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By Moepeng Valencia TalaneCW Voices

It’s apartheid season once again in South African politics – that time when politicians of the ruling ANC resort to inelegantly weaving the legacy of the gruesome past regime into rhetoric when faced with the task of explaining their (failed) duty to the nation.

In this context, exposing apartheid’s shortcomings and disastrous implications on the lives of ordinary black people, and the challenge of overturning the impact of each of its features, is meant to absolve the current leaders of government of responsibility during a time of chaos.

President Cyril Ramaphosa could not resist doing it this past weekend – using the example of a decades-long deficit of opportunities for studies in professional fields for young black people in far flung areas. This, he implied in the context of a rising debate around inner city overcrowding and its hazards, meant that the country had a shortage of experienced black town planners who could have helped turn the tide of challenges brought on by apartheid’s spatial planning programme.

The president’s core statement is not untrue: during apartheid, many deserving black people missed out on opportunities to pursue professional careers that could have improved their lives and those of their communities. But in choosing that narrow stance to make this important point, at such a critical time in response to the tragic disaster of the Johannesburg fire that killed 77 people, Ramaphosa fumbled, and so deserved the backlash that he received for his remarks.

Two of his cabinet ministers, Lindiwe Zulu and Sindisiwe Chikunga, also recently invoked apartheid’s impact on housing and rail infrastructure development respectively, the latter blaming a decision made in the 1980s nogal by the previous dispensation to de-invest in rail infrastructure, for the current state of affairs in that sector.

It has been difficult to listen to and digest all these arguments without feeling short-changed as a taxpaying, potential voter in the next general election, and citizen. Granted, apartheid has not been gone long, and many in our country still feel its power more sharply than others as development has been slow in their areas.

But it is about time it was removed from political speeches and all other rhetoric, to make room for more progressive talk. We do not run the risk of being apologists if we simply give it airplay only in the most relevant of situations – to remind ourselves of what we fought for as a country – and not to cover the inadequacies of our democracy.

Nothing stops the ANC-led national government from guiding strategic maintenance and refurbishment of infrastructure within the country’s cities. While the long-term goal is to reverse spatial planning, there should be decent maintenance and refurbishment of existing infrastructure in the interim.

Can we have some accountability?

Zulu was asked to comment on the issue of overcrowding of inner city buildings in the wake of the recent Johannesburg fire that claimed 77 lives and many other injuries. She replied with a statement that it was unfortunate that the ANC was expected to, in under 30 years of being in government, have changed the circumstances under which some areas of Johannesburg had developed into slums and buildings unfit for occupation were housing hundreds of dwellers at a time.

Behind her statement is the argument that historical spatial planning – meant at the time to keep black people on the periphery of the country’s large cities and economic hubs, and in purposely isolated townships – remained a challenge in the current government’s developmental strategy of addressing housing needs of many of the people in the country.

Any long-term planning for our cities and the people who were historically excluded from them, should operate on the basis of consultation with communities. It will take time, yes, but while the long-term goal is to reverse spatial planning, there should be decent maintenance and refurbishment of existing infrastructure in the interim.

Nothing stops the ANC-led national government from guiding strategic maintenance and refurbishment of infrastructure within the country’s cities. Well, nothing, I guess, besides poor implementation and monitoring, political instability, and corruption. The crime, grime, and lawlessness levels very commonly associated with inner city living gradually develop in instances where authorities do not keep in line with the mandate of making every square metre of the city under their watch liveable, investor friendly, and safe.   

Perpetuating stale old views

The same goes for the rail infrastructure that Chikunga oversees as minister of transport. While she had a similar idea to Zulu in mind when explaining that de-investment by the apartheid government in the country’s rail system contributed to its failure and dereliction, she could have also paused to acknowledge the damage done through Prasa’s at times ill-conceived investment campaigns over the early 2000s and beyond 2010. The company suffered losses due to irregular expenditure that grew exponentially, the state capture commission heard, with no accountability sought from its leadership. 

Chikunga has the opportunity, especially being new to the portfolio, to bring a fresh outlook to the table and recognise the urgency with which the country’s rail system needs to be restored. Instead, she has taken the baton from her predecessor Fikile Mbalula, quoting the 1986 De Villiers report that advised against re-investment in the system. To push the narrative of the apartheid era report – which some have claimed was more a political process than a governance one – is to veer the public from questioning the processes of the 2015 and later 2022 policy papers that were meant to guide development in the sector.

Mbalula acknowledged that it was corruption, and not lack of investment that reversed the progress of the ANC government’s re-investment of some R173-billion in the Rolling Stock Fleet Renewal Programme that caused the major drawback that is evident today.

But Chikunga would like us to skip that era of malfeasance and believe that because De Villiers came back to say no, the apartheid government should not re-invest and maintain it, the system suffered neglect. Hard to digest and move on from that statement if you are one of the over two-million commuters who relied on this system for years.

The truth is we would not just like to see leadership and accountability when disaster like the Marshalltown fire strikes – we would much rather prefer that such incidents not happen at all.

As residents of a country that has potential in plenty of sectors such as tourism, innovation, arts, and others, we expect to be led away from the shackles of apartheid. It did not work for or benefit the majority of people in the country, and for that reason our work to reverse its negative impact should be just that, work.

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