EDITORIAL: DA runs cities but not itself

IN MANY ways, the election manifesto that the Democratic Alliance (DA) launched at the weekend is a model of what a local government election manifesto should be.

True, at 35 pages it is a lot longer than most voters will have the patience for, especially given that the African National Congress (ANC) manifesto is similarly wordy, making it somewhat of a mission for those voters who seriously want to compare and contrast the parties’ stances.

The trouble is that few voters make their decisions on the basis of issues and policies alone, or even at all. If they did, though, the DA’s take on the priorities for local government, and the role local government can and should play, would be quite compelling.

As we have noted many times before, local government is the crucial level at which citizens interact most directly with government. The quality and quantity of services provided at municipal level has a direct effect on the quality of life of the citizenry, as well as shaping the environment in which most businesses do business — hence underpinning the level of economic activity in SA as a whole.

That is all about the nitty-gritty of service delivery, and the DA manifesto recognises this. It zeroes in on dull but absolutely essential services, such as fixing potholes, providing sanitation, refuse-removal services, cleaning neighbourhoods, and so on.

It’s not sexy, and it doesn’t allow for grand ceremonies and ribbon-cutting, but it matters a great deal to people across the country’s income and demographic spectrum.

The DA can point to achieving its targets in the municipalities in which it is in government, where it takes an average of 48 hours to fix a robot or a street lamp.

Residents of Johannesburg, where it seems to take forever, can only envy this, and indeed all the evidence is that Cape Town is a well-governed city, scoring higher on the World Bank’s Doing Business indicators than most of SA’s other metros.

A lot of the manifesto is devoted to trumpeting the DA’s achievements in the few municipalities in which it is in charge — Cape Town, George, and Midvaal. It can show a track record of delivering services and, despite the odd controversial and stupid decision, doing much in the way of pro-poor policies.

Most important perhaps, is its attitude to the private sector and to encouraging and incentivising businesses to do business and pursue creative new ventures in the cities in which it governs.

That genuine openness to the private sector and to enterprise in general tends to be sorely lacking in government more broadly. SA can’t hope to boost economic growth as long as the ANC government is ambivalent at best about private sector investment.

The problem with the DA document is that it has far too much of its track record in a limited number of municipalities, and far too little on what kind of role it will play even in those it doesn’t win.

The manifesto says: “Where we govern, we want to build on the progress we have already made. Where we do not govern, we want to bring the change to your city or town that will stop corruption, create jobs, deliver better services.”

That’s fair enough, but there’s hardly any detail in the glossy document on how it will bring the change it mentions.

But elections are not fought on manifestos in the end, and the more profound problem with the party, perhaps, is that while it’s good at the economics and the urban issue, it is pretty bad at the politics.

Already, it seems to be shooting itself in the foot with a series of alliances and choices that could rebound on its efforts to win power even in marginal metros, and undermine its efforts to become a much more dominant and forceful opposition.

The manifesto is no solution to the image problem that the party still struggles to overcome.

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