There were symbols aplenty, and some ghosts from glories past, at the ANC local government manifesto launch on Monday evening.

In ancient Rome, “augury” was the practice of interpreting omens from the observed behaviour of birds. Two days ago in Tshwane there was no shortage of auguries in the ruling party bash.

First was the venue: Pretoria’s Church Square under the gaze of president Paul Kruger no less, two symbols for the price of one as it were. The city is, in ANC revolutionary parlance, under “enemy occupation”. The rickety administration of the DA still holds sway, just, in the nation’s capital.

And the bronze statue of Kruger, symbol of Boer resistance, has – despite the fervour of monument toppling elsewhere – yet to be removed from its plinth. Even though one of Monday evening’s speakers, SACP chief Blade Nzimande, bluntly suggested, just before the event, that Afrikaans — one of the most developed local languages — is a “foreign language”. This should prove a vote winner in the Northern and Western Cape where overwhelmingly the “foreign language” is spoken by all the locals.

Slapping new names on colonial towns has offered some hostages to ill fortune which will not be featuring much in the forthcoming campaign.

Take Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape, for example. Now rebirthed as Makhanda, it hit the headlines in March when its residents were abandoned by their local council and left for weeks without water. Their only salvation came from the ubiquitous generosity and efficiency of the NGO, Gift of the Givers. The provincial and local governments were nowhere in sight. The local authority charged with this basic responsibility, the rebranded Makana municipality, had been taken to court in 2019 by exasperated residents to demand, successfully, the delivery of basic and constitutionally guaranteed services.

This week residents of Johannesburg were rudely reminded that water shortages were no longer the preserve of rural redoubts, but were now happening in the “world class African city” as the nation’s commercial capital was branded in a more hopeful era.

A more comforting symbol for the ANC faithful, except the exiles in Nkandla, was the presence at Monday’s event of former president Thabo Mbeki, who judged the party manifesto and its commitments as “the correct ones”.

Reading Mbeki’s comment reminded me of the time when he, as national and party president, and I, as leader of the DA, faced off in the 2006 local government elections. Then as now, there was no shortage of promises raining down on voters in the looming local government poll.

Mbeki, from the pomp and prestige of his perch as president, used his February 2006 state of the nation speech to make an explicit and time-specific pledge. He announced that government had resolved to “eradicate the bucket toilet system be the end of 2007”. There was little push back from the voting public and the commentariat. Even waspish cartoonist Zapiro portrayed Mbeki on a scooter as “Mr Delivery”. My one-liner at the launch of the DA effort later that month that “when the ANC local councils stop being corrupt, crocodiles will become vegetarians” was not well received beyond the walls of the party faithful.

This past weekend and just before the ANC event on Monday, more than 15 years and three presidents later, Mbeki’s explicit pledge remained unfulfilled.

The Sunday Times revealed that no fewer than 37 municipalities still provided bucket toilets to their residents instead of decent sanitation. Never mind 27 years in command of the levers of government and its resources, the flush toilet system was first introduced on the mass market in 1902 but has yet to arrive for a swathe of citizens across the Free State and Eastern Cape. Though to be perfectly fair, the misery is something of a bipartisan affair: some DA controlled councils in the Eastern and Western Cape also feature on this map of shame.

702 journalist Bongani Bingwa noted that in the one-party province of Limpopo a staggering 515 schools “still have pit toilets”. The tragic death of young Michael Komape there in 2014 has hardly stirred the local and provincial politicians into action seven years later.

Of course, the monies are not the problem. The lack of will and administrative nous and the theft of public resources are the problems.

Little wonder then that at the Monday evening manifesto launch, Ramaphosa was in a defensive crouch. His organisation is financially bankrupt and ideologically exhausted and has little left to offer. His plea was a mea culpa wrapped in a promise of self-correction. How the voters respond to this will be revealed on November 1.

Commentator Daniel Silke summed up the Ramaphosa offering well when he noted: “The ANC asks SA for a mandate so it can fix the myriad issues it was responsible for breaking in the first place.”

Hope springs eternal as the adage has it. But on the subject of eternity, the most sombre, perhaps revealing, a moment of the largely uninspiring address by Ramaphosa was when he paused and drew attention to the murder on the same day in Pretoria of ANC councillor Tshepo Motaung. The killing of ANC councillors and party delegates in the run up to local elections is now a depressing reality. Police minister Bheki Cele even appointed a special police unit to investigate and interdict the political assassination culture which for decades now has nested within the ANC.

Columnist Gareth van Onselen noted “there aren’t many parties in the world over that have a special police unit to investigate, monitor and curb the rate at which said party murders its own”.

And the killings do not happen because service to the community is so prized. Likely it is how the spoils of municipal office can be divvied up among selected relatives, friends and cronies. That is the one explanation.

Another reason is the end of days syndrome for all storied “revolutionary movements” — as the ANC governments at all levels insist still to be called. “The devouring of its children,” Irish author Fintan O’Toole wrote, “is the true mark of a revolution.” And it never ends well.

Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications.

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