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OPINION | Nontobeko Hlela: A mediocre citizenry gets a mediocre government in return


As our towns and cities have slowly eroded we have kept quiet, thereby giving licence for more and more erosion until we found ourselves where we are today, argues Nontobelo Hlela.

A six-week-old baby was killed recently in my middle-class Gauteng neighbourhood when a car the baby was in collided with a truck. The accident happened at a small three-way traffic circle. This traffic circle is a death trap, and many in the neighbourhood have had close encounters with disaster there. 

The neighbourhood community forum has, on several occasions, requested the council to install three-speed humps to calm traffic on the approach to the circle. The answer is always the same: “there is no money”. How can there be ‘no money’ for a small potentially life-saving intervention when the Tshwane Metro collects such vast sums in rates and taxes? How can there be ‘no money’ when massively inflated tenders, some corrupt, are allocated all the time?

A family has been robbed of a new baby all because the council didn’t think it was worth spending money on three-speed humps.

The situation is vastly worse in working class and poor areas. Municipal failure is literally life-threatening in some circumstances. 

Decay everywhere 

The visceral sense of decay is everywhere, even in middle-class areas. Some roads are now impassable. 

The verges and pavements – if there are any, are crumbling. When the fibre companies dig up the roads to install cables, the streets stay a mess for months. It is the same when the council fixes a burst water pipe. The holes remain open because another department must come to close them, and that department doesn’t have a budget or people at the moment. to do the work. These days a person taking a jog on the pavement is at real risk of serious injury with all the unfilled holes and trenches. What was once green spaces are now illegal dumping sites. This is brazen, and there are no consequences for the people who dump their waste close to people’s homes.

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Whole towns and cities across the country have collapsed into filth and decay. My hometown of Pietermaritzburg, once beautiful with gorgeous historical architecture, is now an unsightly and unsanitary dump. It’s no surprise that many educated people have left for other provinces or are choosing to leave the country altogether.

We know what is driving the decay of our cities. It’s a mixture of austerity, massive corruption in the tender system and simple contempt for the citizens of our country by the political elites.

But how did we get here? How did we come to accept this?

There was a period after apartheid where former white suburbs, and the new elite suburbs with gated communities and malls, were well maintained and there was steady progress in the townships. Now the rot is well set into the elite suburbs, and many townships, including Imbali in Pietermartizburg, where I grew up and where my mother still lives, look far worse for wear.

The decay started slowly. A pothole appeared and was not fixed. We might have muttered to ourselves and our friends and families, but we didn’t get together and demand decent services. Then there was another pothole and another, and suddenly they were everywhere. 

Collapsing cities 

Now infrastructure on our cities is collapsing, and even electricity and water are no longer guaranteed. Businesses are closing, many are looking to move overseas, and there is a deep pessimism about the future. 

But most of us don’t do anything more than moan to our friends and family, message our community WhatsApp groups deploring how “this” government has taken the country to the dogs. The more adventurous among us may call in to talk radio stations. But what we accept over time becomes normal and, like the frog sitting in water that is boiling slowly, we don’t even understand that we are getting into a perilous situation.

If we had not accepted that first pothole, we would not be in this crisis situation. As our towns and cities have slowly eroded we have kept quiet, thereby giving licence for more and more erosion until we found ourselves where we are today. 

Nowhere is the erosion and dereliction of duty more prevalent than in the lack of power provision that we suffer daily these days, and which is leading to ‘water shedding’ in some areas. Last year some residents of Melville in Johannesburg – once described as one of the best neighbourhoods in the world by the Guardian newspaper in London – went without water for several days. 

The first time I experienced what would become known as load shedding, was just after I had gone back to work after maternity leave following the birth of my eldest daughter. We were told then that the system was under stress and the government of the day had not listened to Eskom’s repeated warnings about the need for proper maintenance and building new power stations. 

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The powers that be had not agreed with Eskom’s estimates that South Africa’s economy and population would grow necessitating more investment in power generation. However, after seeing that Eskom’s warnings had come to pass, they were convinced that indeed something had to be done. We were promised that this was not a crisis but a challenge that would be quickly resolved. 

When we were first introduced to load shedding, we were outraged. How could South Africa – the most industrialised country on the continent – suffer such an indignity? We all believed that surely, Eskom that was given accolades for Global Power Company at the Financial Times Global Energy Awards in 2002 would be able to sort this mess out quickly. As the years rolled by, the outrages waned, only to increase at a later stage. Now we are just happy that we are on Stage 2 instead of four or six. 

We’ve embraced mediocrity over excellence 

From a country that held so much promise at the dawn of democracy, we have unravelled and embraced mediocrity over excellence. From sporting codes to politics, underperforming is lucrative in South Africa. Despite its dismal performances and its only shining glory being the 1996 Africa Cup of Nations, Bafana Bafana is still given more money and respect over Banyana Banyana who have consistently excelled. Politicians from across the board that have been found wanting and have one scandal or another still “represent the people”, but in truth they only care about their parties.

This same degradation of standards and our acceptance of them can be seen in all sectors of our society. 

My daughter is now in Grade 10. She has only ever known a South Africa that has load shedding. Is this the country we are bestowing on our young? Is this the legacy that we are leaving them with? A legacy that says that they should be satisfied and be grateful with things not working optimally and should just shut up and be thankful that at least they can now vote, use all beaches and all toilets and live in the suburbs and go to any school they want to if they have the money.

Is that what it was all about?

What has happened to this beloved country and its people who never used to take nonsense? What has cowed us to such an extent that we sit by and watch our country fall apart as we wring our hands expecting a saviour? 

There is an old saying that every country has the government it deserves. We can no longer just blame our politicians. We need to start asking hard questions of ourselves.

We need to realise that there is no saviour coming to fix the mess. We are our own saviours. 

– Nontobeko Hlela works for Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research and is seconded to the office of the National Security Advisor as a Researcher, she writes in her personal capacity. 

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