If there is anything positive to take from the ruthless Covid-19 global pandemic, it is how the virus has exposed, worldwide, the intrinsic flaws of modern politics, governance and democracy itself.
Trust in the state and officialdom globally has diminished; in South Africa, it has never been so low as battered voters approach the country’s sixth local government elections on 1 November 2021. That in itself should be cause for mild celebration.
As is the fact that this time round a record number of 95,427 candidates have qualified to contest in 4,468 wards across the country. The total number of ward seats being contested is 61,111, with 34,316 on a proportional representation ticket.
Chief electoral officer Sy Mamabolo this week announced that 26.2 million people were eligible to cast their votes on 1 November. He added that there had been a 42% increase in the number of independent candidates, with 1,546 standing, compared with 855 in 2016. This time around, voters have a smorgasbord of 325 parties to choose from.
All of this is heartening news and evidence of robust political engagement in South Africa – in the face of the shocking collapse of governance in many parts of the country.
The impact of the pandemic – the cost in lives and in the devastation of economies – forms the backdrop to this election. It will probably remain so for years to come. It has changed the world so drastically and economies so rapidly that some leaders are scrambling to keep up in the face of growing resistance to corruption by elites – both political and business – in all spheres of life.
An added dimension of weirdness to all the trauma is that the pandemic also unlocked the doors of the lunatic asylum; from there, a ward of self-professed experts on everything from vaccines to 5G, from democracy to the origin of the pineapple pizza, emerged among the dazed human race to take centre stage on social media platforms.
Science, medicine, truth and facts have to compete with the loudhailing, death-threatening crazies; South Africans themselves have not been spared the sometimes deafening noise.
The job of the 257 municipalities in South Africa, is, according to government itself, to grow local economies and to provide infrastructure and services. Seems simple enough.
And yet it has not happened, as evidenced in the sewage and condoms that bubble out of broken drains that course like a foul stream through muddy township streets across the country, the power outages, the water shortages, the potholes, the illegal dumping of waste, the crumbling infrastructure, the poverty, the homelessness. The spectre of hunger haunts Covid-era South Africa, an unforgivable failure.
This is a watershed local election that should tip the country into new political territory, one of coalitions and cooperation, as voters push back in protest after years of profligate leadership and corruption that have led to 29 municipalities being placed under administration.
A report prepared by Parliament’s portfolio committee on cooperative governance notes 63 municipalities in financial distress and 108 with unfunded budgets. In some parts of the country, there is zero service delivery.
Low voter turnouts threaten democracy, which is why each vote will matter in this election and why every citizen who can vote should do so on Monday, 1 November.
Whether you make your cross out of frustration, anger, to punish, out of loyalty, strategically or out of hope and trust, you will be able to say that you were part of a moment when things in SA had the possibility of changing for the better.
We need active citizens, not citizens who are passive … The work is too much. We must have stamina. It will be a long road but we have got to do it. We have done it during apartheid … We must go forward … We must not vanish like politicians after election time. We don’t have all the answers. We must be inspired by our history and our resilience.
This is the mix of the very bad and the good stuff that underpins this election, which will take voters in all metros, municipalities and wards across the country down to the wire.
For those who have stepped forward to represent the wishes, aspirations and needs of the voters, this is also time for a reset.
The lay of the land in 2021 is very different from 2016, when we held our last local government elections, which came with a 58% voter turnout.
Rates and tax revolts are being threatened as desperate ratepayer associations try to find how to get dysfunctional municipalities to deliver services that have been paid for.
In January last year, the the Makhanda High Court ordered the dissolution of the Makana Local Municipality and the appointment of an administrator after the Unemployed People’s Movement took the municipality to court. The decision was appealed but rejected.
Ayanda Kota, a leading figure in that battle with the Makana Municipality, captured the zeitgeist, telling a recent Daily Maverick webinar: “People are sick and tired of politicians.”
We need active citizens, he said, “not citizens who are passive … The work is too much. We must have stamina. It will be a long road but we have got to do it. We have done it during apartheid … We must go forward … We must not vanish like politicians after election time. We don’t have all the answers. We must be inspired by our history and our resilience.”
In 2009, 30 ratepayer associations withheld their rates and taxes and others declared disputes for non-delivery of services.
At present several ratepayer associations, including in the Msunduzi Municipality in Pietermaritzburg, are contemplating rates and tax diversions. The Organisation for Undoing Tax Abuse (Outa) will be rolling out a number of campaigns to help improve communication between local governments and the residents they serve as well as building capacity in helping residents to form ratepayers associations.
A concerning number of young people have expressed their disillusionment with politics and voting, placing their own socioeconomic wellbeing above democratic rights.
These were the findings of a study by the Centre for Social Development in Africa at the University of Johannesburg on 2019 voter preferences.
“This is a worrying trend indicating a loss of faith in democracy,” remarked authors Leila Patel and Lauren Graham.
Local government is where citizens experience directly and daily the consequences of a disappearing leadership, low accountability and massive incompetence.
With damning reports from the Auditor-General’s office and several municipalities under administration with ballooning debt, there is no one left to lie to.
A reason for mild cheer is that in the midst of this crushing Covid-19 crisis many stood firm, coming to the fore to take leading roles.
Individuals, NGOs, the medical community, some politicians and activists, and religious and cultural groups stepped up to fill the huge vacuum where big and small governments failed.
What it also revealed was the resilience and determination of ordinary citizens and NGOs. It was also ordinary people who blew the whistle on gargantuan PPE corruption that swept through some government departments.
In this age of fake promises wrapped in political slogans, it would be best to navigate your way through the quagmire with facts and findings.
There is enough out there for anyone in any district, municipality, metro or ward to track whether the party or the politician you voted for five years ago walked the walk after talking the talk.
Whatever you do, vote. This is the time. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.