Ferial Haffajee: Dear Premier Zille, how about a rates revolt in my DA-run ward?
I wonder if you could help me, as a resident of Johannesburg where the DA governs, to arrange a rates revolt?
As a veteran political reporter, I have studied all the documents your party puts out about how you govern better where you govern. There have been print glossy magazines and digital multi-platform masterpieces displaying how well the DA governs; there are numbers to prove better cleanliness and better use of my tax rand.
And I have seen the proof in the wealthier parts of Cape Town and the Western Cape where my more larney friends wax lyrical about the standards of service you deliver.
So I looked forward to seeing what the DA was going to do with my favourite city in the world, after it won Johannesburg in the 2016 election. Now, I am drowning in disappointment and drowning in the dirt.
Pikitup, the municipal waste utility, is a serial disaster and the city is a landfill site. Like most South Africans, I live in two homes: my "old" traditional DA suburb, which is postcard pretty, and my other ward, the inner-city heritage area of Mayfair and Fordsburg, which is slowly dying under the DA.
Two weeks ago, irate residents met in a madrassa hall to commiserate, cry and complain to the DA ward councillor Alex Christians, again. The phrase that sticks with me is the complaint about how "rats as big as cats" are slowly taking over the ward. There is a plague in Fordsburg and Mayfair, areas that are an important part of the city heritage, but which have been abandoned by the DA.
We are about to publish a community media investigation into a massive failure of governance by the DA, which promised the residents of Ward 58 (its formal title) that it would be a "demonstration ward" of the party's ability to govern, so I won’t bore you with the details here.
But, since you are seriously arranging a tax revolt, perhaps consider what will happen if those of us who live in appallingly governed DA wards, where the schism between how you govern formerly white areas and black communities is clear, undertake a rates revolt?
- READ: ANC bigwigs at forefront of tax revolts, says defiant Zille as DA scrambles to clarify its policy
How wise is it to do so? In our ward, those of us who pay are probably a minority who keep the slender services going. If we stop, the ward would go from being merely disgusting to an absolute failure, like many parts of the Johannesburg inner-city have become.
Social solidarity, where the middle-class supports the under-class, is a crucial part of the South African social contract. You can’t unmoor from it, or the country will fail.
Instead, the hard and smart political work is to undertake the activism you once did: door-to-door work; excellent research; community organising and using the media as a tool for lobbying and for fixing.
We have many contemporary examples from civil society on how to do this: think about how Equal Education has made the national education department more accountable; or of how the Treatment Action Campaign secured anti-retroviral treatment for HIV-positive South Africans who needed it; or of how Section27 has fought numerous social justice battles.
Clicks and clickbait
A tax revolt may be winning you clicks (and clickbait) but it as populist a strategy for South Africa as US President Donald Trump’s wall is for the United States.
It’s also a Machiavellian move on your part to start this campaign now, to put DA leader Mmusi Maimane on the backfoot because your faction (and yes, you have become factionalist) has lost its position on empowerment. Cheap politics.
Ward 58 is such a devastating and visible sign of DA failure that a rates revolt would be easy to call. It’s harder work to organise the community, to a lobby, to negotiate, to use media and social media to make a sustained change.
But in the end, as our history has proven, the building is easier than breaking. And populism is always a blunt instrument.