Only way to hold politicians to account is through the ballot box - Businesslive

1 August 2021 - I had the temerity once to chide an editor in a note for ditching an editorial I had written and offering in its stead what I felt was “a nicely enough crafted piece of sentimentality at a time in our history when this sort of romanticism is a dangerous affliction”.

I had the temerity once to chide an editor in a note for ditching an editorial I had written and offering in its stead what I felt was “a nicely enough crafted piece of sentimentality at a time in our history when this sort of romanticism is a dangerous affliction”. He was gracious about it — and I was wise enough to acknowledge that, as editor, it was “his call” to make.

I was prompted to revisit my unpublished 290-odd words of wisdom — written in 2010, it was titled “Remembering Sharpeville” — for the most part by the unduly sanguine public reaction to the (at time of writing, recommended) postponement of the October municipal elections. Perhaps it’s a measure of the too-long-delayed dream of a better life that the very people who have the most to gain from democratic participation will discount it. “What’s the point?” many will say. “You can’t eat the vote.”

What troubled me back in 2010 was the refrain of much of the reporting of the 50th anniversary of the Sharpeville massacre that for most South Africans the legacy of the struggle symbolised by the killings of March 21 1960, and the resistance that intensified afterwards, was “paltry and unsatisfactory”. People had been led, or had allowed themselves, to believe that “rights are measurable by the material benefits that well from them (and) if there are none to speak of, the rights are hollow and meaningless”.

A poignant yet misguided expression of this was contained in an Associated Press interview with a man named Abram Mofokeng, who at the age of 21 was one of the crowd in the Sharpeville protest and could still point to the scar where a bullet had entered his back. What I found “conceivably unremarkable” about Mofokeng was his appraisal of postapartheid SA. “Our lives started changing with Nelson Mandela's release,” he was quoted as saying, “but people are still financially struggling …”

In the same report, other residents of Sharpeville complained about the absence of the community hall, the sports grounds, the better housing and the better toilets that they appeared to believe would come with freedom and that promise of a “better life for all”. But the pressing question, I wrote back then, was “who will have the courage to tell (them) … that their hard-won human rights have placed much of the responsibility in their own hands. If they want a better government, they have to vote for it.” That was what people died for in March 1960, and now it was an inalienable right.

A decade later we have only to consult auditor-general Tsakani Maluleke’s latest annual report on the audit outcomes of SA’s 257 municipalities to appreciate the urgency of holding local politicians to account. Maluleke warns of “indications of a collapse” in the financial health of local government; the need for “drastic changes” to ensure that the “dwindling funds available to deliver services to citizens” are used effectively; the staggering R26bn in irregular expenditure; the pitifully low 2% of municipal budgets being spent on crucial maintenance, while salaries and wages make up 46% of the revenue; and the squandering of more than R1bn on consultants in the 2019/2020 financial year, evidently just to help local government officials compile financial statements.

Only democratic-era romanticism obscures the straight line between these findings and the ballot box. If, under apartheid, denial of the franchise was an intolerable deprivation, under democracy, not using it, and insisting on it, is worse.

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

https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/opinion/columnists/2021-08-01-michael-morris-only-way-to-hold-politicians-to-account-is-through-the-ballot-box/

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