We South Africans shoot ourselves in our collective foot every single time we have an election. Our experience is the glee with which political commentators seize on to create a controversy, with the baying mob feeding it, to trash a political party over something irrelevant to the election.

Such is the ‘crisis’ for the Democratic Alliance (DA) over its ‘heroes’ poster. The accuracy or otherwise of the statements made in the poster are inconsequential. What happened was a complete mess and the author of the poster, Dean McPherson, should take responsibility for it.

It matters not whether the sentiment was correct or not, or racist or not, it was the decision by McPherson to act unilaterally without looking at the readily anticipated consequences with a ruling party that is desperate to distract attention from its mismanagement and corruption.

Not signed off

Apparently DA provincial leader Francois Rogers had not signed off on the posters. It transpired that Macpherson was the only member of the provincial management committee who knew about the poster. Macpherson said he’d done it because the DA couldn’t afford to lose votes in the Indian community. Whether it was a risk is another issue.

DA leader, John Steenhuisen, defended the poster, saying that Phoenix residents were heroes because “they didn’t retreat in the face of danger or hide away like the police service and [minister] Bheki Cele’s people”.

Steenhuisen denied the DA was using those who lost their lives in Phoenix as a political tool. This denial, sadly, is fodder for the ANC and the media.

‘The politicking started when Cele, the ANC’s [former eThekwini mayor] Zandile Gumede and the EFF went into Phoenix and started painting an entire community with one brush. The only people who were calling other people racists are the ANC and the EFF. We are saying: don’t paint an entire community with the same brush,’ Steenhuisen said. 

The DA knows better than most that if you have to explain what you mean on a poster, you’ve lost. In a meat-and-potatoes election, where you just need to punt your record of service delivery, a poster with the words “ANC”, “racism” and “heroes” is going to lead to trouble.

Resignation

Mike Waters, ex-MP, resigned as Ekurhuleni election campaign manager over the decision to take down the poster saying that the DA displayed weakness when it issued an apology in the face of “manufactured hysteria”.

The arrogance of the above lies not in the message but in how your opponents are going to choose to perceive the message for ill-intent or not. And, unsurprisingly they did.

Waters may well be right about the manufactured outrage, but we live in a nasty political environment rule by political thugs and, more importantly, an unsupportive media. It became a DA-bashing frenzy, disproportionate to the poster or its message.

The emphasis on the DA’s record of delivery disappeared less than four weeks before an election which is only about service delivery.

Virtually licking their chops with delight, every interviewer grilled the DA about their opinion of the poster. It put them all in an impossible situation whether they be Helen Zille, Mpho Phalatse (the DA candidate for mayor in Johannesburg), Steenhuisen or Geordin Hill-Lewis (mayoral candidate in Cape Town).

The case of Emfuleni

They could instead have been talking about Midvaal, very well run by the DA and providing the services people need, and compared it to Emfuleni nearby, described as the worst municipality in the country.

The confluence of the Klip and Vaal Rivers, and a 1.5km stretch along the Vaal, cannot be fished because the water is too polluted.

Raw sewage flows across the veld towards the river. Instead of fixing the leak, the municipality dug a channel for the sewage to flow directly into the Klip River. About two kilometres away, a dam of raw sewage has been unattended since July 2019.

Broken sewerage systems and failing wastewater treatment works in Emfuleni have polluted the Vaal River to such an extent that the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) has deemed it a human rights violation affecting 19 million people who rely on the river for drinking water, and commercial and industrial purposes. Emfuleni covers Vereeniging, Sharpeville, Sebokeng, and Vanderbijlpark.

The Olympic-size swimming pool in Duncanville was once an aquatic hub for provincial galas. It was home to a swimming club, a water polo league, and used by numerous schools in the area. The last time it had a swimming team was in 1999.

Vereeniging used to have two other smaller municipal pools, but those no longer exist.

Failing electricity infrastructure is hampering businesses. Supermarket owner Morwa Mooi, in Sharpeville, says that frequent unplanned outages meant he could no longer sell frozen items such as ice cream, and trying to sell chicken was a gamble. “If you want to get [chicken] cheap you have to buy a pallet for R40 000,” said Mooi. “Then the electricity goes off and blood leaks out and the colour changes.”

In one section of Vanderbijlpark there is only one working transformer when there should be three.

Emfuleni was put under administration in 2018 but to no effect. The South African Local Government Association believes the province’s intervention created other problems, including that the person appointed in administration and the municipal manager were one and the same.

Refuse is piled up on street corners in central Vereeniging. Severely potholed streets remain unattended.

Emfuleni has a R6.5 billion budget, but owes Eskom R3.5 bn and the Rand Water Board R1.3bn.

The municipality also owes a contractor R492 million with interest of accruing at over R100 000 per day following a September 2020 court judgment in the contractor’s favour. The municipality frustrated the implementation of the project and eventually suspended it.

The contractor obtained an unopposed judgment against the municipality, making it possibly ‘the highest rand value default judgment in South African legal history’.

As usually happens with unopposed applications, in March 2021 the judgment was rescinded. The contractor has appealed.

The last financial year for which Emfuleni produced audited figures was 2017/18. The municipality spent 25% more than planned on its operating budget, and underspent its capital budget by 35%. A significant overspend of 25% indicates poor operating controls.

Municipalities should spend at least 95% of their capital budget. Spending less than 85% is a “clear warning sign.” Emfuleni spent less than 66%.

In March 2021 the council wrote off R872 million in irregular expenditure, without the processes initiated to reclaim any of it having been completed. This amount equals more than 10% of Emfuleni’s annual budget.

Real change

If we want to effect real change in this country this election must be about service delivery and service delivery only. The ANC has ruined local governance – the situation is beyond desperate.

As Graham McIntosh’s article Now is not the time for bashing the DA points out: ‘The only party that has a complete national footprint and is organised and has been prepared well in advance for the elections is the DA. Every single ward in every Municipality has a DA candidate but, more importantly each DA candidate has gone through a rigorous selection process.’

And there is the rub. One can nit-pick over internal decision-making, but the brouhaha over “the Phoenix poster” is being used to derail a message about service delivery that doesn’t deserve to be trashed.

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