Solly Moeng | The DA is solid on service delivery, so why is its image a disaster?

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Solly Moeng.
Solly Moeng.
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Its track record shows that the opposition party can deliver services. But it is consistently failing to confront reputational damage effectively, much to its detriment, writes brand and reputation expert Solly Moeng.

It has been fascinating to watch Cape Town, post-pandemic, announce one positive news item after the other and yet, at each turn, be accused by some quarters of misleading SA and the world.

This is because, the claim is repeated, it has consistently neglected historically 'black and brown' – or 'black African and coloured' – residential areas in the Cape Town metropolitan area, in favour of historically white residential areas in dispensing basic and crucial local government services.

In South Africa, a lie or half-truth, if it is repeated often enough, can quickly become truth. The Democratic Alliance (DA) has convincingly won several elections over the years and retained its grip on Cape Town and the Western Cape. Yet psychologically, it seems to remain on the backfoot, pushing back against fears and accusations or suspicions regarding its real aims. The official opposition party seems caught up in psychological warfare driven by a plethora of such narratives and lacks a convincing strategy to push back.

But I shall come back to this.

Cape Town has announced a strong recovery in tourist and visitor numbers in the current summer season, with Cape Town International Airport and the city's tourism fraternity beaming, in recent weeks, delighted with the large number of holiday makers from South Africa and abroad.

READ | Covid-19-ravaged tourism sector on its way to recovery, with over 100% increase in domestic trips

The city has also announced another clean audit of its 2021/22 public finances by SA's Auditor-General, not for the first time. This has been the case for Cape Town since 2006, when the DA took over from the ANC. It's worth noting that just 16% of the country's 257 municipalities received clean audits.

Executive Mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis puts this down to "every cent of public money [having] gone towards service delivery". This is in priority areas of:

  • Making the city safer,
  • Cleaning and maintaining public spaces,
  • Releasing land and making housing more affordable,
  • Improving public transport, and
  • Eradicating poverty.

More recently, the mayor announced a new plan to help city residents push back against the socioeconomic wrecking ball effects of the ongoing electricity crisis. Following an exemption granted by the National Treasury to enable the City of Cape Town to run a competitive bidding process to procure its own electricity, Cape Town will be able to offer instant cash back and other incentives to private residents and businesses who can generate their own electricity – mostly through solar energy instruments – and sell back excess generated power to the city at an agreed rate. If successful, the plan is expected to reduce overall load shedding for Cape Town residents by up to four stages. This too, has no precedent in the South African municipal arena.

The Western Cape provincial government, of which Cape Town is a key city, has also tried over the years to get some national laws amended to allow it to oversee the South African Police Services (SAPS) in the province, as well as to run Metrorail commuter services in Cape Town. It has fought with national housing ministers in the past over matters of local housing authority and jurisdiction. All of these have come to naught.

Western Cape authorities and observers of developments there believe that the refusal by the ANC-controlled national government to devolve specific powers to, arguably, better run municipal jurisdictions, such as in the Cape – especially where such municipal jurisdictions are run by the DA, is a sign of political malevolence to avoid the DA being seen to be better equipped to run public institutions.

Despite the positive achievements of the DA-governed Cape Town and Western Cape, suspicious attitudes towards the opposition party appear to persist. Many of these seem very unlikely, for example aims by the party to bring back apartheid. Others appear just as unfounded or, at the very least arguably so, for example rising crime stats attributed to the party; acting only to protect and enhance 'white privilege'; arrogance; racism or favouring of areas historically populated by white people.

Some of the things that many people seem to conveniently refuse talking about are:

  • The refusal by national government to devolve more policing powers to capable municipalities, including Cape Town, make it hard for them to fight the scourge of crime the best way they can. It is no wonder that Cape Town – despite its otherwise scenic and functional appeal – features in the global list of the ten most dangerous cities, alongside several others in places like Brazil, Mexico, and the US.
  • Cape Town could bring better safety and order in the running of Metrorail commuter services if it were allowed to do so. This is also tight to the first point above, because organised attacks on public transport services would also have to be handled with better crime intelligence and the ability to act fully and effectively against suspected perpetrators.
  • The city's hands are tied, to some extent, regarding housing and land invasions. Where land invasions occur, local authorities are often hamstrung by protracted court processes and/ or the need to provide alternative placement.
  • Many South Africans are migrating from neighbouring provinces to seek opportunity in well-run Cape Town. While such internal migrations are both legal and normal, and not only applicable to the Western Cape are not the only recipients of them – many also head to Johannesburg and elsewhere in Gauteng – the reality is that the demands placed by such large arrivals, especially in terms of housing, do mean that more resources are needed, and the increasing demand can contribute to tensions with Cape Town residents who have been waiting for the same services for many years. There's also a higher risk of racial tension, which can be difficult for authorities (and the governing party) to navigate, particularly where there are perceptions by locals that arrivals of a different race are being favoured at their expense. All this constitutes a political and moral minefield.
  • Reported criminal, sometimes violent, attacks of paramedics in ambulances, firefighting brigades, Eskom technical workers, and people coming to repair infrastructure and to provide other services, make service delivery particularly challenging.  

In the end, the DA may not be held responsible for what is done by others. But it is responsible for continuing to do what it does right, particularly in the management of public finances (as endorsed repeatedly by the Auditor-General), and to respond in ways that are transparently equitable to the challenges it faces – real and perceived – in making Cape Town a place all residents, irrespective of background, can feel proud to call home.

The malevolent attacks on DA-run municipalities, whether factual or unfounded, are unlikely to end soon. The best way for the DA to continue delivering service is to deal with its reputation – first by taking cognisance of the persistent associations many South Africans make with its brand, and confronting them head-on, mindful of tone and the messages it sends out in its communication.

Solly Moeng is brand reputation management advisor and MD of strategic corporate communications consultancy DonValley. News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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