who have become backyard residents, attaching their ramshackle structure to a flat or newly built RDP home. And then even those who do get a house will rent this out instead of occupying it, calculating that they’d rather not live in a home they can scarcely afford. In American parlance it’s called “gaming the system”.

There is ultimately no real difference between an ANC or DA local government. The DA federal executive chairperson, James Selfe, has admitted that in some spaces where his party governs, there is no discernible difference between it and the ANC. Considering that for years the DA has campaigned on a ticket of clean governance, this is a seismic admission.

Nonetheless, in the auditor general’s latest report on municipal finances, DA-run municipalities still emerge better at managing their resources. But this is only one measure of good governance — many people on the Cape Flats, for example, will tell you that a government whose books are immaculate can also be guilty of neglect of some of its vulnerable citizens.

Local government is the most intimate level of engagement most citizens have with government. The auditor general’s report shows that most people’s experience with government is a disappointment. But, as electoral competition increases, the principle of co-operative governance will also be tested. 

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