South African Barometer

South Africa at critical juncture in its history

Postal strike just a symptom of wider problems
Post Office.jpg

The postal system that has come to a standstill, water taps that are running dry in areas across the country because of electricity grid problems and key constitutional institutions mired in controversy – all symptoms of a country at the crossing between the high road and the low road.

The intricate, immensely complicated and ever-interacting networks of both physical and socio-political infrastructure underpinning the health and wealth of a society are showing increasing strain on many fronts in South Africa. The latest economic indicators, the levels of protest and labour unrest, crime statistics, employment figures and more, are warning signs of a country on the brink of a major socio-economic and political crisis.

How these various hard and soft infrastructure networks impact on one another and can threaten social stability is clearly illustrated by two developing situations in the country:

1. Postal strike: its background and impact

At the time of writing the strike by postal workers was entering its ninth week due to the fact that the country’s labour relations dispensation has been under tremendous strain, widely dysfunctional and in need of some urgent review for some time now.

The non-delivery of mail playing is playing havoc with the wellbeing of businesses like direct marketers and mail-order companies that are dependent on it. The non-delivery of accounts is devastating to the cash flow of thousands of professionals and enterprises, from doctors to retailers.

Only last week the Ekurhuleni metropolitan council had to ask residents to pay municipal accounts, even though they are not receiving accounts. While the call to use online facilities might work for some sections of the community, it is hardly a solution for those in the poor and less developed townships of the metropole.

There is, in any case, no way to be sure that people had received the message. Add to this dissatisfaction with service delivery and the fact that Ekurhuleni is one of the worst hit areas in the present water reticulation crisis, and it makes for a volatile atmosphere.

All it would take, is one error of judgement, like the eviction of people who did not pay an account (they did not receive) and or react to letters of demand (not delivered) to ignite civil unrest. Systems at various levels of infrastructure depend on one another for society to function smoothly.

2. Taps running dry

The incidents in the past more than two months of water delivery failures in areas across the country, from several municipalities in Gauteng to Butterworth and surrounding areas in the Eastern Cape, are even more intricate.

It involves in all instances the state-owned electricity utility Eskom (by now infamous for its power outages), several municipalities and in Gauteng and another state-owned utility, Rand Water. At least part of the problem ties in with negative crime statistics and the inability to secure electricity infrastructure against cable theft and vandalism.

The latter can also be linked to unemployment levels and poverty in many communities, and the involvement of criminal networks dealing in stolen copper and the like as a means of survival.

The bottom line is, none of these institutions that are supposed to serve the community at large had any effective back-up plans in place.

Other structures under pressure

The ever present threats to structures essential to the smooth functioning of the national household, however, run much wider and deeper than these “in-your-face” examples. Some have dire implications for not only the economy, but also for the very fabric and integrity of institutions underpinning the constitution and the survival of democracy.

These include:

• The state of education in the country, not only in terms of content and quality, due to unwise choices of the past (like closing teacher training colleges), but also recurring problems of non-delivery of text books, shortage of teachers, sub-standard school buildings and labour-related disruptions of education;

• The Auditor General's local government audit results for 2012/2013 revealed that only 9% of municipalities received clean audits. At the same time 27% of roads in Joburg are in a “poor” and “very poor” state;

• Recently the Free Market Foundation reported that constraints in energy supplies, the mandated terrain of Eskom, have been more devastating to the economy than the five-month-long strike at platinum mines;

• The increasing threat to key institutions for democracy and for the upholding of the constitution such as the public protector and parliament itself;

• Especially since the Marikana shooting in which more than 40 people died during labour unrest, but also due to the use of undue force during civil protests, the relationship between civil society and the South African Police Service is constantly under strain – as illustrated by the reaction of Hangberg community at Hout Bay last week to a robust arrest late at night;

• Political abuse of state security structures has left them in dangerous disarray, with signs that it is again happening with a suspected break-in at the offices of those who will be defending officials implicated in the Nkandla affair;

• The Zuma-appointed Seriti Commission of Inquiry that is ostensibly probing corruption in South Africa’s Strategic Defence Procurement Packages has been seriously discredited by the resignation of key legal personnel and the withdrawal of key public figures from testifying before it, all making claims that suggest a cover-up;

• The dividing line between the majority party and the state is fading fast and undermining the integrity of democratic and constitutional process, from the “firing” of elected municipal mayors in Limpopo by the ANC, to threats to sidestep parliament by its National Executive Committee; and

• Institutions like the specialist Hawks and the National Prosecuting Authority became revolving doors, with those who head them replaced by seemingly political appointees; the very effective special investigative unit, the Scorpions, was disbanded and the Special Investigative Unit or SIU politicised.

This is not nearly an exhaustive list, but it clearly paints a picture that suggests that Moeletsi Mbeki’s warning that it is only a matter of time before South Africa’s “Tunisia Day” arrives, should not be taken lightly.

by Piet Coetzer

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