South Africa’s Small Towns Are Simmering With Frustration
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
South Africa’s ruling party risks losing some of its most loyal supporters.
As the patter of rain is heard across the parched South African town of Graaff-Reinet and its empty dam, Corene Conradie can feel the hopes of her fellow citizens rising after a long, brutal drought. And yet she knows exactly how easily those hopes can be dashed.
“Just that little bit of water is hope. But … even with a full dam, we may not have water in our taps,” says Conradie, a former financial adviser turned charity worker.
Even as a brownish pool of water has returned to the dam in the semidesert Karoo region, its pipes remain in disrepair and its walls crumbling — part of a municipal collapse in one of South Africa’s oldest towns that goes beyond the pressures of a drought that has lasted almost two years in the voter heartland of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC).
Many of Graaff-Reinet’s residents, faced with dry taps for months, have given up on the cash-strapped local municipality to distribute water and look instead to Gift of the Givers, Conradie’s charity, for boreholes and water truck deliveries.
Every day messages for help flood in via WhatsApp. “My phone is going mad — water, water,” Conradie says. A day care. A home for the elderly. A traffic cop who needs to wash her uniform.
It would be a sad picture. Having a full dam and still carrying buckets to a water truck.
Corene Conradie, Gift of the Givers
Graaff-Reinet’s crisis is a metaphor for both the decay of South Africa’s state institutions in the past decade and a growing failure to recover under Ramaphosa, who took office almost two years ago vowing to turn things around.
In a state of the nation address on Feb. 13, Ramaphosa said his government was rebuilding “the capability of the state where it has been most broken” after a culture of graft under his predecessor, Jacob Zuma. “This year, we fix the fundamentals,” he said.
But Ramaphosa’s presidency has been overtaken by crises including that of the blackout-prone state power monopoly Eskom and fears that South Africa will soon lose its last investment-grade credit rating, forcing up the cost of its debt and further squeezing embattled businesses.
Ramaphosa “has bigger fish to fry” at a national level, says Samantha Graham-Maré, an opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) member of Parliament and a former Graaff-Reinet councilor. “I don’t think he has a clue what’s happening in the small towns,” she adds.
The collapse of ANC-ruled Graaff-Reinet is a harbinger of what the future could hold for small South African towns, and with it, the South African state. Municipalities in financial distress almost doubled over the decade to 2018, to 125, nearly half the total.
This is leading to the disintegration of South Africa’s post-apartheid state at local level, throttling the economy and shifting the burden of providing services onto private actors such as Gift of the Givers and businesses.
“When you come down to the provinces and municipalities, it’s totally drifted far away. We are at a crossroads,” says Hento Davids, head of the Graaff-Reinet Chamber of Commerce.
Graaff-Reinet began Zuma’s rule as 2010’s South African town of the year, a mountain-ringed “Gem of the Karoo” with centuries-old houses and monuments. It remains a “beautiful town with all the potential,” in Davids’ words.
But the town fell into decline, in part due to an ill-fated political merger with other towns that left Graaff-Reinet with large debts and diminished ability to collect revenue to pay for boreholes and infrastructure upkeep.
The town’s ANC mayor has rarely been seen during the crisis, residents complain. A spokesperson for Lindiwe Sisulu, the national water minister, says that “it is important to realize that while the natural elements resulted in the current drought since 2014, there is also a challenge of failing infrastructure at local government level.”
The municipality is “not sustainable. They must just leave it to collapse. They just don’t care,” says Joe Kroon, a farmer outside Graaff-Reinet. Kroon had to let three-quarters of his workforce go and watched cattle and prized game, a draw for tourists, die in the dust. Government drought relief aid has been so inadequate and ill-targeted that “it was like giving someone a T-shirt in winter,” Kroon says.
Water supply is a local government responsibility, but neglect is entrenched at the national level, the opposition DA and civic activists argue. They have accused Sisulu of stuffing her department with ANC cronies to advance future ambitions to supplant Ramaphosa as party leader, at the cost of attention to drought-hit areas.
Sisulu declined to be interviewed about the plight of drought-hit towns, citing the need first to table a “master plan” for South Africa’s water security before Ramaphosa’s Cabinet. She denies the charges of nepotism.
When the master plan does arrive on Ramaphosa’s Cabinet table, it will make for grim reading. According to its estimates, the reliability of water supplies is at its lowest since 1996, despite expansion in provision since the end of apartheid. The plan says $60 billion is needed to repair decaying infrastructure over the next decade, but only $38 billion is available.
With junk status looming for government borrowing and no end to public bailouts for Eskom and other broken state firms, there will soon be even less fiscal room to help revive small-town South Africa, including Graaff-Reinet’s decayed dam. “It would be a sad picture,” Conradie says. “Having a full dam and still carrying buckets to a water truck.”
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