Two weeks ago, I had to drive to KwaZulu-Natal. I have fond memories of that route: it runs through Mpumalanga, which is a beautiful corner of the world, and when my parents were alive it was one I traversed often. That was back in the 1990s.

Typically, I’d drive down to the strains of Celtic folk music or radio comedy coming off my old two-decker boombox (remember those?), since my onboard radio didn’t work. 

I always looked forward to Standerton, as of 2000 the seat of the Lekwa Local Municipality. It served as a midway terminus of sorts, an indication that I was ‘half-way there’ and a chance to treat myself to a snack. Standerton itself always came across as rather dull but functional, and I say that without prejudice since I grew up in a town not vastly dissimilar. There’s a pedestrian charm to it.

This time I drove down with a functional car radio for entertainment. A grim sort as it turned out. The big story was the Democratic Alliance’s poster campaign in Phoenix – ‘The ANC called you racists – The DA calls you heroes’. Every half hour an earnest announcer declaimed the outrage that this had caused, although aside from commentary from the ANC, there wasn’t much to back this up.

This was shaping up to be a campaign issue – the DA had put up these messages with the local government elections in mind, and its detractors in politics and the commentariat intended to exploit them to the full.

Now let me say that I would not have advised putting these up. What happened in July speaks eloquently to so much of what is wrong with the country, not least the advanced condition of state atrophy. Yet I feel deeply uncomfortable with the idea of civilians imposing their own law and order. There are times when it may be necessary – and when a state abdicates its responsibility, I feel very inadequate pontificating against those who act to protect themselves. Indeed, doing so seems to me to be a matter of natural law. But the risks of abuse are large, and it’s not something on which I’d want to hinge a political campaign, least of all in the unnuanced world of poster messaging. (And let me add that I snorted at President Ramaphosa’s remarks that the government would not tolerate vigilantism, since the state has ceded enough of its capacity to make its toleration or otherwise rather academic.)

Dense settlements

And it was with this reportage and these thoughts that I arrived in Standerton. It’s certainly a larger place than it was twenty years ago, with dense settlements stretching northwards that were loose clusters of structures back then. 

At the first bump in the road, I was rapidly pulled back to my immediate surroundings. Chaotic, unkempt and litter-bestrewn. The sign asking to keep the town clean was a self-referential irony given its own appearance. And nowhere along the route, over that five-hour journey, were the roads in a worse condition. I seriously worried about whether my driving skills were up to navigating adequately the pitted and potholed surface of its roads. They were a visible portrait of decline.

As it turns out, I’m not alone in my assessment.

Earlier this year, Astral Foods obtained a court order to compel the national government and Treasury to intervene to restore the municipality to something approaching functionality. 

This had been years in coming. Water and electricity failings had played havoc on the economy. The Mail & Guardian published an article in June 2019 entitled ‘Another town bites the dust’. It presented the Lekwa Municipality as an exemplar of what was wrong with municipal governance in the country. It had reached the point that water rights were literally being ceded to Astral, whose chicken processing operations are one of the anchor industries of the area and among its largest employers – not to mention one of the largest ratepayers in the area. Unable to provide the necessary water supply that Astral needed, the municipality had agreed to allow Astral to draw raw water to the tune of 3.5 megalitres daily from the Vaal River, which would then be trucked to the Astral plant (120 truckloads daily, according to the report) where it would be passed through an on-site filtration system installed by the company. Bring your own infrastructure, anyone? 

That was two years ago, and things don’t appear a great deal better. In January this year, Astral was again in the news after infrastructure breakdown required it to fork out millions in overtime to keep up with its production goals. A report in News24 remarked that the smell of sewage leaks had become part of the town’s environment, and that ‘It also takes special driving skills to navigate its numerous potholes.’ The administrator who had taken over management of the municipality was quoted as saying: ‘I read all the reports … [but] nothing can actually prepare you for the full horror of the situation in Lekwa.’ 

Unable to perform

This is a picture of a governance system that is unable to perform its most elementary functions, let alone the highbrow ‘developmental’ duties that the system’s framers envisaged. In fact, during that period in the 1990s when I was doing the Gauteng-to-KZN route to visit my parents, local government was a particular work interest of mine. At the time, optimism in the new system was riding high, despite the very deep problems confronting it. With time, proper financing (the focus of much of the public conversation) political will and with an appreciation of the importance of the role assigned to local government, things would improve. 

That optimism was misplaced, and all too often it was conscious choices that compromised it. Probably nothing was more damaging than ideological beliefs about the primacy of race-based ‘transformation’ over technical and administrative skills and even more so the politicisation of what should have been meritocratic, non-partisan administrations.

One needn’t rely on my observations. Rather try the staid and sober folks at Treasury, who’ve been given the unenviable task of dealing with this mess. In the recovery plan for the municipality, it points to the origins and drivers of the problem:

There is evidence of weak internal capacity in the municipality to execute the activities identified by the Administrator. Staff are politicised and the executive management team is relatively young, inexperienced, with many facing the prospect of disciplinary action and possible criminal prosecutions. In light of this, it has been very difficult to rely on the internal capacity to advance the objectives of this intervention.

This is not limited to the Lekwa Municipality – that M&G piece cited above remarked that Lekwa was a ‘microcosm’ of the state of this part of government. The Auditor-General’s last report on the state of municipal governance reiterated the litany of failings, and arguably more seriously, a lack of serious movement to address them. Perhaps we have reached a point where even the pretence of the state being a means of administration has been overwhelmed by its relentless deployment as an instrument for politics.

We have seen little evidence of our messages being taken to heart. The progressive and sustainable improvements required to prevent accountability failures, or deal with them appropriately when they do occur, do not exist. We also do not see the fundamentals being strengthened to enable strong financial and performance management disciplines. The responsibility to turn local government around is entirely in the hands of its leadership. Hence, the theme of this general report is ethical and accountable leadership should drive the required change.

Municipal ‘turnaround’

Ethical and accountable leadership. Rather what elections are meant to secure, but don’t always. And are unlikely ever to do so unless that is what the voters consistently and insistently demand. For all the talk of a municipal ‘turnaround’ (were we ever facing the right direction to begin with?), we have a political and thought-leading class that seems dead-set on resisting a change to the attitudes that have brought us to this point.

When I made the return journey, the half-hourly news bulletins were once again on the posters, though in reverse gear. The DA had removed them and explanations for what had happened were thick in the air. Would this hurt the DA in the elections, more than a few people were asking? Often this was posed more in rhetoric than in inquiry.

Standerton remained a waypoint, though I had to deploy my full three decades of driving expertise to get through without risking serious damage to the car. At least I was ready for the state of its thoroughfares. 

I imagine that South Africa’s preoccupations with the grand existential questions of our life and society will keep the DA’s poster controversy alive, and the associated issues very much in the public conversation. I’m not so sure the same can be said for the state of Standerton’s roads. 

I hope I’m wrong, for if I’m not, I fear the price we’ll pay as a society will be steep indeed. Just ask Astral. 

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