TO Molefe

Furore over EFF's 'U-turn' is much ado about nothing

2014-06-09 09:27

TO Molefe

We South Africans do love our symbolism, don't we? We love it even if it's of no practical value, or even when the symbolism itself gets in the way of attaining whatever supposedly real and meaningful thing it's supposed to represent.

That's probably why some people liked what they understood of the EFF's proposal that public representatives should be made to use public services. They're up in arms now that the party seems to be making a U-turn.

Others are maybe reacting from scepticism that intrinsically anticipates that politicians will change form to suit whatever stage in the electoral cycle we are. This is probably a good instinct to have.

However, EFF is, if anything, only guilty of not managing public expectations, perhaps because - and this might be cynical - it was good for its election campaign to leave the misconception about the proposal uncorrected. But as some of the negative reactions show, it'd have been short-sighted to do this intentionally.

Malema was right

If you've been listening from the beginning, you'd know that implementing the proposal was always contingent on EFF being elected into government. It's only as government that the party would have had not only the power to enact laws to compel public representatives to use the services they administer, but also the political accountability for the quality of the services.

He may have stated it coarsely, but Julius Malema was right. Given the purpose of the proposal, it makes no practical sense for him and other EFF MPs to subject themselves and their families to potentially substandard public services they hold no direct control over. The only semblance of control the party has is indirect, through its seats in the committees tasked with monitoring the strategic plans and performance of government departments.

So it's simple. If you believed EFF's intentions were noble, and you supported them for it, bear in mind that what makes poor public services so objectionable is the amount of time and resources they consume from those without the material means to opt out. The subpar services themselves - such long queues at public hospitals, an education system that under-educates, or a disjointed, expensive and in some places non-existent public transport system- perpetuate the inequalities further. People subjected to those services have to forego other possibly more productive activities because it takes a personal investment of time and resources just to get basic things done when relying on the public service.

You don't need to embark on a "Mamelodi for a month"-style socioeconomic safari to empathise.

Parliamentary privileges

And if EFF were alone in using these services they have no direction over, it could be self-defeating. It could put the party's MPs at a relative disadvantage compared to others and impair their ability to engage in parliamentary activities such as doing whatever work is needed to push for their proposals to become law.

A similar argument holds against the suggestions that EFF should also give up parliamentary privileges.

However, if you, like me, were sceptical to begin with, consider that it's not as if public representatives like Aaron Motsoaledi, who've made the symbolic gesture in the past of personally using the services they're accountable for, end up receiving the same quality of service as everybody else. Their influence and position means that only government employees with no sense of self-preservation would present them substandard services- nothing like what would happen if we commoners were in Motsoaledi's place.

But ultimately the real problem is that we do not have uniformily bad public services. Some public schools, for example, the ones that are historically better resourced as they were previously reserved for white people, are excellent. So depending on the specific situation, the symbolic act of a public representative using public services might actually end up being an empty gesture, far removed from the realities of the rest of the system.

No quick fixes

The disparity in the quality of public services available also demonstrates why this proposal would be hard to implement and might have some perverse effects.

Let's say EFF tables a "Compulsory Use of Public Services" bill and it goes through the committee processes and miraculously becomes law two months from now - record time. All it would likely do is to push public representatives into using the higher-performing public services and might create an incentive for them to improve and expand these services at the expense of those used by the general public.

This goes to show that there are no quick and easy fixes to intractable problems, no matter the emotional appeal. If we want our public representatives to be accountable to us, finding the solution starts with identifying whose voice they answer to presently, and why. Because from the poor state of many public services, which prompted this proposal from EFF, it's clear they're not answering to us, the people.

- Follow TO Molefe on Twitter.

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