Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Cape Town takes centre stage in the national conversation

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13 Jan 2015 | Tony Leon | Original Publication:  BDlive

The City of Cape Town seems to have taken centre stage in the national conversation since early this month, writes Tony Leon

IN THE shadow of the Charlie Hebdo slaughter in Paris, where crazed and violent fundamentalism reminds us of the fragility of the freedoms we too often take for granted, it seems trite to turn attention to more local matters.

But, in counting new year blessings and reminding ourselves of so many points that divide the often fissiparous South African society, it is pertinent perhaps that, despite the occasional pig’s head tossed into Woolworths, most religious communities in this country actually coexist in conditions of amity. If you look across the Middle East and now into the heart of Europe, and even at the cultural wars often revved up at election time in the US, this achievement is bigger than it often seems.

And we don’t coexist in conditions of religious freedom and acceptance simply because someone at Kempton Park more than 20 years ago decided it was a nice-to-have in the constitution, but because degrees of tolerance not confined just to religious coexistence are more hard-wired into our communal DNA than often appears in the daily discourse that seethes with apparent dissent and mutual recrimination.

Now on to matters of more immediate concern: the late, great Harry Oppenheimer once commented that "the difference between our two major cities is that in Johannesburg there is nothing to see, and in Cape Town there is no one to talk to".

Of course, matters have changed in more recent times as Cape Town seemed to take centre stage in the national conversation since early this month.

On the opposition side of the fence, in the only province controlled by it, Democratic Alliance (DA) leader and Western Cape Premier Helen Zille shocked her party by sacking her deputy provincial leader, Theuns Botha, from his powerful post as health MEC. In truth only the portfolios of health and education, alongside finance, amount to any budgetary and political significance in our nugatory provincial setup.

Exiling Botha, the previous Western Cape leader, to the wasteland of sport and recreation is pregnant with meaning, yet to be explained.

Predictably, the African National Congress (ANC) found much to moan about when it arrived in the Mother City to reaffirm its revolutionary credentials, alongside serving champagne and Chivas Regal in its hospitality suites.

The outpourings of ruling party bile and vitriol against the DA in Cape Town perhaps obscured the fact that, objectively viewed, and with thousands voting every year with their feet, the poor and the marginalised have a better chance of being better off in the Western Cape than in the neighbouring Eastern Cape. There many of the services are in an advanced state of collapse and atrophy. Ironically, it is the department of health here, the very portfolio from which Botha was ejected on new year ’s eve, that only three months ago won the award for the best performing in the Western Cape.

As for President Jacob Zuma’s claim that the DA cares only about "the whites" and the province is "governed by the wrong people", this is a decidedly odd statement for the president of the whole country and someone who constantly bangs on, as recently as in his New Year statement, that SA’s democratic credentials are unassailable. The province is governed by the "wrong people" precisely because the majority of them chose the "wrong" provincial government.

And when the "wrong people" in the form of the many ratepayers eye their monthly rates and services bills from the city council, they note with some consternation the very steep charges in the municipal accounts. And this is not to pour the proceeds into the leafy suburbs where the DA vote can be weighed rather than counted. But it is the result of perhaps, outside the city of Durban, the most aggressively redistributionist administration in the country. Despite the city channelling most of its funds into the townships, the ruling DA receives very few votes from its black residents in return.

Ironically, the party does much better in the townships of Johannesburg, where it has no power or patronage to parcel out. Perhaps it’s a case of what Karl Marx called "false consciousness". But then again, looking for consistency in local politics strains the imagination, if not the memory.

For example, giving equal voice to the grievance lobby in the run-up to the ANC’s 103rd anniversary bash in Cape Town was its dial-a-quote secretary-general, Gwede Mantashe. He added to the new year festive cheer by reclaiming the Freedom Charter for the ANC, in the 60th year since the document was published. Mantashe expressed his displeasure that "every Jack and Jill" (doubtless code for "Helen") and "hooligans" (not a stretch to transpose the Economic Freedom Fighters here) had wrenched the document from its rightful owners.

Back in 1995, the golden age of our Parliament as some describe it, an almighty fuss arose when the opposition challenged the fact that state funds were to be spent on the 40th anniversary of the Freedom Charter in Kliptown. Democratic Party chief whip Douglas Gibson was roasted by ANC luminaries, the voluble Kader Asmal at the fore, for daring to suggest that the Freedom Charter was a "party pamphlet".

Admittedly, the riot police were not called in to still this debate. But Asmal and other ruling party heavies were incandescent with anger at the suggestion that the document was anything other than a revered statement of national aspiration, way beyond the confines of petty party politics.

Twenty years on, and facing pressures on several fronts, and disappointment and open dissent in its ranks, present needs suggest that Gibson was more right than he ever imagined back then.

But conversations aplenty were also to be had in the quieter corners of Cape Town during the festive season.

The arrival back on these shores, temporarily at least, of so many successful South Africans, some of whom have become masters of the financial universe and corporate boardrooms across the globe, certainly improved the dialogue in ways of which Oppenheimer would certainly approve.

I was seated across the table from one such eminence, a senior executive at Eskom before democracy arrived, who then went out into the world and capped his corporate success by launching a hugely successful resource enterprise. Now he heads a significant fund overseas. Like many other temporary returnees, he remains passionately committed to this country’s success.

He kept the dinner riveted by not only crisply diagnosing the travails of our once mighty electricity provider but also suggesting a highly imaginative and cost-effective solution for this crippled giant. And it’s not just dinners by candlelight and shopping centres plunged into darkness that Eskom’s power outages forces upon us. As Brian Kantor of Investec described it a few weeks ago: "Eskom is the Grinch that stole Christmas." Because the one competitive advantage that could cause a surge in much-needed growth is the collapsing price of crude oil. But without sufficient and reliable energy supply, we cannot export our way out of economic difficulty.

After listening to the explanation about putting Eskom to rights, I asked the dinner guest whether he would, if asked by the government, return to do his national service by taking the helm at Eskom. "I absolutely would," he said. Perhaps if Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, now charged with rescuing this key state enterprise, wants an interesting and rewarding conversation, he might give him a call.

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