The latest findings from ratings agency, RatingsAfrika, show that six of South Africa’s eight major metropolitan municipalities are financially unsustainable and need critical government intervention.

The group tracks and assesses the financial sustainability of approximately 100 local councils and eight metro councils, annually. 

Municipalities are ground zero for government and where government is most keenly experienced. What the intolerable mess of our municipalities points to is a need which is unmet by political parties across the country. 

The seemingly overwhelming popularity of Mayor Chris Pappas in uMgeni in KwaZulu-Natal should give all opposition parties pause but, in particular, his own party, the Democratic Alliance. His back-to-basics approach of simple, straightforward, and timeous communication coupled with the commitment to mastering core competencies like fixing roads, clearing refuse pile-ups, registering indigent households for their allotment of electricity, and generally championing transparent, high impact government and law and order has won him many admirers, including this writer. 

Blueprint for success

It is a blueprint for success because it brings ideas of clean governance, law and order, and responsible citizenship closer to ordinary South Africans, and in particular those who are disillusioned and no longer vote. 

If I were advising opposition parties for the future, I’d tell them to tap their brightest young minds on the shoulder, begin training them in the intricacies of local government, including principles that will help them tackle tough, broken-down municipalities (the same situation Pappas is in) and deliver something of a foretaste of what the party can do with national power. 

This strategy eliminates the tendency for parties to promote gifted young politicians too quickly to the national stage. For all the talk of merit, academic qualifications are not necessarily an indicator of merit or suitability for public office, and this is a cardinal mistake opposition parties make. It is a mistake which leads to the overabundance of the immensely off-putting political opportunism and careerism we often see within political parties. 

Let the brightest and the best within your party prove themselves at the coalface of government; let them earn the right to run a bigger municipality or metro and eventually get into national office. Along the way, they must earn the trust of the public. 

Good governance and results are irrefutable especially when they are communicated clearly to stakeholders. Clear communication matters, because if potential voters don’t know about the work that is being done or the plans for the future, they will not be energized to vote in future elections. 

Prove their mettle

What is needed is a group of young leaders who have proved their mettle in different spheres of government and earned public trust.  This will ensure a party that has a good mix of battle-tested and proven leaders.  It will encourage a culture of party members voting for people with proven aptitude and results, rather than charisma or identity markers. In other words, voters will be able to see whether a person has a track record of being able to do the job. 

This is how things work in other sectors of professional life. No matter how gifted and even precocious a young person is, they still have to prove their value and abilities and produce results. 

In summary, opposition parties spend far too much time trying to be too clever for their own good with titillating and unnecessary political campaigns, diving head first into ill-advised Twitter wars about identity, and a general overreliance on pointing to the ANC’s failures. 

South Africans know that the ruling party is doing an awful job because so many South Africans are living in the failing municipalities they call home. The question for the average voter and the person who has given up voting is: what are you (the opposition) doing differently? 

Voters don’t respond well to promises because they have heard plenty of extravagant ones from the ruling party. In addition, despite the media and academia’s obsession with identity traits in leaders, ordinary voters, as Pappas has shown, respond most to leaders who deliver and who communicate that concisely and regularly. 

There is hope yet for this country if the opposition understands this and buckles down. 

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR

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Sindile Vabaza is an avid writer and an aspiring economist.