A Vote of Confidence in the ANC

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Any expectations that the ANC could suffer at the March 1st local elections due to poor service delivery and voter apathy were blown out of water as voters continued to back the ruling party as the best hope for an improvement in their living conditions.

Even corruption allegations, it seems, are no barrier to holding office. Ruth Bhengu is one of 25 elected ANC members who resigned in connection with the now infamous Travelgate scandal involving the unauthorised use of tax payer's money to cover travel expenses. Bhengu is facing charges for defrauding parliament of R20m and yet is widely tipped to become mayor in the Ugu District Municipality on the South Coast.

However, the ANC are not oblivious to the criticisms levelled at the party, running their campaign under the slogan "a plan to make local government work better for you" and sporting a manifesto that promised to weed out corruption at the local governmental level.

Ahead of the poll, President Thabo Mbeki announced a massive boost in public spending, even with social benefits and the provision of basic services now comprising the highest area of expenditure in the government's annual budget at R70bn. Known as the Accelerated and Shared Growth Initiative for South Africa (ASGISA), the much lauded programme is designed to remove barriers to growth while speeding up the delivery of services.

It seems to have convinced many, as the ANC increased its hold on South African politics, with the only notable setbacks coming in the Western Cape. The ANC gained 67.2 percent of the vote and gained control of 105 councils. The Democratic Alliance won 10 councils with 14.7 percent of the vote and the Inkatha Freedom Party - increasingly seen as a party in terminal decline - receiving 7.5 percent.

Over the past decade, the ANC claims to have built 1.6m new homes and brought clean water to 9m people. Despite that, some 2m South Africans still live in shacks with no running water or electricity. Unemployment among youths between the ages of 16 and 25 is running at 52 percent, compared to a national unemployment rate of 26 percent.

In 2000, more than 1200 local administrations were melded into 248 district municipalities. This led to a haemorrhaging of experienced state employees and the municipalities have struggled to cope. At the same time, many rural dwellers simply moved into urban areas and regions where they expected to find better services, massively increasing the number of informal settlements. This precipitated a crisis of delivery in the third tier of government. As a result, attitudes toward government can often appear somewhat schizophrenic to outsiders, with the national government often being praised for its handling of the macro economy while local government is universally criticised.

A lack of capacity at the local level has now been recognised as a major constraint on the government's plans to boost growth. While it appears that they have the money to build new homes, schools and medical centres, finding the engineers, builders, plumbers, electricians, teachers and doctors to facilitate this is proving nearly impossible.

Analysts estimate that South Africa will need between 3000 and 6000 more civil engineers, technologists and technicians for all of the infrastructure and social infrastructure projects that are currently planned.

The problem has been compounded by the ongoing process of black economic empowerment. This has led, in some instances, to the replacement of skilled whites by blacks, often with poor education and little practical experience.

The good news is that South Africa's democracy appears to be in a healthy state, with the elections passing off with minimal disturbance. Some analysts argue that the consolidation of ANC power coming after a period of unpopular economic reform will enable Mbeki to hold off populist sentiment within the party ranks and continue with his reform agenda. This will conceivably involve both importing skilled labour and labour market reforms which would increase the friction between Mbeki and the other two members of the governing tripartite alliance, Cosatu and the South African Communist Party (SACP).

The government has also announced plans to introduce a new grant programme for local development projects that will specifically target public-private partnerships to invest in infrastructure and community services in low-income residential neighbourhoods. It is clear that there will have to be far greater co-operation between local government and the private sector if the government is to deliver on its promises. Given the resounding vote of confidence given to them by the electorate however, they may have more time to deliver on these promises than previously thought.

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