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The Pillars of the Constitution at the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg.
The Pillars of the Constitution at the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg.

I recently heard great jazz at the Linder Auditorium, with the innovative Marcus Wyatt leading the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra and the ZAR Jazz Orchestra.

A fortnight ago I went to a wonderful performance at the Market Theatre by SA musicians and singers of the music of little-heard early 20th century singer/composer Reuben T Caluza, co-arranged by the fiercely talented Philip Miller and Tshegofatso Moeng.

Last week I went to the RMB gallery in Sandton for the opening of an exhibition of the photographs of Mark Lewis (my brother but, more importantly, one of SA’s great photographers and a visual chronicler of Johannesburg). The photographs were of the cast of Miller’s opera celebrating the life and times of Simon Nkoli (the opera will open at the Market Theatre on November 17 — don’t miss it!).

Nkoli, for those who don’t remember, was one of the Delmas treason trialists during the ’80s. He was a queer anti-apartheid activist from Sebokeng who died of Aids-related illness in his early 40s.

In his short life Nkoli not only led the communities of the Vaal in opposing apartheid but led South Africans everywhere, including his fellow Delmas trialists and Robben Island prisoners, in understanding the queer struggle as a central component of the broader human rights struggle. The exhibition was opened by Nkoli’s great friend and fellow queer activist, the ever-gracious retired judge Edwin Cameron. This event was a truly uplifting and life-affirming celebration of a great South African and a whole lot of riotous fun.

What a great city is Johannesburg! And then on Heritage Day I went to a festival at the Apartheid Museum. In one sense this confirmed the positive experiences described above. The museum is impeccably maintained — its buildings are clean and in good repair, its galleries are stimulating tributes to those who fought apartheid. The exhibition commemorating the 40th anniversary of the founding of the United Democratic Front is sensitively curated. No wonder the museum attracts about 1,000 visitors each day.

But if you think neat, clean functional public buildings are to be taken for granted, try visiting some other public buildings in Johannesburg. The metro headquarters in Braamfontein, for example, is in such disrepair that the building meant to be providing critical services to the public and the businesses of Gauteng has been closed indefinitely. The recent Albert Street fire reveals how the City of Johannesburg manages its property portfolio.

These distressing realities of Johannesburg life were brought into sharp relief by the speakers at the Heritage Day event. Former finance minister Trevor Manuel, drawing on the appalling state of governance in the Johannesburg metro, excoriated the “abomination” (his word) that masquerades as government in SA. Rivonia Circle leader Tessa Dooms bemoaned the state of political leadership in the country and called for the baton to be passed to a younger, more imaginative leadership.

The ANC has much to answer for in the decline of governance in SA. After all, at one stage or another it has governed, usually with comfortable majorities, the country and all the provinces and metropolitan and municipal areas. But of all the corrupt, incompetent, uncaring governments that have been foist on the people of SA, none offends quite as much as the Johannesburg metro government. It was not always thus. It is generally accepted that the period of Amos Masondo’s administration (2000-2011) was the high point of the city’s postapartheid past.

It’s been all downhill since then. As the ANC’s electoral support has declined — partly a result of the normal decline of large electoral majorities in a democracy, partly a result of the declining quality of metropolitan and provincial services — so has the naked quest for political power on the part of the leading political parties revealed itself.

The quest for power is, of course, the core business of any political party. But they have not sought power by demonstrating their will or ability to serve the people of Johannesburg. Rather, the DA/EFF arrangement during the unlamented Herman Mashaba mayoralty is said to have been marked by an orgy of looting, with the EFF using its kingmaker vote as the price for access to public resources.

And look at the ANC’s disgraceful management of Gauteng, a feeding trough for politicians and officials who fear they may soon be denied access to the province’s vast public resources. Premier Panyaza Lesufi seems more intent on securing a post-election coalition with the EFF than he is on winning the election.

But for sheer cynicism nothing compares to the deployment of the hapless Kabelo Gwamanda as mayor, and, before him Thapelo Amad, both from the little-known and little-supported Al Jama-ah party. No-one is fooled. Everybody knows these empty suits are no closer to leading the residents of Johannesburg than the man on the moon. Everyone knows they are placeholders until the ANC and EFF have had a chance to make their decision regarding who is to be top dog in the province after the 2024 elections, and what that will say about their respective prospects in the 2026 local government elections.

What’s to be done? A solution commonly advanced, and strongly articulated by Dooms at the Apartheid Museum event, is a generational change in political leadership. Dooms’ solution is predicated on what she has seen of the quality of young leaders in the townships. But it’s not enough to make piecemeal gains in local wards, gains that will inevitably be reversed as soon as the political rulers of the country, provinces and towns get around to it. They have to gain political power.

But where are the entry points for this new generation to gain political power? The youth formations of the political parties are even more venal and less capable of assuming political leadership than their mother bodies. And while the entry of organisations like Rise Mzansi offer long-term hope at the provincial and national levels, we cannot wait that long.

Focus on the local sphere of government is the best bet. With local government elections still more than two years away it’s possible for a loose alliance of independent ratepayers and community organisations to mount an election campaign that will secure political gains in Johannesburg and other metros and towns.

It will be extremely difficult to cohere a political organisation combining the ratepayers of Saxonwold with the community organisations of Soweto. But they can succeed and best allocate their resources if they adhere to one principle — fielding local candidates in opposition to corrupt and incompetent local councillors whatever party the latter represent, and its corollary, supporting the re-election of councillors with a record of public service in their wards, whatever parties they represent.

Last weekend I attended a public meeting called by the admirable Kathrada Foundation to seek solutions to the crisis in service delivery in Johannesburg. Like Dooms I was struck by the palpable anger and creative energy of the local activists that participated in the meeting. And they weren’t necessarily youths.

Make no mistake: the path to local political power is fraught with danger. Look at the response of the ANC’s KwaZulu-Natal thugs to the achievements of young Chris Pappas, mayor of uMngeni municipality. I fear that when they run out of frivolous legal challenges and dishonest rumour mongering, the guns will come out, as they so often do.

But if the creativity and commitment of honest, competent leaders is to be effectively harnessed they have to find a pathway to political power, and local government appears to provide that pathway.

• Lewis, a former trade unionist, academic, policymaker, regulator and company board member, was a co-founder and director of Corruption Watch.

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