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Are we a failed, or failing state?

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At the launch of the State of the Cities Report recently, the South African Cities Network hosted a panel discussion which covered a wide range of concerns regarding the state of South African cities. To these could be added the urban centres in rural areas, the enduring legacy of apartheid in many of its manifestations.

In response to a question ‘if this is the experience of citizen in cities, then are we a failed state?’ The significance of this question lies in the entangled Inter Governmental R system which local government is heavily reliant on. A dysfunctional IGR system and failing nationally reliant infrastructure, accelerate rapidly downwards towards local government and the people they serve. In physics this is called a state of entropy.

This state of entropy is spoken about by the whole country in homes, schools, social and sports clubs as well as at work; informed by the hourly experiences of people. The national discussions on the failure of local government are therefore felt differently based on the extent of decline and are relative to the income and location of residents in a particular municipality.

In general, the levels of decline are determined by the following:
* Extent to which patronage informs political positions
* Political meddling in administrations
* Administrative infighting
* Depth of administrative dysfunction
* Decline in administrative functions with public interfaces
* Collapse of basic services infrastructure
* Willingness to flout legal advice, laws, and regulations

In such environments officials react in ways which impact on their ability to perform their duties and mostly retreat into modes of self-preservation. What is consistent however, is that levels of service decline commensurately. Over the last five years I have had the privilege of collaborating with teams across various fields at the MBDA who have chosen public spiritedness, notwithstanding the entropic condition of public administration on their ability to perform their duties. The impact of political and administrative instability on the MBDA has been widely reported. What is not widely reported are the stories of what it has achieved.

Since 2017 the audited cost of ownership to the municipality of the NMBS has declined. Besides, it being a sought-after soccer, rugby, and events facility, it was the first to open a Covid-19 isolation facility for those who could not do so at home or were homeless. The team at the NMBS also built a sports museum to add to the stadium experience. Recently, concerts and functions have resumed. Isuzu used the NMBS to launch its new Bakkie which was attended by President Ramaphosa. All this with staff who have no idea if their contracts will be extended because the future management of the stadium is uncertain.

The Science & Technology Centre (STC) is a well-used asset which has extended its footprint to include STEM outreach to several schools. It also has partnerships with organisations as diverse as the Department of Science and Technology, the Water Research Commission, Sustainable Seas Trust, and the US Embassy amongst others. The plan is to refresh the STC, so it presents the sciences and related technologies in a contemporary manner. The redevelopment of the adjacent railway sheds which is underway will lead to this as well as contributing towards the renewal of the Kariega CBD. The redesign of Govan Mbeki Avenue in the Gqberga CBD is complete; and work in the Baakens Valley and the Bayworld/Happy Valley area is ready to commence.

Innovative infrastructure has been and is being developed in Helenvale, New Brighton and Korsten-Schauderville. Youth and adults have gained more skills and support across all the areas the MBDA works in. Psycho-social support has assisted vulnerable women and youth. The areas, projects, and buildings the MBDA is responsible for are easily recognisable because they are well maintained and impactful. Where top-up cleansing services are provided, they are often the only such services in those areas. The lessons and experiences are shared through webinars and podcasts. The MBDA was the first to introduce zero-rated data as part of the innovations in public participation.

None of this would be possible without a group of people who braved budget uncertainty, the impact of political instability, personal safety, and Covid-19 to do so. Given its audit-outcomes, the administrative teams have supported this dedication and enabled innovation even when it appeared risky to do so.

Leading never-say-die teams requires a lot of risks to be assessed and their mitigation planned for. Within those decisions lie success and failure. Accounting officers are susceptible to the vagaries of political and administrative instability and tend to be risk averse as a result. Yet performance and innovation in such environments only result in risks being taken by those accounting officers. Taking calculated risks was made easier by the enthusiasm, competence, and commitment of the MBDA teams. Consequently, the impacts of their work are experienced daily by different sections of often forgotten communities. Of course, there is a lot that has not been achieved, including mistakes made. In that respect, the words of Lenin who is reported to have said only those who do not do anything do not make mistakes, are apposite.

My response to the question at the SACN event was that we are not a failed state, but a failing one. The state of entropy is experienced everyday all the time but imagine the conditions if it were not for the people such as those found at the MBDA, similar development agencies, many municipalities, including the NMBM and others in the IGR system. There are true public officials enmeshed within the ecosystems of public service. Without them we would be closer to state failure.