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Paging through the books titled How Mumbo Jumbo Changed the World, The Mediocracy: French Philosophy since the Mid-1970s and Megaprojects and Risk: An Anatomy of Ambition, a few phrases spring out and grab the jugular. Stringing together these phrases reveals the poverty of the contributions to this series by Andrew Boraine (Cape Argus, April 11), Finance Minister Trevor Manuel (Cape Argus, April 10) and Mayor Helen Zille (Cape Argus, April 12,).

The "frictionless society" of the megaproject age, the fabrications of mumbo jumbo and the disarming fictions of contemporary mediocracy highlight profound disjunctures between the noises and voices of the commoners and those articulated by our elected and unelected leaders.

From the Arms Procurement Deal to Coega, from the Gautrain to the La Mercy Airport to the World Cup, "systematic cost underestimation", "benefit overestimation" and elite engineered upward resource redistribution are not dissociated from "strategic" misrepresentations (lies and subterfuges) and rainbow nation mythologising.

The representations, projections and calculations are seductive: the World Cup "will do the same as the (German 2006 Cup) to consolidate our self-respect and dignity" (President Thabo Mbeki); soccer, as a universal sport, had "a duty to take on social responsibility in human development" (Fifa's Sepp Blatter); and the stadium investment (among others) is the "cheese in the trap (that) will leave a lasting legacy for our people … equip us to cross (historical and social) structural barriers" (Premier Ebrahim Rasool, Cape Argus, April 13).

But "world-class infrastructure with African sensation" (Danny Jordan), legacy and social responsibility hammer home the real African sensation; ie ticket prices way beyond the reach of ordinary South Africans (Fifa's concern) and the "cheese in the trap" is not in the ghetto (Athlone) because "billions of viewers don't want to see shacks and poverty on this scale" (Fifa official).

Not lost to commoners is this real African sensation, evidenced in the (declining) percentages who believe that the poor will benefit from the World Cup (8.1% in 2005 and 5.2% in 2006).

Conversely, the numbers have risen (39% to 49.9% in the same period) for those who believed that business would be the greatest beneficiaries (HSRC survey).  So, "let's face it", asserts Udesh Pillay, head of the HSRC project on the World Cup, "2010 is hardly likely to bring significant, long-term benefits to the country's rank and file" (February 2007).

And it is here that this crude contribution takes issue with our vision and practical study of democratic urban reconstruction; ie, the real African sensation; the invisibility and socio-institutional marginalisation of the poor; and the profound political and moral distance be-tween the elected minority and the ruled majority.

Yes, indeed, Minister Manuel - you are correct - few care and even fewer listen to the daily deprivations and degradations of the poor majority.  What, though, is the role of the state in production and reproduction of the depravations and degradations you list?  What was your role Minister Manuel when, as previous Minister of Trade and Industry, you liberalised, without an industrial strategy in place, trade faster than GATT requirements?  Business protested, with the-then Anglo-American' executive Leslie Boyd saying: "We don't need ministers to be holier than GATT" (1995).

The resulting deindustrialisation - the decimation of large swathes of the labour-intensive industries in the Cape (clothing and textile industry) - demolished the employment bed-rock and extinguished the livelihoods of many already depressed and distressed communities.  Did you care?  Do you respect democracy and elected representatives?  Yes, we may have, as you recently reminded us, a social spending profile "outstripping", according to you, "Hugo Chavez's Bolivarian worker's paradise".  But why then - as the International Monetary Fund (2005) recently noted - are we saddled with levels of poverty and unemployment higher than those of comparable middle-income countries and with little improvement (in these spheres plus inequality) over the last decade of democratic rule (Alan Hirsch, Presidency)?

If improvements in these areas are today incontrovertibly linked to democratic deliberation, why have you repeatedly rejected calls - contrary to S77 of the constitution - for Parliament to be legislatively empowered to amend the budget?

Are you, maybe, concerned that the democratic representatives are not to be trusted with public money?  Are you, and your colleagues in the politically insulated executive, afraid that the legislature may betray the special interest groups in the financial world that you are beholden to; and/or break the decade-long hostility to the "state creating, or facilitating the creation of, stable permanent jobs below the professional levels"; and/or make provision for more inclusive social protection and welfare?

These are not trivial questions because you, and your colleagues in the executive, have now for over a decade unilaterally defined the scope and materiality of our social and economic rights.

Impressive it may be for a country like ours to boast about movement to a balanced budget and/or a national deficit well below the global benchmark of even developed countries.  The "funny thing though" of our being "close to achieving a fiscal surplus" is that it is for "wrong reasons" (Hilary Joffe, Business Day). Reconciling a balanced/surplus budget with a widening poverty gap, a human development index that has fallen 35 places since 1990, a deteriorating income distribution, and the death every hour of 10 children under five years from poverty, is not easy.  Unfair it would be though to blame you for these pathologies because even with Gear's suffocating spending regime, "(t)here is no department that can claim that they are short of money, but they are short of capacity to spend" (Iraj Abedian, one of the architects of Gear, 2006).  But why can they not spend?

Returning to Joffe, and discounting revenue growth exceeding budget projections, the present budget surplus is not unrelated to underspending and/or lagging spending growth, and you must shoulder some blame for this.  Your restrictive macroeconomic policy, according to the UNDP (2003), decimated the public sector with retrenchments and right-sizing being the main causes of "overall formal job losses".

Your gutting of the state "resulted in inadequate institutional and policy support" at all levels of government - particularly municipalities that were in the throes of institutional restructuring and bore (bear) the brunt of your fiscal austerity.  Short-circuited then were the prospects to "enhance ... economy-wide net employment effects" (UNDP) and those associated with the redistributive thrust of our well-intended human development programmes.  Now, you throw cash at a downsized, demoralised, gutted state to reverse the vicious circle of underspending you set in motion, and to play infrastructure catch-up (and deliver much more) to repair the damage your policies wrought; ie a decade of under-investment in the crucial infrastructure underpinning economic growth (electricity, road and port infrastructure, telecommunications, water and sanitation, etc) that organised business in the Cape now identifies as the main constraints on growth.

You have previously rightfully acknowledged that government has "not gone far enough down the road of creating an activist developmental state" (September 2003) to address the distortions, deprivations and degradations.  Hope is at hand, you assure us, in your recent Argus contribution, in the determined and dynamic agency of special and wonderful people who hear, who feel and respond.  You encourage us to take our lead from these selfless groups and individuals whose basic humanness and values of ubuntu and vuk'uzenzele will spare us from the impending catastrophe.  Where, Minister Manuel, is the state in all this? You approvingly cite the Bambanani Campaign as measurably reducing violent crime in Khayelitsha.  But why is it that the 80 or so volunteers, who daily put life and limb on the line, have as their base an empty container, are not compensated for their private cellphone use in crime combating nor has clothing been supplied to them to identify them as volunteers?

Those who carry the burden of the road not travelled - the individuals and groups you celebrate - are those informal community-based organisations that share no relationship with, and receive no support from, the state.  For how much longer should they shoulder and subsidise state failure? How much longer can and should they endure you staying on your "non-negotiable" macroeconomic policy course so destructively imprinted on our governance regime, institutions and urban growth path?  The inequality, poverty and unemployment generated by this development path of "regime consolidation and the maintenance and reinforcement of historical social divisions" are, your experts say, "negatively affecting" rapid and sustained growth.

The maintenance and reinforcement of social divisions leave us with a series of what a Treasury official in 2003 termed "intractable problems".  Singled out here are the weaknesses of our urban governance regimes and planning frame works (IDPs) to effect integration through consensus, consolation and co-operation; the cost barriers (especially high land, building materials and construction prices) inhibiting socio-spatial integration; political economy of urban construction; and the spatially marginalising outcomes of private investment.

Various urban scholars write of the "pressures and strains associated with democratisation and transition, and later the shift from the RDP to Gear, underpinning an unwillingness to challenge patterns of urban spatial inequality" by "taking on the property interests and other social forces perpetuating class and racial divides in cities".

In hot pursuit of capital and making the city safe for investors and pretty for tourists, our city, over the years and under different administrations, marginalised, vilified and criminalised the poor and homeless through property sector-cum-private security-driven inner city renewal/regeneration (the notorious City Improvement Districts of Andrew Boraine's Cape Town Partnership), "shack attacks" (sweeping blacks "out of sight" from the city (ex-Mayor Marais)), and the harsh and brutal crackdowns on street kids and other "undesirables" through the "zero tolerance" crime prevention strategies (meted out by the ruthless, dreaded and ill-trained "Penguins", the municipal police).

This, together with the generous and uncompensated subsidisation of (decentralised) living, shopping and commercial environments for the wealthy that leapfrogs the poorest part of the city, points to a complex of institutional practices that makes Cape Town "one of the least altered cities in the country".

But the past - albeit tragic - does indeed hold messages about how to navigate the perils and promises of democratic urban reconstruction.  In the contemporary debates about urban reconstruction, visions struggle to mediate the tension between achieving a balance between global competitiveness and basic needs - with the former in most cases trumping the latter.  Sadly, both registers of urban development - the world-class city and the developing world city - speak of what our city is deficient in, be it the skyscrapers and the head offices of propulsive economic sectors and/or "basic need" services/infrastructures.

Speaking to both registers Boraine calls for "single-minded set of strategies supported by the political leadership and all levels of the private sector, from the big corporations right down to the informal sector" cemented/enshrined in a "strong social compact".  Not once mentioned in the proposed crafting/elaboration of the City Development Strategy are the voices/noises, the organisations and leaders, of the city's poor majority, the slum dwellers, organised labour.

This is not of minor significance. Contemporary rethinking of the developmental state related to democratic urban reconstruction spotlights new modalities of service delivery and infrastructure provision premised on demand-driven and supply-negotiated strategies that rebalance the relationship between market, state and civil society so as to address the "intractable problems".  From Asia to Latin America, democratic urban reconstruction increasingly resides in an interventionist state that simultaneously redistributes income and assets, activates and mobilises citizenship, and institutionalises progressive state-civil society relations.

Redistribution is presently coupled to measures that improve the political and institutional clout of the poor through assisting them in building their capacities for self-organisation and voice amplification, and tilting the institutional balance of power in their favour in their negotiation with the wealthy.

The net effect of this is higher levels of economic growth, greater distributional equity and marked enhancements in the allocative efficiency of scarce public investments.  Reliance on deliberative inputs forces higher levels of transparency and accountability; reduces corruption (thereby increasing the resources available for investment); and enhances the power of the state to deal with the "intractable problems" in the full knowledge that the rabble will support government should it encounter resistance from the wealthy.  When the poor are excluded from meaningfully participating in the state and its structures and defining the development trajectory, the state, history demonstrates, is less likely to succeed in implementing a socially inclusive and shared growth path.

Suggested here is the possibility of an urban trajectory and development path that could potentially redeem the hopes, dreams and aspirations of recent and distant pasts.

Alas, and once again, we squander all this. From Boraine to Manuel to Zille, there is a deafening silence on the deprivations and degradations wrought by the interlinked workings of our city's property, land and financial markets; there is deafening silence on the deficits and deficiencies of our institutional and planning frameworks, which research suggests crowd the poor out of the planning process; and, there is deafening silence on the impossibility of dismantling the master's house using the master's tools.

Amidst the mediocracy and mumbo jumbo, reason it seems is increasingly on the retreat - both as an ideal and reality.  We have a city whose shape and form is fashioned and moulded by the elite and for the elite.  The poor, it seems, should know their place, be patient and, most of all, be thankful for the "sensations" emanating from the jukeboxes, puppet shows, dream catchers and shadow dancing of the chattering classes and the ruling elected minority.

  • This article draws on many written pieces. Length precludes my naming all the authors.  Wherever possible, I have put their words in inverted commas. My apologies to those who I may have inadvertently misquoted and/or improperly and not acknowledged.

    Firoz Khan is an academic at the University of Stellenbosch and is completing his Ph D on the developmental state and post-apartheid housing praxis.  This article has been condensed for reasons of space. {jcomments on}