What is the real role of government and its ability to uplift communities out of poverty?

GOING SMALL: Micro-units, an innovation by small-scale entrepreneurs, are addressing some gaps in housing.

The resignation of Finance Minister Nene, the repeated burning of trains on Cape Town station and the protests across the Cape Flats against violence are, in my view, all related. For the last two decades, a lot of focus has been on the constitution as a means of reinforcing the central role of government and its ability to uplift communities out of poverty, redistribute land and build a more just society.

But, in reality, the exact opposite is true. It is 2018 and South Africa is rated as one of the most unequal societies in the world, with poor citizen representation in all forms of governance and decision making. The ‘we know what’s best for the people’ mentality of government continues to cause irreparable damage to both the citizens and communities. It is quite disturbing to note that the same tools and programmes developed from the constitution are causing unintended or perhaps intended consequences of deepening inequality and poverty. So, we have to ask ourselves this question, “Where did this translation go wrong and how do we interpret the future?”

Firstly, until the economic condition of the poorest of the poor dramatically improves, there is little that will change in the future. The protest against violence in the Cape Flats communities reaffirms that rampant youth unemployment leads to an increase in gang violence and other crimes.

In a receding economy, making ends meet is becoming increasingly difficult for both the poor and the middle class. The middle class is shrinking due to the pressure of increased VAT, petrol prices and cost of basic utilities. As a response to this, President Ramaphosa has announced a substantial stimulus package with billions to be spent on infrastructure.

However, we have to understand that large investments in infrastructure are age-old tricks to resuscitate the economy which dates back to the 1850’s. After the world war, large-scale unemployment and the deep economic crisis was offset by large reconstruction and infrastructure investment projects. This brought jobs back into urban areas and ultimately resuscitated the economy. Nevertheless, it also created an environment of debt and value that taxpayers will have to carry for generations.

People might ask whether this will create jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities for the poor or whether it will continue to provide minimum wage packages through public works jobs? In our view, the risk in all this is that the large fiscal stimulus works in favour of large-scale companies, while the small-scale entrepreneurs continue to scrape the bottom of the barrel. The other issue to consider is the ability of government to maintain infrastructure.

Post-world war cities are sitting with the massive backlog for maintenance of the infrastructure built a century ago, which require another massive injection to ensure that the services and quality of life are not impeded. Given the state of the rail network in Cape Town, there has to be an unrelenting commitment to properly maintain and protect existing infrastructure.

Secondly, without addressing the critical issue of urban land and housing, we have little hope of translating our constitution for redress. As the Western Cape Total Shutdown movement alluded “We cannot afford food and basic necessities such as water, electricity and transport and added to this we live in overcrowded communities because of a lack of decent housing.”

The notion that citizens are dependent on the state for housing is a false one. Citizens and communities have taken mass and collective action to find shelter and housing solutions, with little support from the government. In actual fact, this is a struggle for land. There is sufficient evidence from across the world, that access to land and security of tenure, particularly well-located land, enables new forms of development.

Until and unless we change our only lens which looks at the government as a provider and the people as receivers, we are using a microscope to look at the stars. The solutions to land and housing sit with the people. The government needs to move towards enabling alternative forms of tenure, so people can collectively own land and develop it.

Thirdly, until we address the issue of honest and humble leadership, all forms of reform are going to worthless. In the past, ideological thrusts drove the political mobilisation and policy direction. That ideological divide that separated the political parties has completely diminished. One such political figurehead told me recently, ‘I am not a Trotskyist but a Marxist’. I am not sure anyone cares about this anymore.

Frankly, there is little faith on either side of the ideological band. There is very little left of the so-called ‘left’. The Zondo commission and subsequent resignation of the Finance Minister is clear testament that politics has become about power and not at all about governance. Athol Trollip in his press conference as ex-Mayor highlighted the following question, ‘why would you be in politics if you don’t want power’.

The brand of politics in this great country needs to shift. We have to move away from ideological branding and relentless power thirst and start focusing on governance. And in this, we have to create an environment full of trust and values that bring citizens to the centre of the developmental state, and not political parties.

Our society is so numbed by the deep political and governance crisis so much that unless we as citizens shift the goal post, we will be leaving a generation with a little avenue for recourse or hope.

Aditya Kumar is the Executive Director of DAG. Over the last fifteen years, he has worked on post disaster, post conflict and informal settlement upgrading across the world. His practice focuses on inter-sectoral partnerships, strengthening community action and housing policy.