Home Opinion and Features OPINION: Contempt for competence catching up with politicians

OPINION: Contempt for competence catching up with politicians

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The power to bring about much-needed change is in our votes, writes Nkosikhulule Nyembezi.

By Nkosikhulule Nyembezi

ONE OF the main reasons for us all to vote in these upcoming elections is that most politicians everywhere seeking re-election are among the chief architects of South Africa’s political, economic, and social calamity.

They must be removed from power. They are arsonists posing as firefighters, not that you would know it from the false election promises reported in the media, which suggest they had more than risen to the occasion of representing the interests of the people in the last five years in office and will continue to do so if re-elected.

Our local government is in shambles. More and more people say so: not just the independent candidates, but the disgruntled party members exposing factionalism; not just residents inconvenienced by constant electricity blackouts and astronomical municipal bills, but large companies hesitant to invest in manufacturing industries due to erratic electricity supply across the country; not just residents without water in various municipalities, but the likes of the beer producer Heineken, which halted plans for a new R6 billion brewery.

The list of failures of political parties seeking re-election – over coronavirus, failed local economic development, corruption, and in just about every other policy area – gets longer every week, making them objects of mockery and contempt.

It is the same politicians who did not take action against those who looted public resources meant to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

Proper use of allocated resources could have constructed a roadblock against Covid-19’s triumphant march that has claimed almost 90,000 lives.

Instead, these politicians have other projects: mobilising the resources of the state to provide support and security for private interests.

These include calls for the Western Cape to become an independent republic, privatisation of public land to create gated communities, and new connections to get government tenders for pals.

In these tasks, they have been pretty effective – you could even say competent.

The dividing line, then, is: who should the state exist to provide for?

This line is especially important to consider when making a mark on the ballot paper, given that election promises provide no practical solution to an economic model which, for a generation since the start of the millennium, has produced stagnating living standards for millions.

Government incompetence matters during a pandemic that has pushed up unemployment numbers.

But it’s also an easy charge to make – almost too easy. It comes naturally to disillusioned voters, who don’t trust politicians anyway or have to increasingly rely on the informal economy for survival in the wake of poverty and unemployment; to civil servants, with scores to settle after being forced to endure the unwelcome political interference which resulted in the irregular awarding of tenders to the politically connected; and to analysts, who enjoy judging the powerful and describing political coalition meltdowns.

Most politicians seeking re-election have no interest in the detail of what they promise and do not consider the trust invested in them to be binding.

Their only strategy that is consistently applied in these elections is the usual method of starting fires, making themselves scarce, watching the flames spread, then returning to the scene in fancy dress, claiming to be the only ones capable of dousing the flames.

To get a sense, just consider the number of bogus infrastructure projects handed over to communities, and yet, do not show worthy the amount of public money allegedly spent on them.

Pointing out the ineptness of these politicians suits a broad range of interests, too.

All those inside and outside the coalition government parties in various municipalities who warned for years that those in councils would make a disastrous circus can now say, I told you so.

Even the ANC failed as an opposition party in many councils, where its new role could have helped improve service delivery and combat corruption.

In ANC-led or DA-led municipalities, many party supporters can feel vindicated in one of their core beliefs: that managing the existing state machinery to benefit factions in their parties is better than trying to benefit all the people based on the Batho Pele principles of good government.

For a large minority of EFF or IFP supporters, it seems, what their leaders do, or fail to do, in government doesn’t matter, as long as there’s a sense of underlying momentum towards a loosely defined political goal, such as a promise of radical economic transformation or a promise of preserving institutions of traditional leadership and their control over community land.

Thankfully, there are a few signs that the contempt for competence by these politicians may finally be catching up with them.

Several surveys show significant voter intolerance. The growing presence of young voters who are voters and candidates can tip the scale in many municipalities, and this is something we should repeatedly make them aware of.

Their voting decisions will be free from the nostalgia for liberation struggle trustworthy politicians trapping older voters.

Perhaps, that intolerance will not bother most politicians seeking re-election.

They can see a route, via provocation in the form of racist messages in their posters or xenophobic comments in their programme of action, to a campaign of economic self-isolation branded as patriotic self-defence against the decay in privileged communities.

The instinct to blame migrants for national woes has also resurfaced, as we see too many politicians using cheap rhetoric to use foreign nationals as scapegoats and an easy political punching bag.

It is a reliable technique for as long as enough voters can be persuaded that their misfortunes are the fault of someone other than the same politicians that they are the antidote and not the poison.

Independent candidates must persuade a lot more voters than they did at the last election that contempt for incompetence and corruption in the government is not enough.

Sometimes, it’s a displacement activity of voting differently that is needed most: a complementary act to the harder job of working out – whether you’re a party member or a potential independent candidate supporter – what sort of competent and corrupt-free local government we should have instead.

That politicians seeking re-election are hailing themselves as saviours, rather than architects of our current plight, is a travesty for which our complacent citizens have much responsibility.

If ordinary voters cannot puncture it by voting in numbers for the best candidates to represent us well in municipal councils, then a protracted hegemony of serial dissappointers beckons.

But in the end, the power to bring about the much-needed change is in our vote. Let’s all vote.

* Nyembezi is a policy analyst and human rights activist.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the DFA.

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