Today’s government, tomorrow’s regime

2009-08-01 00:00

DESPITE the thump of rubber bullets and the crunch of truncheons, above the tumult one can faintly hear the flutter of bird wings. Well, chicken wings to be exact. Coming home to roost.

The African National Congress’ Polokwane conference, which identified Jacob Zuma as the rank-and-file’s saviour-elect, made clear that it all went about accountability. The inability of Thabo Mbeki’s administration to deliver services to the disadvantaged, combined with aloofness and arrogance, was intolerable. That the poor and the marginalised constituency that these delegates represented has now turned its wrath on Zuma’s government in a wave of violent protests, will give the Mbeki camp some wan satisfaction.

Human Settlements Minister Tokyo Sexwale cynically finds comfort in the view that the looting, stoning, blockading and torching are symptoms of an understandable anger against municipalities and councillors “aligned to the former regime”.

Of interest are not only the sinister implications of democratic illegitimacy that use of the word “regime” implies. Here, at a stroke, the ANC has found a new ogre to displace the previous bogey, the “apartheid regime”, which Mbeki’s crew blamed for everything, from Aids to low self-esteem.

Sexwale’s disingenuous explanation is likely to come back to haunt him, not only because it glosses over the fact that Zuma and many of his inner circle held office in that “regime”. The new government also cannot easily turn things around at the local authority level where the biggest problems lie; while corruption can perhaps be contained, the necessary delivery expertise is just not available.

Affirmative action — an admirable goal that has been reduced to a synonym for cronyism, nepotism and irretrievably incompetent deployed cadres — has meant the exodus of almost all non-ANC professional staff.

So instead of only having to extend to the poor the services previously delivered to the wealthy — an already daunting task — Zuma’s government has to rebuild a system that has been smashed and bankrupted with ANC complicity.

By government’s own admission, the majority of the country’s 283 municipalities are in a “state of paralysis and dysfunction”, to quote Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Sicelo Shiceka. Not only do failing water and sewerage systems create appalling living conditions in the townships, but the pollution and disease are then exported downstream to create an ever-widening circle of health and environmental blight.

Turnaround simply cannot be achieved quickly. At least, it cannot be done without abandoning the self-defeating manner in which affirmative action has been implemented: to sideline or replace non-ANC expertise, whatever the efficiency cost.

Another futile round of the cadre deployment that the ANC is so fond of, certainly won’t do it.

It is a big ask of a government to forgo the power that patronage affords. That is especially true when there has been an internal coup d’état, which brings a fresh litter of greedy snouts jostling to reach a trough from which they hitherto have been excluded.

Prior to his election as president, Zuma’s inner circle made reassuring noises to international journalists about him being pragmatic regarding those matters such as affirmative action, cadre deployment and corruption, which his brain’s trust had identified as impeding service delivery.

The chorused refrain was that Zuma appreciated that the first priority was to get things working again.

It remains to be seen. The battle within the ANC alliance will be between the supposed pragmatists and the sworn ideologues. In the meantime, the ordinary people will continue to ask of Zuma the question emblazoned on a protestor’s board this week: “Where is the better lyf you promise us?”

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