No small mountain

2009-06-16 00:00

PRESIDENT Jacob Zuma is launching the National Youth Development Agency as the highlight of the commemoration of June 16, promising that the agency will surpass its predecessors (the Youth Commissions and Umsobomvu Youth Fund) in performance and impact on youth development. The large numbers of young people in attendance like what they are hearing. The promise of decent jobs, economic opportunities, improved education and an accessible government is very important to them.

After all, they worked very hard to bring about the current political changes. They came out in large numbers in protest against lethargic service delivery by municipalities all over the country, beginning in Harrismith in 2005. They also turned up in very large numbers on election day, thereby affirming their commitment to making this democracy work where this meant material progress.

The same can be said of the rural folk in places such as eMpofana, Kwa-Hlabisa and eMpendle, the development of which has become a key element of the national agenda. While we may deny it in public, in private we know that unionised workers did not risk their jobs supporting Msholozi during his court cases in vain. At least, they hope that this government will ameliorate their difficult working conditions and the dim prospects for new work opportunities. Add to this the black capitalists, amaBEE, who also hedged their bets on Zuma in the hope of broadening the BEE benefits to small enterprises through public procurement and favourable financing instruments.

The Zuma government has a difficult task of building upon the solid foundations laid by the Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki administrations. But it does not have an equally suitable economic environment to enable it to do so. The global economy is in trouble since the financial crisis started in the United States in August-September 2008 and quickly spread to the entire world. Our own economy has gone into a serious recession with most industries under stress.

The Independent Development Corporation confirmed last weekend that it is providing financial bail outs to major players in the economy. Jobs will be lost. New ones will be hard to create except casual jobs in public work projects. What makes this a particularly difficult mountain to climb is the mismatch between adverse economic conditions and very high expectations from major interest groups. Zuma‘s staying power against adversity seems to encourage rather than moderate these expectations. After all, he does well against the odds.

Msholozi has promised to curb wastage in government with officials siphoning billions of rands according to excerpts from a recent report by the auditor-general. Premiers have also declared that they will run the government efficiently. Msholozi and premiers are tested fighters not given to conceding weakness and acknowledging constraints. Thus, they underestimate the limitations imposed on them by the current economic climate, thereby allowing hopes to soar. This renders this government particularly vulnerable to a crisis of expectations come the 2011 municipal elections.

The difficulty is that the ruling ANC realises that voters will not give it another chance in power in 2014 should it fail to improve social and economic outcomes or their lived experiences no matter the circumstances of its reign. People will not accept excuses for failure to meet expectations, not even the economic recession. There must be evidence of change by the 2011 elections, and voters will respond accordingly.

Madiba oversaw a tricky process of dismantling the structures of apartheid and the creation of a new nation built on values of human rights, democracy, national reconciliation and unity, and the betterment of ordinary people’s lives. Zizi (Mbeki) built upon this by improving the efficiency of the state and expanding South Africa’s role internationally, among other things. Both were difficult tasks also because millions of people expected a lot. But the general economic climate globally was favourable and voter patience was evident. These two factors have since changed drastically.

Given the fact that the usual cocktail of moderating expectations and intelligently explaining failures are not an option this time around, the Zuma administration has to move with great speed in all five broad priority areas: rural development, jobs and sustainable livelihoods, health, education, and the fight against crime. This depends on how national and provincial leaders exercise their powers and responsibilities to root out corruption, nepotism and cronyism, as well as to make work the primary focus rather than politicking.

Doing this at the local government level is going be even more urgent, yet very difficult. Councillors are ill-trained to participate in this paradigm shift. They are accustomed to mismanaging, casual attitude to service delivery and continuous political battles. If the Zuma government manages to change the political and institutional culture at municipality level, then chances are that it will make a real difference in areas, from Mzimkhulu to Volkrust.

• Dr Siphamandla Zondi is director: Southern Africa at the Institute for Global dialogue

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