News of the appalling rioting of the last week has not only found its way into the New York Times, it has also thrown into stark relief the issue of freedom in South Africa. For some in South Africa today, freedom has been all but achieved; after all it is embedded in our democratic dispensation, enshrined in our Constitution and exercised periodically every five years in an election. For many others, freedom merely exists on paper - without real substance or material benefits.
In South Africa today we are reaping in part, as I have said before, I believe, the bitter harvest of rendering the country's townships ungovernable during apartheid.
South Africa's poor are too preoccupied with mere survival to notice government intrusion upon their freedom. Some are gradually discovering that, despite their right to vote, they have no effective control over the government they helped put in power.
South Africa's huge and inflexible civil service is something the ANC inherited from the apartheid government and has, understandably, found difficult to reform. The underlying fallacy of a large bureaucracy having an intrinsic capacity to deliver public services in proportion to its size continues to blunt the resolve for change.
Sadly, the rest of the continent offer little inspiration. Ironically, the single economic freedom for which Africa scores higher than the world average - size of government - is more a reflection of weakness than strength. Governments are generally smaller in Africa not because politicians want it that way, but because governments lack the capacity to provide services.
Africa scores worse than the global average on taxation, meaning that African governments are collecting more money than their peers but are failing to spend it effectively, possibly because it is being siphoned off through inefficiency and corruption. This is where we fall in line with our neighbours.
In South Africa today we are reaping in part, as I have said before, I believe, the bitter harvest of rendering the country's townships ungovernable during apartheid. We have already seen how this culture of ungovernability has found expression in the form of ugly dissent in our public discourse and beyond, only consider the pervasive culture of non-payment for municipal services.
Two other developments, one political and one economic, have, I believe, led to a further meltdown in social cohesion and general ethics in our country under the post-apartheid government. The poet Yeat's famous line "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold. Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world," could have been written today for South Africa as it has witnessed the inexorable centralisation of power.
It is this uncontrolled and unaccountable concentration of power at the centre, in the hands of the select few affiliated to the ruling party, which is responsible for the insufficient delivery capacity of the South African state and which is, in turn, fuelling civil discord bordering on lawlessness.
Much of our social discord stems from the lack of genuine consultation between our government and the public: 'crossed wires'. The riots in Khutsong a few years ago, caused by the government's blatant disregard for the residents' wishes regarding municipal demarcation, attest to this. The scale and intensity of the unrest in Khutsong had a negative impact on service delivery which deteriorated dramatically when municipal officers could not enter the area to maintain infrastructure.
Rioters' concerns then and now might be legitimate, but their practices never are. The answer, I contend, lies in a return to a genuine vision of being local.
Being local has implicit meanings: authentic, personal, known, accessible, trustworthy. The same attributes, I believe firmly and passionately, apply to local government. Local government is closer than any other tier of state administration to the hopes, needs and aspirations of the people. It is also closer to practical solutions. Where national government is prone to setting up committees and establishing policy units, local government contemplates and delivers action. And it is action that makes a material difference to an isolated, troubled or hungry community, not words. Municipalities, by virtue of their proximity, can bring hope to the remotest areas of our country.
This ode to the virtues of local government does not just flow from someone like me who has long placed localism, decentralisation, family and neighbourhood on top of their agenda. Local governments, international experience shows, are fast becoming major actors in the emerging global legal order. The United Nations, the World Bank, the European Union and other transnational institutions are beginning to view local governments as vehicles for the advancement of policies on a global scale. Local governments are increasingly used as a means for disseminating and implementing global policy programmes, sound financial schemes and governance strategies.
The traditional legal focus on state actors is shifting on to local governments, giving them independent legal status in the new global order. Local governments are obtaining international duties, powers, and rights; enforcing international standards; forming global networks involved in the creation of international standards; and becoming objects of international regulation. It has indeed become impossible to understand globalisation and its legal ordering without considering the role of localities: They have become prime vehicles for the delivery of global capital, goods and workforce.
It is for these interrelated reasons that I, as a politician, subscribe to a strong, independent and properly resourced local government to lead the fight against poverty in South Africa. However, the current dynamic between central government, local services and citizens, characterised by a confusion of responsibilities and accountabilities, will have to change if we are to deal with the roots of poverty effectively. Our local government services are heaving under the weight of neglect, fragmentation, political factionalism and shortage of resources.
Until we bolster the resources of local government and properly capacitate it, we will continue to witness the distressing scenes of the last week and worse still.
This article was first published as the weekly online newsletter of Inkatha Freedom Party leader, Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi, MP, July 28 2009