Local is where we really feel it

2011-04-14 00:00

RICHARD PITHOUSETHE local government elections are just over a month away and there is an astonishing degree of ferment. Various groups have announced a no-vote position, others­ are running independent candidates, there are new electoral alliances and in some parts of the country, like the Eastern Cape, the contest between the parties is more keenly felt than ever before.

Even within party politics, a new fluidity is discernable. Some former social movement activists have given up trying to occupy land and resist or even burn down transit­ camps in order to join the Democratic Alliance. Congress of the People (Cope) supporters keep climbing out of the grave to which their party had been consigned to energetically denounce the African National Congress (ANC). In the recent SABC election debate in the Eastern Cape it was the Azanian People­'s Organisation (Azapo), that ghost of politics past, that burst into strong and suave life and trounced the other parties. And there are all kinds of popular protest bubbling away within and against the party system­.

Around the world there is usually vastly less interest in the local government­ than in the national government. Some of the fall-off in voting rates in local elections here can certainly be ascribed to this general tendency. We shouldn't be surprised that the no-vote campaigns that sizzled in some areas in 2004 and 2006 largely flopped amid the intense emotion that many invested in the 2008 national election that brought Jacob Zuma to power­.

But what is going on in South Africa­ isn't just a case of comfortable apathy.

That may be current for some, but there is also a groundswell of active disgust and vigorous contestation. The reasons for this are clear. For one thing it's relatively easy to sustain fantasies about politicians who only rush by in their blue-light cavalcades or drop out of the sky in their helicopters every now and then. But it's a lot harder to go on believing that your increasingly corpulent local councillor, whom you may know intimately, is out there swashbuckling on your behalf. And of course while national leaders may still give people some of the fading sense of belonging and connection to a broader historical project, local government lacks all poetry. It has been reduced to the entirely technocratic task of delivering services.

The increasing hegemony of the idea that progress is just a question of service delivery is very comfortable for the state because it consigns questions of justice and dignity­ to the now long gone history of the struggles against apartheid.

A population demanding delivery is vastly easier to manage than a people demanding justice and that is especially so if the conception of justice is one grounded in popular participation. But while the hegemony of the idea that the local government is just a matter of delivering services to passive beneficiaries­ has narrowed many people­'s expectations, it has also concretised them.

People feel that they have a clear right to a house, a toilet, street lighting, and water and electricity. When they don't get these things they often feel that they have been robbed. And when they see their councillor swish by in his or her new car on the way to Nando's, firm opinions about who has done the robbing form quite quickly.

The ANC is certainly trying to make some headway against the manifest crisis of local government. They are moving away from cadre deployment, making some effort to democratise the process of generating electoral lists, taking real steps against local corruption in some areas and promising houses where people live rather than in bleak dumping grounds in the middle­ of nowhere.

Their strategy is largely to stick with the current system but to try to make it efficient. All the signs are that they are simultaneously encouraging crony capitalism at the top of society. It seems fair to conclude that they aim to discipline the local­ government in order to reassert some control over an increasingly fractious public while the frenzied deal-making continues unabated at the top.

But what the ANC is certainly not doing is to democratise the relation between the state and the parties that wield power, and the citizens beneath them. Political repression has always been experienced most brutally at local level. Assassinations and police beatings were being­ carried out quite openly in Durban by 2006 and by 2009 dissidents were being publicly driven from their homes by armed ANC supporters with the tacit support of the police. Recent events in Wesselton­, Ermelo, show that the trajectory is not, not at all, a move away from local repression.

The ANC's gambit is that the repression of popular power, be it organised in or out of the party system, and allowing enough patronage to sustain the power of the party to co-opt local leaders but not enough to provoke revolt, will keep a lid on things, as service delivery continues to entrench itself as the horizon of what people can hope for.

There's no doubt that the ANC will carry the brunt of some anger at the polls and by the diminishing number of people who choose to vote. And it will be an entirely good thing if the ANC catches a proverbial­ wake-up after, on balance, fewer people vote than last time and fewer of those who do vote, vote ANC.

But while the din of all the parties debating who can provide services the most efficiently is keeping them all on their toes, we mustn't forget that while the actual delivery of some services might be better than nothing, a 20 or even 50-year wait for a prepaid water meter in an RDP house is hardly the foundation for a decent life.

We need to look beyond the rush by the parties to claim to be able to provide services more efficiently than each other. If there is hope for a bigger vision of society, it lies outside the election debate in the ferment that's erupting all around it. The real task now is to protect this ferment. Of course it needs to be protected against the sort of police that come with guns and an increasing appetite for torture and shooting protestors with live ammunition.

But it also needs to be protected against the sort of ideological police that come with laptops, capacity- building­ workshops and jargon that all amount to the same lesson — that politics is the domain of the expert and its task is to deliver services to passive beneficiaries. And it needs to be protected from the full spectrum of leering opportunists selling ethnic chauvinism, xenophobia, sexism, homophobia and all the other ways in which a people can be turned on itself rather than its oppressors.

If this ferment can be protected it could be the space where we learn and relearn to be genuinely democratic people — to debate, to organise, to experiment. This could be the space where we learn to disagree without being seen to be disloyal or the dupe of yet another of the imagined conspiracies that are so rife in our paranoid political culture where every act of rebellion or independent thought is misread as a sign of some deeper manipulation.

• Richard Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University. This article first appeared on the website of The South African Civil Society Information Service (www.sacsis.org.za).

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