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Hands Across the Sea — Linthicum’s Letter for October 2013

By Tom Linthicum

Amid all the furor over the US government shutdown and the near-default that would have left our government unable to pay some of its bills, this little bombshell was posted on Facebook here by an opposition party councilman for the Makana Municipality (similar to a U.S. county) where we live: Municipal employees were not paid Friday because the municipality is broke!

OK. Thanks for the info. We already knew that the water and power supply systems are on the brink of collapse, the public schools are a mess and the healthcare system is in shambles. Now this. Can anyone be surprised?

Well, yes and no or ja-nee, as they say in Afrikaans. You see, virtually no useful information comes out of the local government here in a timely fashion. So where else would citizens learn that the municipal employees had not been paid on time but on Facebook?

This is a very instructive example of how the ubiquitous presence of social media makes it so hard to suppress information these days, even by governments with a stranglehold on the levers of power.

Political power in this province of South Africa known as the Eastern Cape rests in the hands of the African National Congress (ANC), which has enjoyed overwhelming majorities at the ballot box since the country became a democracy in 1994 after the fall of apartheid.

The ANC locally seems to take its cue from the national administration of President Jacob Zuma, which happily releases good news and does everything it can to suppress anything it considers bad news. The local ANC government is routinely nonresponsive to questions and requests for information by the local newspaper, Grocott’s Mail, not to mention its citizens.

The main opposition party is the Democratic Alliance (DA), which is strong in the Cape Town area but weak here. Still, there are DA members on the local council, and much of the information that gets out to the public comes through them.

When the water and/or the electricity go out -- as they often do -- emails, text messages and Facebook postings from the DA councilors or citizen groups are always the best source of information on the five w’s and often the only source.

The last time there was an extended water outage, the municipality distributed a half-sheet of paper delivered by hand to houses after five days saying that the water was out (no kidding) and would continue to be out for a while but it was working on the problem and “regretted” any “inconvenience” to residents. That’s customer service, South African style.

On top of that, the Makana Municipality Council hasn’t met for six months! No, that's not a typo. The reason, again according to DA council members, is the mayor is afraid he will lose a vote of confidence if the council meets, so he refuses to call a meeting.

As I write this, a legal notice has been printed in the most recent issue of Grocott’s saying there will be a special meeting of the Council on Monday.
This should be interesting. Maybe they plan to sell tickets to raise enough money to pay the municipal employees!

We return on Nov. 20, so I hope to offer one more edition of Hands Across the Sea either immediately before or after we return to the states.

Best to all.
Tom Linthicum
You can write to Tom at lthomas155@aol.com.
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