Cronin vs Leon: Service delivery protests

2009-08-06 12:25

Die Burger is currently running a series called Big Ideas (“Groot Idees”) in which keen minds debate the important issues of our time. Jeremy Cronin, the deputy minister of transport, and Tony Leon, former DA-leader, tackle the burning issue of how to handle the service delivery protests around the country.

Tony Leon’s opener:

Ironically the service delivery protests mushrooming across the country, in the winter of South Africa’s discontent, have produced a rare consensus between government and opposition, well expressed by Helen Zille, Leader of the Democratic Alliance, who surveying the situation in Cape Town said, “It’s about demands that cannot be met.”

She pointed out, as well something which ANC leaders have been quick to note: the more resources which are poured into an area, the more unrest it can fuel, simply because not everyone will benefit equally from its allocation.

Human Settlements Minister Tokyo Sexwale pointed out that government had already delivered 2.8 million homes, of very variable quality admittedly. Govenment, in fact, has massively increaded direct expenditure on local government,from R63bn in 2001/2 to R114bn in 2007/8, while a previous intervention, “Siyenza Manje”, pumped in over R741m over three years to assist failing municipalities. Clearly hurling money at the problem has failed to alleviate it. It is also clear that one-size-doesn’t fit all in diagnosing the causes of the current wave of unrest, and doubtless there is a degree of hooliganism and political posturing which can be identified.

However, while the long-term solutions to the current crisis will, by definition take time, and while the legacy issues bequeathed by apartheid cannot be resolved in 15 years, there are certain urgent steps which can help douse the flames.

First, the latest protests are the latest in a long series: for example, in 2007, an extraordinary 10 000 riots and protests were recorded at the exact time which government acknowledged in Project Consolidate that fully 136 out ofSouth Africa’s 284 local authorities were unable to fulfil their basic functions. One of the key causes for this failure is a lack of skills at local level> For example a survey which I commissioned when Leader of the Opposition revealed that only 36% of municipalities were headed by administrators with a matriculation and diploma qualification or less. One of the causes for this de-skilling has been the insistence of the ANC to pursue “cadre deployment” and enforce rigid racial quotas above requirements of competence and commitment. Changing this policy will, at the least, start to yield measurable improvements.

Second, when the Centre for Development and Enterprise compiled its 2007 report on national issues inflaming local situations it cited , among a welter of conclusions, the “incompetence and indifference of councillors” and “corruption in awarding tenders” coupled with an absence of stringent financial controls as part of the explanation. Two years later, those precise terms are being used by many dissatisfied residents as the core of their complaints. Often civic-minded action, such as petitions and peaceful protests give way to more violent  actions when Mayors and Councillors simply fail to arrive at scheduled meetings or never report back to dissatisfied residents. However, until local residents use the power of their vote to throw out underperforming councillors and parties, little change on this front can be expected. The truth is that South Africans still vote largely along lines of racial identity  more than as a means of using the ballot to punish underperformance. When this starts to happen, politicians will be obliged to take notice.

Third, political leaders need to demonstrate they care: too many civic leaders put their own comfort ahead of the concerns of their voters.Local government is disfigured by  obscene displays of opulence in the teeth of grinding poverty-ranging from overseas visits to mayoral limousines and the bling of high-living off the municipal accounts. In 2007 a DA report revealed that the cost of salaries exceeded the cost of services, across the country, by more than R10 Billion. In recessionary times, it is urgent that the ratios be reversed.

Fourth, there is the issue of personal responsibility. Politicians need to promise less and deliver more. Residents need to heed the example offered by Zille. The costs of repairing vandalised infrastructure in Cape Town consumes over two-thirds of a multi-million rand budget. If residents destroyed and stole less, three-times more could be spent on deliverables.

Finally, at election time, we should tell these truths to the people whose votes we seek. An informed and credible partnership between  voters and their leaders will repair the breach of trust which the latest  protests so violently demonstrate.

Cronin responds to Leon:

Yes, many problems you identify in local politics are real – lack of skills, poor deployments, patronage politics. We must urgently deal with these. But how?

Let’s empower communities. Let’s move towards a more constituency-based electoral dispensation – that’s not just for ward councillors, but also for, say, 50% of national MPs.

Let’s learn from some Brazilian cities, where innovative experiments with participatory budgeting at the community level have helped expose and reduce endemic municipal corruption.

And let’s keep the bigger picture in mind. You say 15 years is not enough to reverse the apartheid legacy. But HAVE we been reversing that legacy?

The pleasant suburb where I live is serviced by an approachable, long-serving, hard-working, model DA councillor. And yet, he is part of the bigger problem. He applies all his experience and skill to defending our enclave privileges at the expense of a more sustainable city for all.

Jeremy Cronin’s opener:

A service delivery failure. A local government capacity crisis. These are the more frequent explanations for the current wave of township protests. Affected ANC municipalities invoke the apartheid legacy. DA-governed municipalities blame ANC misrule.

There may be a grain of truth in many such explanations, and none are necessarily mutually exclusive. However, before too easily accepting any of them, let’s drill down deeper.

The very notion of government “delivery” is problematic. Yes, government has major public responsibilities, but the idea of “delivery” lapses quickly into a technocratic, top-down provision of services to a passive citizenry. Government’s role becomes the dispensing of patronage, while senior bureaucrats are incentivised with performance bonuses tied to measurable outputs.

Indeed, in sheer quantitative terms, since 1994 there’s been a major delivery roll-out. It’s impressive by any international standard. In 1996 3 million people had access to social grants. Today it’s 13 million. In 1996 58% of South Africans had access to electricity, 62% to running water. Today, those percentages are 80% and 88%. Over 3 million subsidised houses have been built.

The lives of beneficiaries have surely improved. But this pursuit of delivery targets has produced many perverse outcomes. Maintenance and repair get neglected, once a delivery target is met. Were three million RDP houses ever the right priority? Were communities consulted? What is the likely consequence of constructing millions of subsidised peri-urban houses, while neglecting to drive a dynamic land reform programme? The answer to this last question is that RDP housing in urban areas acts as a magnet, drawing millions more from a collapsing hinterland. Meeting the housing back-log target becomes an elusive mirage.

Perhaps Steven Friedman is right to argue that recent township protests are, paradoxically, about too much, not too little, delivery!

What of other explanations? Yes, there are capacity problems in many municipalities – but it’s all too easy to blame local officials while turning a blind-eye to the near impossible challenges in under-resourced and overcrowded dormitory townships marginalized on the outskirts of towns. Unemployment rates are often above 60%. Second generation inhabitants jostle with rural newcomers and a flood of economic refugees from throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Bottled up in ghettoes, taxi-wars and the burning of foreigners’ business premises are symptoms of struggles for scarce resources. There might be local capacity challenges, but the combined skills of Maria Ramos and Mother Theresa wouldn’t be sufficient to solve many township challenges simply with more efficient “delivery”.

Underpinning all of this is a basic fact. In 15 years of democracy we have failed to transform the spatial patterns of apartheid. Our social geography continues to reproduce grotesque levels of racialised inequality and separation. Where you live determines what education you are likely to get, what possibilities you have of future employment, what it costs to get to work. 18% of households are spending more than 20% of income on unreliable, time-consuming public transport to work.

We’ve abolished pass laws, influx control and group areas, but a grossly inequitable property market continues to separate poor from rich with as much severity as any apartheid-era pass-office functionary.

Throwing more “deliverables” at townships will not, by itself, transform these spatial realities. We need a different kind of development - more mixed-income, mixed-usage, medium-density cities, not urban sprawl, not matchbox, dormitory accommodation. We need to drive rural development, emphasising small-scale farming and sustainable livelihoods. We need to review our three-tiered political dispensation, and ask how we can better devolve resources, skills and responsibilities to localities. And we need to mobilise an active citizenry by implementing local-level participatory planning and budgeting processes long since provided for in municipal legislation.

Leon responds to Cronin:

Jeremy’s  take on the  delivery service protests is, at least, a refreshing departure from the  response of the previous Minister of Provincial Affairs and local Government. When he was asked to respond to the Centre for Development and Enterprise report I cited,  Sydney Mufamadi impugned the motives of the researchers, blamed apartheid, claimed the protests were an indication of ANC successes, in that communities which had not yet benefitted from improvements seen by others and had hinted at a conspiracy by the protesters to embarrass the government. Jeremy still locates the essence of the problem in apartheid spatial planning, which clearly is a major factor. But unless there is an honest stock-taking by government of the raft of failing policies which have, in many areas, worsened not lessened the problems, and fuelled these protests, then we will be having the same debate in a few years time, except that we will be living in a country which will be, in many areas, ungovernable.

There is a hint in Jeremy’s approach of the grand design and radical replanning to fix the problem. But the entire approach of the ANC in government has been summarized by Brian Pottinger as “ideological overreach and capacity under-reach.” We have huge ambitions and expectations of the state and its machine, but many of the policies implemented have broken the machinery of state at the precise moment people expect the most from it. Before we embark on more wholesale changes, let’s fix that which we have broken.

Next week Cronin and Leon will tackle the issue of who the government should be accountable to – Luthuli House or Parliament. The Afrikaans translation will appear in Die Burger on Wednesday August 12th, while the English original will be available on News24 from Thursday August 13th.