Why government should move departments out of apartheid cities and into townships

From left: Samantha (4), Emma (9) and Christina Tait (7) show their true colours. The writer argues that South Africa has to change tact to achieve meaningful social cohesion Picture: Ian Carbutt
From left: Samantha (4), Emma (9) and Christina Tait (7) show their true colours. The writer argues that South Africa has to change tact to achieve meaningful social cohesion Picture: Ian Carbutt

Call me crazy. Blame my imagination for running wild in my head, but a different country is possible

Economists are forecasting South Africa’s economy to peak at around 2% in 2021.

Many pundits, among them a cohort of black people who managed to cross over to the right side of the economic divide, view this as something poor people ought to behold and be thankful for.

If these projections truly resemble the next two to three years, then our troubles are far from over.

If this is all we are working towards, it is best we close shop and go home – as it were.

Given the socioeconomic ruin and rampant lawlessness we are swimming in, a goal this low will only make a mockery of the #ThumaMina clarion call.

Any promise of eradicating poverty and inequality is, at best, banana oil.

Many moons ago, the late Sampie Terreblanche cautioned us about negative consequences of the neoliberal economic model the Americans imposed on us while we were still lost in the afterglow of Nelson Mandela’s release.

This veteran political economist told us that this economic model, which replaced the ANC’s “Growth through redistribution vision” was not even fit for purpose in the context of our country.

The design faults of this model are such that growth must take place at the top in the forlorn hope that there might be some trickle down benefits for the poor.

Fast forward to 2019, Terreblanche is exonerated by every piece of data available.

In the fullness of time, South Africa became a proud titleholder of the world’s most unequal nation.

French thinker Voltaire could have been speaking to us when he retorted: “It is difficult to free fools from the chains they revere.”

Closer home, it will only take a hopeless fool not to know that whereas apartheid was done away with in writing, this economic system was put in its stead to further impoverish an African and keep him beholden to his peers in the global north and everywhere else.

All is not lost though. Through immediate and radical departure from the norm, Thuma Mina can still redeem itself.

The rise of a younger cohort into our political landscape should inject renewed hope that Africa may yet return to its former glory of Mapungubwe when our ancestors mined their own gold and turned it into valuable products before trading on an equal footing with the rest of the globe.

How do we turn the corner? The first step is to collect all the fancy speeches and a galaxy of political parties’ manifestos and put them into the world’s biggest incinerator.

Step two is to ignite the damn blasted machine and deposit the ashes into the Bermuda Triangle.

The third step is for the government to migrate all its departments and entities out of old apartheid cities and towns into villages and townships.

After all, this is where the bulk of service recipients are located. It’s a no brainer.

The continued injection of government spending into apartheid cities guarantees the status quo.

Decentralisation achieves the opposite.

This will automatically force the rich – mostly white – to leave traditionally white spaces and explore black spaces in pursuit of services and business opportunities.

Once this is the norm, no politician will have to recite meaningless Reconciliation Day speeches about “forging social cohesion”.

Apart from forcing the hand of white people into joining their black compatriots in this nation building project, the buying power and spending patterns, which are tilted in favour of the former, will be drastically altered.

Years back ANC MP Vincent Smith dared to imagine a South Africa outside of white spaces when he proposed that Parliament be moved from Cape Town closer to Tshwane.

He correctly observed that this cash-strapped nation was haemorrhaging billions of rand in flying and accommodating politicians between these two cities.

While Smith and some of his fellow progressive MPs deserve kudos for this proposal, he needed to imagine that it is still possible to bring Parliament closer to Tshwane, yet outside the borders of this apartheid city.

The reasons are plain and simple. Moving such an important institution from one apartheid city to the next will simply benefit the same cohort whose property values, businesses and rental stock will gain from the windfall flowing out of yet another state sponsored multibillion rand capital injection.

Smith is probably alive to the reality that the only thing black people managed to reclaim in the aftermath of apartheid was the mere swapping of the name Pretoria to Tshwane. That’s all.

The entire city and surroundings, just like all local towns and cities, remain an extension of Europe.

Thuma Mina can yet achieve lasting significance by relocating buildings closer to the black majority.

A good example of such a spot is the vast expanse between Hammanskraal and Pienaarsrivier along the N1 highway.

Apart from affording MPs easy travel between my proposed future national parliament and the current capital city, this area is at the confluence of the North West, Limpopo, Mpumalanga and Gauteng and thus a more people-centric spot – worthy of hosting a true people’s parliament.

Apart from breaking the backbone of past spatial planning, the government will be giving expression to its own professed vision of creating truly integrated human settlements, stimulating township economy, promoting social cohesion and fulfilling all the electoral promises we are often guilty of swallowing without analysing.

Call me crazy. Blame my imagination for running wild in my head.

But please join me in imagining a not-so-distant future where it will no longer be taboo for Smith and his family to grab a plate of mogodu from Modise’s spaza shop in Madlangi en route to our future home affairs office or a US embassy in Bokonhout outside Mabopane.

Why is it ludicrous to imagine Jannie Koekemoer getting a quick hair cut on the corner of 6th street in Alexandra while his little sister is queuing for kota at the late Mbopha’s place up the road?

In my head, I have seen Jan van der Merwe and his friends sitting on beer crates at a tavern in a place called Sgandaf while bobbing their heads to Mojava’s music.

I have seen them having their cars washed at Thabo’s Kasi Kar Wach in Zola while patiently waiting for the long queues at a local traffic department to wane.

This is the only way through which social cohesion can be achieved – not through meaningless political rhetoric and empty sloganeering.

But this important national project will, of course, remain a figment of a mad man’s imagination unless those entrusted with positions of authority and state resources have their heads and hearts in the right places.

Until and unless we witness zero speeches and more actions, black poverty will only end the day the snow starts falling on the Sahara, to borrow from Natalie Cole – the late daughter to the late legendary Nat King Cole.

Until poor white people start earning an honest living by working as domestic workers instead of demanding free money at traffic intersections, while their African counterparts are leaving their kids at 4am to catch three to five connecting modes of transport to go serve the Williams in a distant suburb only to spend the entire wage on transport, economists must spare us their misplaced diagnosis.

Until white people start paying indigenous people for a true African safari retreat along the Kruger National Park or our coastal resorts – and not the other way round – the fate of an African child will only change the day “Mojava red turns into blue”.

Unless we stop talking and start acting, our freedom will only come the day the rivers start flowing upstream.

But no one drives this gloomy reality home better than Shirley Bassey, who although seized with a completely different, yet equally emotive, subject matter, says the status quo will prevail: “Till the day the moon deserts the sky … Till all the seas run dry … Till the tropic sun turns cold.”

Motsepe is a civil servant and former journalist


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