Resurrecting the City of Choice

2010-11-16 00:00

PUBLIC hearings are something of a culture shock. This relates rather more to white inhibition, or apathy perhaps, than to black enthusiasm for the opportunity to engage with the government.

Last week, the Parliamentary Select Committee on Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs (NCOP) was in town hearing submissions on whether the Intervention Programme that was introduced to save the Msunduzi Municipality from itself should be extended or not. Voters from various wards were there in numbers, brought to the Winston Churchill by buses so that they could be participants in our democratic process. For many, their mere presence constituted participation.

All those who spoke seemed to have political aspirations, if the tones of their voices and their passion for their cases are considered. They were frequently encouraged by rousing support from the sympathisers in the audience. Regrettably, I was not able to understand those who spoke in their own language, but appreciated — I’m not sure that we do this enough — their eagerness to express their views in their own chosen way, even if some unilingual white people could not understand them. People who are not able to speak much English are hugely disadvantaged, it seems to me. Few leaders speak to them in their own language and communication in a second language is never completely successful.

White voters were sparse in number, while the trend here is for one or two people to be sent to deliver the message on behalf of all the rest who do not attend. Participatory democracy is generally limited to voting every so often as far as white (or is it middle-class?) people are concerned. For black people, who have a greater right to describe themselves as “the community”, it is taking advantage of the opportunities to express a view and rattle some cages.

For reasons that I don’t understand, it is the National Council of Provinces that appears to have the responsibility of oversight as far as provincial interventions into local government are concerned, and this was the reason for the visit of this NCOP committee. The provincial MEC is awaiting guidance (or is it instruction? I’m not sure) from the committee before she either allows the contracts of the members of the Intervention Team to expire, which they are due to do soon, or extends them for an additional period.

There are worrying rumours that termination is favoured, these being accompanied by speculation that there is political pressure from disaffected councillors who would like to make a comeback. Apparently there are some aspirant mayors among those in the wings waiting for the stage to clear. It was naïve to believe that those whose power was wrested from them would fade quietly away, especially with an election looming within six months and a new opportunity to gain popular approbation.

In the view of the chamber, which I presented at the hearing, we are not ready to resume politics as normal, especially as we have been so badly let down by this in the recent past. What the Intervention Team has done is not far short of miraculous and although some people have been innocent victims of the rigour, perhaps, the ends have justified the means. To have converted a shortfall of over R150 million into a positive R50 million in a matter of months has required a very concerted, and sometimes one-eyed, focus. It was the required starting point, of course. Nothing of any value could be achieved without this financial turnaround. At the same time, the administrator and his team have written policies, which were not in place before, and developed strategies by which the municipality may be guided in the future. Some of these may yet require revision because they were drafted and accepted within the context of dire straits. It is true to say that “dire” is now dispensable, but “straits” is not.

It is for this reason that the Intervention Programme, under the direction of Johann Mettler, must continue in our view up to the election next year, at least. A foundation is being laid, but it is by no means secure at this point in time.

If resurrection of the city is to be achieved, the foundation needs a lot more consolidation, both in terms of the operational structure of the municipality itself and its modus operandi, and in the minds of people, both those who work there and those who don’t but rely on it to provide their services.

• Andrew Layman is the CEO of the Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Business.

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