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Marikana a marker of profound dissatisfaction countrywide

The explosion that at Marikana mine left 10 dead to union violence and 34 dead to police gunfire oddly caught the government by surprise. It was as if social discontent is not a seething issue in South Africa, surging constantly against the breakwaters of complacency.

But it seems that neither the government’s intelligence networks nor the governing party’s political savvy predicted this, or had a coherent plan on how to deal with it. That is, presuming one discounts the often self-serving whispers doing the rounds of a state conspiracy against the breakaway union, at least until the judicial commission has been presented with evidence supporting that dark conjecture.

Complacency prevailed despite the fact that unrest has grown steadily, especially regarding failed service delivery. At local government level there have been heaved rocks, councillors hounded from sacked homes and burning tyre barricades, to which the police have responded with rubber bullets and teargas, escalating to live rounds and deaths.

Such township unrest has differed from Marikana by being geographically dispersed and with fewer fatalities. On the other hand, it is this profound dissatisfaction bubbling below the surface all around the country, that makes it particularly dangerous.

A Marikana-scale eruption could have happened at any of the literally hundreds of unruly service delivery protests that have taken place over the past couple of years. It almost certainly will happen soon, unless government gets a grip on the problems.

In this regard, a new book on the failure of local government should be ringing African National Congress alarm bells. In The Failure of Decentralisation in South African Local Government: Complexity and Unanticipated Consequences University of Cape Town academics Andrew Siddle and Thomas Koelble kicked off by doing the kind of primary social science research that in the apartheid years used to pour out of fiercely independent English-language universities keen to discern and shape the gestalt of a future, free, South Africa.

After liberation, however, intellectual rigour quickly retreated before the imperative for party loyalty. For a long while criticality was unfortunately subsumed in pro-ANC claquery. As the authors note, ‘commentators on SA local government have until fairly recently and with a very few exceptions … tended to be excessively congratulatory and rather unrealistic in their assessments and expectations of local government’.

In the ANC’s new dispensation, decentralised local government was where it was all meant to be at. It was to be the frontline of a participative, efficient and responsive democracy.

That’s not, as we know, how it has turned out. Local government, especially outside the metropoles, teeters on the brink of collapse, with potentially disastrous consequences. But ‘national government’s responses to what is indisputably a crisis have been largely piecemeal or ill considered,’ they write.

What makes Siddle and Koelble’s book important is that the empirical work was conducted mostly in some 70 smaller, rural, poorer municipalities. That’s precisely the areas where local government failure is most acute and hence are potential Marikana-type flashpoints.

Although the UCT researchers sketch the outline of a local government framework that they think might work – somewhat less decentralisation, with central agencies empowered to step in and deliver when and where municipalities can’t – they readily concede that the problems of dysfunction are not going to be solved easily. Should things remain unchanged, ‘dire consequences’ will follow and it is likely that the higher tiers of government, already straining to carry out their own mandates, will be saddled with more responsibilities.

Crtically, they write, ‘a crisis of expectations prevails… Time is running out and, in many quarters, patience has long since evaporated’. Those, not coincidentally, are the leitmotifs of Marikana.

The Failure of Decentralisation in South African Local Government: Complexity and Unanticipated Consequences, by Andrew Siddle and Thomas Koelble, UCT Press.