DA leader John Steenhuisen. Picture: BRENTON GEACH/GALLO IMAGES
DA leader John Steenhuisen. Picture: BRENTON GEACH/GALLO IMAGES

The travesty of the now infamous Gareth Cliff rant about the “irrelevance” of racist attitudes is not so much in what Cliff said but in what John Steenhuisen did not say. His response to Cliff’s tirade is a sad reflection of Steenhuisen’s pedestrian understanding of the tragic effect that race and racism continues to inflict on society.             

Rather than show leadership and call Cliff to order by taking a principled stance against racism, Steenhuisen gloated along as Cliff launched an evidently misogynistic attack on Mudzuli Rakhivhane. 

There was an ironic twist in the broader context of the interview, which had delved into the DA’s disastrous attempt to score political points out of the racial tension in Phoenix. Ironic in the sense that the DA had themselves attempted to use race in a failed effort to buy favour from the Indian community. It was of course Steenhuisen who initially defended the poster before it was removed.

In the Cliff interview, Steenhuisen’s body language and one-phrase retort“and service delivery, service delivery” — laid bare his preference to again score cheap political points, an own goal at that, rather than to use the platform to condemn racism and gender-based prejudices in every shape and form. His non-response is in fact a tacit endorsement of Cliff’s misguided and abhorrent views that racism is not an issue to most people.

The stark reality of contemporary SA is that race continues to be the single most defining feature of our national life. Cliff, and by extension Steenhuisen, also made a laughable misdiagnosis that councillors have no role to play in addressing “race, climate change and gender politics”.

One of the central roles of municipalities, and therefore of councillors, is to address the race question from a spatial dimension. Spatial transformation, or the reconfiguration of our towns and cities from the backbone of their apartheid design into integrated and economically efficient spaces, remains a challenge that will confront the incoming cohort of councillors, as it has the past four local government administrations since full-scale democratic elections in 2000.

Intertwined in the spatial narrative are issues of climate change, including carbon-reduction strategies through increased focus on public transport, cities’ energy-mix agenda, and reconceptualising building design to enhance energy efficiency and the provision of municipal infrastructure to mitigate climate-change risks. 

Municipalities are also critical in the fight against the pandemic of gender-based violence, with everything from the design of public open spaces, pavements, public lighting and providing  safe spaces for victims of gender-based violence. These all have a role to play in the design of cities that are safe for inhabitants, particularly women, children and the vulnerable. 

Perhaps Cliff can be forgiven for his obvious misunderstanding of the role of councillors and municipal governance, but Steenhuisen’s narrow-mindedness about service delivery speaks volumes about the party he leads and its ability to comprehend the underlying challenges facing our local government system, including climate change and gender equality.

It is said that evil thrives when good men and women are silent in the face of injustice. Assuming for a moment Steenhuisen can be said to be a good man, his loud silence and mischievous smirk are a telling testimony of his endorsement of evil race-based privilege and gender inequality. It reflects a complete inability to understand the role and function of modern-day municipalities. 

Subesh Pillay
Via e-mail 

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