Kgetlengrivier shows citizens are reclaiming power in 1989 reprise - Businesslive

28 February 2021 - There was an early 1980s joke about a South African abroad meeting someone from Lebanon and being staggered to learn that the man lived in Beirut, then well into its more than a decade of hellish civil strife, car bombs and almost constant gunfire, senseless death and perpetual fear.

Michael Morris

There was an early 1980s joke about a South African abroad meeting someone from Lebanon and being staggered to learn that the man lived in Beirut, then well into its more than a decade of hellish civil strife, car bombs and almost constant gunfire, senseless death and perpetual fear.

In the joke, such as it is, all the bewildered South African wants to know is: how do you possibly manage?

“Life goes on,” the man shrugs. “You get used to it. You manage.”

“And you?” the Beiruti asks. “Where do you live?”

“Me? South Africa.”

“South Africa! I’m so sorry,” the aghast Beiruti replies, “I can’t even imagine how terrible that must be!”

It worked as a joke then because in so many ways everything seemed normal enough ... at least, normally broken, normally violent, normally hopeless. Whatever it looked like from afar, life went on, people managed. They got used to it. And when it got worse they got used to that too.

But only up to a point. There came a moment in the late 1980s when South Africans were united as never before in recognising that their condition was not a cosmic inevitability but a consequence of choices and decisions and, fundamentally, a profound underestimation of who they were, and what their real interests were. They were being abused. And they knew the abuse would not stop until they acted.

Many gestures and events reflect the gathering unanimity, but it is perhaps best captured in the mass march in Cape Town in September 1989 in defiance of the state of emergency.

FW de Klerk — who would become president days later, having won the last whites-only election on September 6 — appeared to signal an acknowledgment of the resolve of an impatient and resentful citizenry when he stayed the hand of the security establishment and in effect allowed the illegal march to go ahead.

Commentator Allister Sparks perceived this moment as the beginning of the normalisation of SA politics, a precursor to the ground-breaking political concessions months later that ended apartheid.

It is sobering, though of course heartening, that democratic SA has reached its 1989 moment now. Abused citizens have moved beyond saying they have had enough of corruption, incompetence, crippling policy and crassly indifferent politicians who devote more energy to racial scapegoating than trying to do their jobs properly; they are stepping in and doing things differently. They are bypassing a useless, abusive state.

There have been numerous similar instances, but the recent events in the dysfunctional North West municipality of Kgetlengrivier is a clear reflection of where South Africans stand in 2021, and what they are doing about it.

In December, the Koster and Swartruggens ratepayers’ association, Kgetlengrivier Concerned Citizens, won court approval to take over running the town’s new but derelict R144m water and wastewater works.

For years the ANC-run municipality had failed to deliver these basic services. Worse, it even contested the December court order. Not only was the challenge rejected, but the court ordered that the municipality and provincial government pay Kgetlengrivier Concerned Citizens the R7.5m it has spent on fixing the mess, as well as their legal costs. Under citizen control, the water was restored in just three days.

Increasing numbers of citizens are discovering they can turn the tables on a state that abuses them, just as they did in the late 1980s. Once again, they are saying enough is enough. The larger political meaning is unmistakable.

• Morris is head of media at the SA Institute of Race Relations.

https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/opinion/columnists/2021-02-28-michael-morris-kgetlengrivier-shows-citizens-are-reclaiming-power-in-1989-reprise/

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