While the bad news was that Trevor Manuel was unable to attend the panel discussion, the good news was that the rest of the panel was certainly up to the challenge. The heat was turned up full force by chair Eusebius McKaiser who was not going to accept skirting around the issues, no matter how loquaciously they may be delivered. Presented with thanks to the Legal Resources Centre and their line of work, Naledi Nomalanga Mkhize (local activist and lecturer in the Rhodes History Department) and Solomon Lechesa Tsenoli (Minister of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs) engaged on the tricky topic of inclusion and accountability in local planning and development.
McKaiser, an ‘old Graeme-ian’ who grew up in Grahamstown, regards it as the perfect template for apartheid planning and thus an ideal situation for the debate of local governance. Mkhize delved into the problems causing and caused by local government “thinking they are ‘Big Boys’ when they are not.” By placing national and local governments more on a par with one another as opposed to clear-cut hierarchy, we as citizens create an unrealistic expectation on local government. Tsenoli stated that “government is a livelihood strategy for many,” and it became clear that the onus is, as it in fact always has been, on the individual. This weighty yet liberating knowledge is compounded by the irony of the local government situation – that access to national government can be far easier than access to local government.
Though Tsenoli provided an inclusive account of South Africa’s democratic constitution and history, and the impeccably “good intentions” behind government, McKaiser pushed for a more present answer. He challenged that just because we “can write documents that are inclusive, it does not mean they are implemented inclusively.” While no one was in disagreement that our constitution is indeed exemplary, the issue of ideals on paper vs. their implementation in reality was inescapable. We cannot ignore issues of past inadequacies that need to be seriously addressed – two decades into democracy, it is becoming ever-more urgent.
There was no miraculous quick-fix solution offered, and indeed there is not one. However, the imperative place to start lies in the importance of continuing to question and debate – for us as South Africans to really care about our country, our people and the history we are currently writing for ourselves.