/ 19 January 2023

Roadmap to get public services and infrastructure back on track

People queueing during a distribution of hampers, masks, soap and sanitiser during the Covid-19 pandemic, which was organised by different charities at the Iterileng informal settlement near Laudium, Pretoria, on May 20, 2020. (Photo by Marco LONGARI / AFP)

In a little over a year, the 1994 democratic breakthrough will mark its 30th anniversary. A whole generation will have lived through a democratic era. As we head towards our pearl anniversary, we are, arguably, a shadow of the promise of Madiba’s miracle nation. 

Despite the glorious victory of the liberation movement over an unjust system, the past 29 years have not been a perfect annunciation of the ideals we held as we entered government in 1994. While the democratic state can rightfully claim massive victories on all fronts of life as we know it, the past 10 years have also seen a staggering reversal on those victories and, coupled with the inability to erode the spatial and economic legacy of the pre-1994 era, we remain a deeply divided society, socially, economically and spatially.

The Mandela presidency was a time of healing. A necessary prerequisite for the work that lay ahead. Our national psyche was filled with a new patriotism and deep belief that, by working together, South Africa and her people would rise not only to our expectations but to that of the community of nations to whom South Africa assumed a new moral stature of righteousness, hope and resilience.

The Mbeki era began to place the building blocks for sustainable growth and development. Of course, it was also a period that witnessed the first shoots of the sins of incumbency, with the now infamous “arms deal” saga breaking, the emergence of the first generation of “BEE” beneficiaries and the raging anti-retroviral debates. Nevertheless, there was a real sense that we were on the cusp of something great and that “Mandela’s miracle nation” was taking shape.

Yet within the ANC, a rebellion was brewing and reached boiling point at the opening session of the ANC’s 2007 national conference. Arguably, that rebellion was a watershed moment for the country and our democratic project. Jacob Zuma emerged as ANC president and then president of South Africa in 2009, following a short stint with Kgalema Motlanthe at the apex of the national executive. In the process, Thabo Mbeki prematurely resigned as president in 2008, following the ANC’s decision to “recall” him months before the end of his term in 2009.

Ironically, Zuma would himself resign following a similar “recall” in 2018, paving the way for Cyril Ramaphosa to occupy the high office of president. If the notion that the predecessor’s sins are the incumbent’s menu is anything to go by, the Ramaphosa presidency had its work cut out.

Jacob Zuma takes the oath as he is sworn in by Chief of Justice, Pius Langa (L) as South Africa’s fourth President since the end of the apartheid in Pretoria on May 9, 2009, as fomer South African President Thabo Mbeki (R) and his wife Zanele Mbeki look on. (ALEXANDER JOE/AFP via Getty Images)

Ramaphosa came under political pressure almost immediately, resulting from residual divisions that characterised the 2017 ANC national conference. Then, in early 2020, the unthinkable — a global pandemic that went on to cripple the world economy, including our own, with millions exposed to basic income and food insecurity.

Just as our economy began to get back on its proverbial feet, load-shedding struck at an intensity we had rarely seen before and only worsened, despite various interventions and commitments to end the scourge of planned outages due to a deficit in supply to meet the country’s growing energy demand.

The depth of corruption, maladministration and poor economic growth continues to place South Africa on a downward spiral. Increasingly, public services are being usurped by private providers, with everything from healthcare, education, safety, energy and postal services to even the most basic services like grass-cutting and maintenance of roads, parks and public open spaces being undertaken by private or community initiatives, with the state in an apparent state of inertia. 

The result is that South Africa has the precarious title of the “world’s most unequal society” (World Bank, 2022). Given our history, this inequality assumes a racial identity in which, to state the obvious, the majority of the country’s black population lives in the valley of poverty and underdevelopment, a growing but unstable middle class, one payday away from the poverty cliff, and on the upper end of the equality scale, South Africa’s most affluent 1%, who currently account for about 41% of the country’s total wealth (Shorrocks, Davies and Lluberas, 2022).

The Matthew Effect (Study.com, 2022) or “superstar” phenomenon observes circumstances in which those, from the get-go, have an advantage and continue to accumulate more of an advantage over time. Conversely, those who begin at a disadvantaged position become more disadvantaged over time. To put it crudely, privilege breeds privilege, and what this means, South Africa, on its current trajectory, will continue on a path that re-enforces the stubborn fault lines of the past, and structural inequality will continue to be consolidated. The consequences are disastrous.

Franz Fanon famously posits: “Sometimes people hold a core belief that is very strong. When they are presented with evidence that works against that belief, the new evidence cannot be accepted. It would create a feeling that is extremely uncomfortable, called cognitive dissonance. And because it is so important to protect the core belief, they will rationalise, ignore and even deny anything that doesn’t fit in with the core belief.”

Herein lies the nub of our challenge as a country. An ideological fixation or “cognitive dissonance” — and no one stands without blame of one form or the other. 

Capital is steadfast in its refusal to understand or accept redistribution beyond the realm of shallow handouts, putting profit well ahead of people and development. Political parties are intent on “polarisation by populism”, selling the same recycled rhetoric to an electorate who have become increasingly demobilised or politically and socially unconscious. A government constrained by the political milieu and, consequently, less concerned with evidence-based and empirical decision-making. A labour movement that has imploded into a narrow workerist ethic, seemingly oblivious or careless about the impact of their demands on our aggregated national progress and well-being.

In the early 1990s, the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa) sought to define the form, shape and content of our democratic order. Not surprisingly, at the time, the ANC offered possibly the best approximation of what South Africa should look like and codified it as a national democratic society, in which pivotal elements exist — a democratic order with a united people who live in conditions of prosperity in which non-racialism and non-sexism were the defining characteristics of our national existence. The narrative of a national democratic society remains as relevant now as it did in the 1990s. Yet, it would appear that we’re no closer to it today than we were in the formative years of our democracy.

The 2012 National Development Plan (NDP) was intended to be a social compact and bedrock through which a national democratic society would be made possible. The 2013 implementation plan further set out the critical intervention areas that needed to be achieved to ensure that by 2030, South Africa is a substantive reflection of what we, the people, envisioned. Critically, the NDP called for an active and engaged citizenry.

Poor leadership, porous consequence management, rampant corruption, malfeasance and ineffective policy coherence all contrived, among others, along with the Covid-19 pandemic, to inhibit any significant progress on the NDP goals. 

South Africa needs urgent electoral reform. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

Our body politics needs to be reimagined

As we gaze into the future, surely it must dawn upon us that doing the same things and hoping for different outcomes is patently insane, and the compelling question is, what needs to be done differently?

  • South Africa needs urgent electoral reform to build a new public accountability culture. Political parties will always be a feature of democratic societies, but electoral systems for the direct election of public representatives are fundamental, along with a strategy for accountability and consequence management. This is particularly so for the state president, deputy president, premiers and mayors.
  • Advances in technology make direct citizen participation in policy and law-making and holding public representatives accountable eminently possible in the context of our representative democracy. Parliament should urgently begin work in this regard and introduce legislation to cater for direct citizen participation in the work of legislatures, including municipal councils. This legislation should focus on access to these systems for rural, semi-urban and other disadvantaged communities.
  • In the recent past, much work has gone into professionalising and modernising our public service. The National Prosecuting Authority is in the process of amending its donor funding policy. This should serve as a blueprint, together with Reconstruction and Development Programme Fund Act, to create the possibility of more significant direct private sector funding of critical interventions to support the professionalisation and modernisation of the public service.
  • While the responses to the load-shedding and the generation crisis continue to preoccupy society, a similar-scale crisis is brewing on the municipal reticulation capacity. The debate on institutional arrangements for electricity (energy) reticulation needs urgent attention to create fit-for-purpose capacity to support municipalities with the investments required for the operation and maintenance of electricity reticulation.
  • Similarly, In the context of the district development model, a policy position on the introduction of a business tax to fund bulk municipal infrastructure, along with the most appropriate institutional arrangements for the design, implementation, maintenance and operation of water reticulation, wastewater and sewer treatment, public transport and municipal roads (and stormwater) is necessary and should borrow from international best practice and the dictates of a developmental state.
  • Supported by industry and the private sector, upgrading FET colleges into world-class artisan centres to train unprecedented numbers of young people to support a massive public infrastructure sector-built programme is a crucial and unavoidable intervention.
  • The private sector needs to commit to a 10-to-15-year investment plan in productive capacity, research and development and human capital, leveraging the growth potential in the renewable energy and technology sector.

While there is a plethora of other interventions, including in public safety, health and education, the above interventions are an attempt to develop a minimum programme of action to get public services and infrastructure back on track to support growth and development as an essential requirement to undermine and steadfastly erode poverty and underdevelopment within our lifetime.

South Africa belongs to all who live in it. All who live in it, must roll up their sleeves to get our precious land working again.

Subesh Pillay is a social and political commentator, local government governance adviser and former city councillor in Tshwane. He is a former member of the national executive committee of the South African Local Government Association.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.