Will the ANC learn?

2010-02-23 00:00

IN his State of the Nation address President Jacob Zuma announced that 2010 would be “a year of action.” The question that citizens are bound to ask, and have indeed been asking, is “Will this be so? Will we see many concrete actions this year?”

The government needs to be active in many areas of operation. In this article I shall single out just one of them: municipalities. As we all know, many municipalities (most of them under ANC control) have been failing to perform effectively: there have been problems with water, electricity, waste removal, rubbish, sewers, housing, cashflow. People living in Pietermaritzburg have been made vividly aware of these problems by the stark and startling fact that two MECs have singled out for special rebuke and investigation the Msunduzi Municipality, which until three or four years ago had a pretty good reputation for governance.

The acute problems that many municipalities are experiencing stem from a number of different causes. But clearly one of the main ones is a combination of the policy of cadre deployment and an unwise handling of affirmative action. One could understand the point of cadre deployment: the ANC wanted to make sure that the main people given the task of carrying out its policies were properly committed to them and would not seek to undermine them. But such a way of handling things makes no sense if the people appointed (or “deployed”) lack the requisite skills and so undermine the policies anyway. Similarly with affirmative action. Of course it was necessary to make special provision for the employment of black people after the outrageous white affirmative action carried out by the apartheid regime, but appointing seriously under-qualified or incompetent people was never going to do any good — to the people employed, to their colleagues, to the municipality in question or to the community at large. Then we must add to these difficulties the harsh facts of cronyism (obviously from the first a danger with cadre deployment), a fairly widespread sense of entitlement, other forms of corruption, and the low morale accompanying a general lack of efficiency and commitment.

These are some of the problems that the ANC government faces. Can they be solved? Yes, they can, but only if they are tackled honestly and resolutely. The steps that need to be taken are fairly obvious and well known: strong leadership, a tightening-up of discipline, better management, accountability, public consultation, a boost to morale and the dismissal of inefficient or corrupt councillors, officials and workers. Perhaps top ANC politicians, officials and advisers are urging these steps behind the scenes. Certainly non-governmental agencies and the opposition parties are speaking openly about what needs to be done. The Democratic Alliance is not merely stating its position: in the Cape Town metro, which it controls, it is beginning to demonstrate for all to see what really good and professional municipal governance looks like.

Will the ANC government respond? One can only hope that it will. Governments in power are always reluctant to follow the lead offered by the opposition, but they often do so while claiming not to. In the present instance we must hope that the Cape Town example will be quietly followed. But it isn’t going to be easy for the government to act as boldly as it should. Corruption cannot be effectively tackled when some of those given the task are themselves implicated in dubious activities. And the camaraderie and mutual loyalty developed within the ANC when it was a liberation movement struggling to combat the powerful apartheid regime have made it difficult for the leadership to adopt the firm, detached approach that the situation calls for.

South Africa is a young democracy that is beginning to mature. In last year’s election the opposition parties made gains in eight of the country’s nine provinces. As time passes, and as the memory of the liberation struggle fades, more and more South Africans will be willing to vote for the main opposition parties when they feel that the current government (at whatever level) is failing them. If the ANC hopes to stay in power it had better take full cognisance of what is happening in the country. It had better make sure that 2010 is indeed “a year of action.” If it is not, it will find itself watching its current power slip away.

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