Cape Town must redefine the frontiers of local government

The following speech was delivered at the Cape Town Press Club by Geordin Hill-Lewis, DA City of Cape Town Mayoral Candidate.

Good afternoon, 

It is a great honour for me to speak today at this storied Cape Town institution.

Thank you for the invitation. 

It is also not lost on me that I am standing before the Cape Town Press Club – one of the oldest such institutions committed to press freedom in Africa – as perhaps the youngest mayoral candidate in Cape Town’s history.

So what motivated a millennial with a funny-sounding name, who grew-up in Edgemead, to run for mayor?

The short answer is that, during lockdown, I came to the realisation that the DA will need to do much more than ever before if we are to secure Cape Town’s future against the disintegration of the national government.

Capetonians have trusted the DA with their votes for the past fifteen years. And in this – the moment of our city’s greatest need – we dare not let them down.

From crime to unemployment and the collapse of infrastructure, there is no shortage of reasons for South Africans to be extremely concerned about the future of their families and their communities.

But where others see only decline, my lockdown reflections also revealed that this particular moment in our political history is ripe with unprecedented potential to put South Africa’s constitutional democracy on a far more sustainable path.

That path is the road to the devolution of power away from the national government to competent local authorities.

It is by seizing the opportunities provided by the collapse of national government services that we can secure Cape Town’s future and enable our home town to take its rightful place among the great cities of the world.

But to turn this vision into reality, Cape Town needs to be bolder and more audacious than we’ve ever been, by doing more than we’ve ever done.

So, what exactly does it mean when I say that the DA in Cape Town is ready to do more than ever before?

I see two categories of challenges where we have no choice but to be much bolder to secure Cape Town’s future.

The first category includes areas of delivery over which the city already has significant say.

This is the category generally referred to as “basic services” – things like providing functional sewerage systems, removing refuse, and repairing potholes and streetlights. 

These services are critical to empowering all residents to live a life of dignity, and providing them is the primary mandate of local government in South Africa.

Providing quality basic services is, of course, premised on running a clean government that does not steal the resources meant to deliver those services.

On all of these fronts, Cape Town towers head and shoulders above the rest, with years of clean audits and reams of statistics to it up. 

If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to cite just four of these:

  • 99.2% of Capetonians have their refuse removed at least once a week;
  • Access to electricity has improved from 91.7% to 93.5% since 2012;
  • 91.8% of residents have access to sanitation; and
  • Cape Town spends R2.9 billion a year on free basic services to the poorest residents, excluding the amount spent on housing construction.

 On these and most other metrics, Cape Town does better than anywhere else in the country.

 And yet, despite all of this, there often appears to be a contradiction when we talk about basic service delivery in Cape Town.

 On the one hand, we know it to be an incontestable fact that Cape Town does the basics better than any other big city in South Africa.

 But on the other hand, we also know intuitively – just from living in this city – that there are still far too many Capetonians who do not live dignified lives.

 So how do we explain this apparent disjuncture between Cape Town’s proven delivery record and the intuition of so many of us that things ought to be much better still?

The answer lies in the standard we measure Cape Town against.

 I’m sure that each one of us in this room would agree that Cape Town has the potential to become a city of truly global renown.

 Our Mother City has always been more diverse, cosmopolitan and globally-integrated than any other part of South Africa.

Feeling connected to the world is part of Cape Town’s DNA.

It is this global outlook, and the intrinsic desire to fulfil our city’s true potential, that inspires my vision for Cape Town to take its rightful place among the great cities of the world.  

In this context, can we really be satisfied with delivering the best services in the country, when the rest of South Africa is in such steep decline?

 For me, the answer is a resounding no!

I firmly believe that we should not only measure Cape Town against the dreadful standards of South Africa!

For the Mother City to fulfil its true potential, we must measure ourselves against global rather than only domestic standards. 

This insight – that Capetonians regard their home not only as a South African city but also as a worldcity – resolves the apparent contradiction about basic services.

 Both of the following statements are thus true:

 Cape Town already delivers far better basic services to the poor and vulnerable than any other big city in South Africa.

 And we must still do much more to catch up with the global standard we rightly measure ourselves against.

 In reality, there is thus no contradiction between acknowledging that Cape Town already delivers better basic services to all residents than any other South African city, while striving to do the basics even better still.

 And it is possible to do the basics better.

 We can and we must reduce the infrastructure backlog in Cape Town by increasing investment in basic services.

 Over time, this expanded investment will improve the sewerage network, the conditions of our roads and streetlights, enhance refuse removal, and help us combat illegal dumping.

 But reprioritising the budget to spend more on infrastructure upgrades will not be enough on its own.

 We also need to improve the efficiency of our spending on basic services by reviewing contract management in Cape Town.

We must review the City’s contract management system, so that service delivery is never interrupted anywhere in Cape Town due to the expiry of contracts or non-performance by contractors.

But, in the year 2021, the DA in Cape Town also has a secret weapon up our sleeves that no other world city that developed during the previous century had at its disposal.

That secret weapon is modern digital technology.

Despite all of the empty talk about the fourth industrial revolution by the national government, the truth is that South Africa has fallen far behind the rest of the world when it comes to using technology to solve public policy problems.

South African governments remain trapped in the analogue age.

 But there is a potential upside to this backlog: given how far behind we are from the digital frontier, we can make tremendous gains in a relatively short period by embracing digital solutions.

And what better place to begin taking South African governance into the digital age than right here in Cape Town – the tech capital of Africa.

Basic service delivery in South Africa is ripe for digital disruption, starting with the way in which residents interact with our municipality.

 While Cape Town’s C3 fault reporting system was state-of-the-art when it was launched nearly fifteen years ago, it has become outdated in the fast-moving digital age.

 That is why I have pledged to upgrade the fault reporting system in Cape Town to become a mobile-first application that will allow anyone with a smartphone to log complaints directly with the municipality on a modern, user-friendly app.

And when I say anyone should be able to use this app, I mean it: we have already seen a trend towards zero-rating data use on government services, and I intend to negotiate with mobile providers to do the same for our revamped service delivery app.

The DA in Cape Town is also ready to take public participation and local democracy online, by empowering anyone with a cell phone to participate in the City’s planning and budgeting processes.

In one fell swoop, the creation of a modern, mobile-first digital communications channel between residents and the City will empower millions of Capetonians – who previously had to spend valuable money and time on travelling and standing in queues – to instantly report faults and have a say in municipal decisions that affect their communities.

Speaking of queues: it is time to eliminate those as far as possible.

Cape Town’s economy loses thousands of hours every week to people who needlessly stand in queues to make appointments or to do routine things like renew a license.

In fact, an entire cottage industry has emerged of people you can pay to go and stand in line for you at the local municipal office.

This is completely unacceptable in the year 2021.

That is why I am determined to digitise all routine processes like license renewals and appointment bookings.

While it may not be possible to entirely eliminate queues, we can significantly reduce them by embracing modern technology.

 And why stop there?

Once we’ve cultivated a culture of partnering with Cape Town’s technology sector to find new digital solutions to old analogue problems, we will be able to turn our gaze to using technology to solve other problems.

 For example: we are still building houses and roads in Cape Town using essentially the same methods and materials we used a hundred years ago.

By embracing modern methods, we may just find exciting new solutions to these age-old challenges as well.

Doing the basics better also means doing more to create jobs for the people of Cape Town.

As is the case with basic services, we all know that Cape Town already does more than any other city to empower entrepreneurs.

But in a country with an unemployment rate of nearly 35 percent and where four out of every five young people cannot find work, we must now do even more than ever before to protect Cape Town by attracting investors, empowering entrepreneurs, and getting this city working like never before.

Given all the talent and resources at our disposal, we need to do much more to ensure that Cape Town overtakes cities like Nairobi and Kigali on the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index.

 The Index indicates that it currently takes 88 days and thousands of Rands to obtain a construction permit, 37 days to have building plans approved, 14 days for a business owner to get a rates clearance certificate when registering property, and up to 97 days to establish a new electricity connection.

 The persistence of this type of red tape in the year 2021 is just as outdated and unacceptable as the sight of people queuing to renew their driver’s licences.

That is why I have already pledged to turn Cape Town into the most entrepreneur-friendly city on the entire African continent.

Even more important than cutting red tape wherever it ensnares private initiative is the need to create a new culture in the city administration that empowers and helps entrepreneurs rather than merely enforcing compliance.

This same commitment to embracing the private sector must carry over into our approach to housing.

Cape Town must redefine the frontiers of local government  DA is the only party that believes in empowering poor South Africans to own their own homes.

That is why I want to see cranes going up all over vacant pieces of state-owned land in Cape Town.

 Our Mother City must become one big construction site where we build a future of shared prosperity.

This is something I know about, having previously been a partner in a small property start-up that tried to build more homes for Capetonians.

I have first-hand experience of the red tape and hurdles involved in actually getting even a small project off the ground in Cape Town.

But when we talk about the role of the private sector in alleviating the housing shortage in our city, we shouldn’t only think of formal companies.

Innovative micro-developers in places like Delft who convert their properties into rental units for people who live in backyards are just as much part of the private sector solution.

It is time for us to embrace these private entrepreneurs by empowering micro-developers and forcing the national government to release the massive plots of land it owns, so that the private sector can build thousands more homes for Capetonians.

I’d now like to turn to the second category of issues where we will do much more than ever before to secure Cape Town’s future.

 This category relates to all of those areas where the national government has miserably failed the people of Cape Town.

Under the current administrative framework, the national government is responsible for providing Cape Town with a reliable supply of electricity, safe and reliable public transport, and effective policing.

It is hard to overstate just how catastrophically it has failed to provide any of these things to the people of Cape Town.

But I would go even further. 

The evidence shows that the national government has actively and consistently undermined the efforts of DA-led Cape Town to provide these crucial services.

When DA-led Cape Town expanded the electricity network to thousands of poor households, the national government plunged them right back into darkness through load shedding.

When DA-led Cape Town worked together with the Western Cape to introduce LEAP safety officers and monitor the failures of SAPS, the national government punished the people of the Cape Flats with the lowest police-to-citizen ratio in the country.

And when DA-led Cape Town introduced the MyCiti bus service to give citizens more options for safe and reliable public transport, the national government promptly took away those options by collapsing Metrorail.

It is time for us to recognise that the national government cannot and does not want to provide reliable electricity, public transport and policing services to the people of Cape Town.

They actively work against the people of this city at every opportunity they get.

Our city therefore finds itself before a stark choice.

We can either take the conservative road that does not challenge the national government’s monopoly over electricity generation, public transport and policing, in which case Cape Town will inevitably follow the same path of decline that has been so well-trodden in other parts of the country.

Or we can stand up and boldly challenge Pretoria, effectively forcing the devolution of these crucial powers so that we can protect Cape Town against the collapse of the national government.

For me, the answer is clear: since the national government refuses to do these things for us, we must now do more of them ourselves.

If we want a thriving future for Cape Town, where every citizen has the opportunity to live a dignified life they value, we must expand the frontiers of local government power by ending load shedding, fighting for control over Metrorail, and introducing hundreds of additional law enforcement officers.

I firmly believe that, 27 years into our democracy, the boundaries of local government power have not been properly tested yet.

Where there are grey areas, we will relentlessly push the boundaries so that we can generate our ownelectricity, run our own railways, and keep our own communities safe.

But we have also seen signs that the national government is starting to capitulate, because – deep down – they know that they have completely failed to provide electricity, public transport and safety, and they have no ability to turn the ship around.

The amendment of electricity generation regulations, the plea for private investors to save our ports, and the creep towards allowing private concessions to run passenger rail are all early indications that the national government will eventually admit that decentralisation is the future.

I am absolutely convinced that the devolution of functions like electricity generation, public transport, and policing to well-run local governments will be the next frontier in South Africa’s democratic development.

And I want Cape Town to lead the march to that new frontier.

This means that, while DA-led Cape Town will always be open to working constructively with other spheres of government, we will not ask permission to secure the future of this beautiful city.

Devolutionary powers will not be given, they will have to be taken.

Where we suffer setbacks in the battles ahead, as we will, we will come back harder on our way to permanent solutions.

Where others see only decline and spend their days only complaining, I see the opportunity of a lifetime to turn Cape Town into the great world city it deserves to be.

With a relentless focus on getting even more done, we will turn this into the best place to live – and the best place to visit – in the entire southern hemisphere.

But I make no bones about it: the challenge before us is a big one.

Not only must we do the basics better than ever before so that Cape Town can catch up with the global standard when it comes to services like refuse removal, pothole repairs, and water and electricity reticulation, but we must also begin to fix that which the national government has broken.

 But I simply do not believe that the framers ever intended South Africa’s Constitution to create a straitjacket where well-run local governments are held hostage by obvious and sustained failures by the national government.

 By relentlessly expanding the frontiers of local government power, I believe that we will win the battle to protect the people of Cape Town from the collapse of the national government.

With apologies to Jannie Steytler, I know that South Africa will one day be governed according to the principles of federalism and devolution of power, because it is the only way this country can be governed.

 By voting for the DA in the upcoming local government election, Capetonians will make sure that our city leads the way towards this exciting new frontier, where well-run municipalities like Cape Town are no longer held hostage by the failures of the national government.

So, go ahead and mark the 1st of November on your calendars, because that is the day when the DA and the people of Cape Town will usher in a new phase in our country’s democratic development. Where we make even more progress towards every resident living a life of dignity, and where Cape Town takes its rightful place among the truly great cities of the world.

Thank you.