Editorial: Referendum on service delivery

The 2016 local government elections were a referendum on the leadership of former president Jacob Zuma, as the governing party suffered embarrassing losses in the country’s biggest metros. It was a bloody nose and left his faction hobbling all the way to the Nasrec conference, a year later, that would lead to his preferred successor losing those polls. 

This time around, the polls in a couple of weeks’ time aren’t a vote on a personality per se, but will be rather shaped by a society frustrated by the lack of service delivery. It’s an affliction for most of the country as increasing urbanisation and the cancer of corruption continues to weigh on the ability of the 257 municipalities to deliver the most basic of services. 

It’s not something new, but maybe a return to form. In this week’s cover of the Mail & Guardian newspaper, we drag out a cover, from exactly 10 years ago, that contends that service delivery would dominate those polls. 

Seemingly, the referendum of 2016 was nothing more than an apparition. We’ve long been in this struggle to get the public sector to meet its core mandate of servicing the people. 

The excitement around the rise of independents and just how they will affect these polls will be something to be closely monitored, as communities in places such as Ficksburg are focussing on their common struggles rather than what divides them, such as race and wealth. 

Polls are suggesting that the most organised of these independents will be one of the major stories in these elections along with the DA’s falling support after the lofty heights of 2016. As for the governing ANC, its scorecard on service delivery is one that continues to cut into its credibility.

This week, Khaya Koko and the M&G Data Desk have looked at the Eastern Cape and its ever-worsening rates of poverty, along with a slide in the most basic services, such as the delivery of water. Of the country’s 1.8-million indigent households, the Eastern Cape has 645 068, with the OR Tambo district municipality accounting for 153 000 and Buffalo City for 152 035. These two municipalities carry 47% of the province’s poverty burden. 

Some 132 municipalities use a monthly income of R1 780 to R3 560 as the level at which they determine that a household should be categorised as indigent. 

The struggles of this province stand in sharp contrast to tales of corruption that now dog its premier, with Oscar Mabuyane and his MEC Babalo Madikizela alleged to have used state funds for their own benefit. 

The story of Eastern Cape is sadly a common tale. 

While the EFF has waged what analysts have called a successful social media campaign and reached the youth demographic, one has to wonder whether it is fishing in the right pond, given the voter apathy among this segment of society, especially for local government elections. Billboards that speak of the “land” question may also be missing the point, if indeed these polls are a referendum on service delivery.

Our democracy is maturing, frustratingly slowly at times. But at its dawn, most voters were married to party colours, devoted to the following. As the years have progressed, the electorate is increasingly asking tougher questions around issues such as service delivery and the management of the economy, especially in the wake of a Covid-19 pandemic. 

Independents are stepping into the breach.

Keep the powerful accountable

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