Suspicion and resentment

2008-02-22 00:00

It is globally common, it seems, for people to grumble about any public service. In our newspapers, letters of complaint and criticism far exceed in number those that give praise.

The nature of South African society, with a very real base of racial disharmony, adds a different, and more serious, dimension to this phenomenon. Whether we like to admit it or not, prejudice abounds.

Among those who make observations on radio-talk programmes are people with the most astonishing perceptions.

Short on knowledge, these callers are outrageous in their criticism of the government, or conversely, blindly supportive. It is refreshing, but not common, to hear the views of people who are open-minded and able to exercise discernment in their reaction to events and circumstances.

In many instances I find it hard to believe that people can interpret a single matter in such diametrically opposite ways. But we are such easy victims of the spin put out by political leaders who, I believe, are aided and abetted by a media that doesn’t seem to encourage discernment and objectivity.

I suppose we buy more newspapers if their headlines proclaim what we want to hear.

I wrote before about the international cycling event held in our city. In its aftermath there is evidence of the validity of my argument.

Contrary to the expectation of many, the event was considered extremely successful by both the sponsoring company and the cycling fraternity that supported it. The TV media coverage was considered outstanding for an event of this type and our city environs were beamed into tens of thousands of homes across the world.

Aside from this event which will be staged during the next two years at least, there are possible spin-offs that will enhance the international status of our city. Inconvenience is a small price to pay for such economic potential.

Among the plaudits handed out by the competitors was a tribute to the Msunduzi Traffic Department (arguably among the least popular officials among local motorists during the week of the race). A national team manager described it as “an awesome week of racing” and praised the “world-class job by the traffic department … the traffic guys in Pietermaritzburg rate up there with the best (Malaysia, by the way) … your guys are on a par”. There is indeed a side to the coin that we sometimes refuse to see.

But we will continue to do so, no doubt, as long as the relationship between the local government and the people (some of them, at least) is dysfunctional. I doubt that this is a new phenomenon, although in days when voting residents met city councillors and officials over dinner tables, on the golf course, in the club, or in church, there was an underlying bond that gave some commonality of purpose. This bond has been transferred since 1994 to the supporters of the ANC, both voters and councillors and a rankling perception of exclusion prevails.

Thus, the valuation of properties to give effect to the Municipal Property Rates Act was received by some with unbridled resentment and suspicion (less than 20% were unco-operative, as it happened) just as it is not an uncommon perception that ratepayers will be fleeced when the new system comes into operation.

What does it need, I wonder, for the city and its people to be in harmony (although not necessarily in agreement). That it needs a more conscious effort on the part of the local government to fulfil service expectations consistently and draw more people, and on an equitable basis, into the developing life of a united community, is true. But it also requires a willingness on the part of all citizens to accept the role of active and enthusiastic partners and stakeholders.

• Andrew Layman is a former headmaster and now the CEO of the Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Business.

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