The canary and the frog in sea of incompetence and unaccountability

KZN Premier Sihle Zikalala was caught out this week when eagle-eyed residents at the upmarket La Mercy suburb outside Durban spotted a municipal bowser offloading its full tank of water at his private residence.

His excuse was that his wife needed it to cook food for the communities who had been hit the hardest by the catastrophic flooding that ravaged the Durban and surrounds before Easter. As Jonathan Jansen noted on Twitter, “I’m more inclined to believe the dog ate my homework”.

We are lucky though. 

In Durban, the effect of local government misrule is clear from the devastation of the floods; exacerbated by under maintained infrastructure and the brazen arrogance of local politicians – including helping themselves to donations meant for those in need.

In other areas, the dysfunction isn’t as suddenly obvious. The metaphor of the boiling frog is increasingly apt: If a frog falls into a pot of hot water, it’ll leap out. If the water heats up gradually, the frog acclimatises until it’s boiled alive.

We could well be that frog. 

The problem is that we just keep on acclimatising. ‘n Boer maak ‘n plan used to be an affectionate description of South African resilience – now it’s a curse, because as long as we keep on fashioning workarounds, no one ever gets held responsible. Our lesser reported on municipalities are a case in point. 

Years ago, the alternate, back road route to Kimberley from Johannesburg via the goldfields to Hoopstad, Hertzogville and Boshoff was only for the daring. There were potholes! Those potholes, 20 years later are no worse. In fact, compared to the general condition of roads in Kimberley, they’re as smooth as the race track at Kyalami. 

The diamond city is no longer synonymous with the Big Hole, it’d now the Big Pot Hole. It’s difficult to find more than 200m of road without one, whether in the city centre or the more affluent suburbs. But these aren’t ordinary potholes. There’s a reason why so many people in Kimberley drive supersized bakkies – and it isn’t to go hunting in the veld. 

It’s the same reason why JoJo tanks are ubiquitous in every yard and garden and why there are pop up water shops at all the shopping centres. Kimberley draws its water from the Vaal – thankfully several hundred kilometres downstream from the disaster that is the Emfuleni Water plant pumping raw effluent into the river. 

The city of almost 200 000 souls however often sits for days with no water, because of failure either in the pumping station 14kms away at Riverton or on the single pipeline that feeds the city. Those who can, make a plan as the wilful mismanagement; a toxic trifecta of incompetence, inertia and unaccountability, continues in plain sight.

Years ago, when miners went underground, they’d carry a canary in a cage. That was to alert them of the invisible, though immensely dangerous, presence of methane gas. If the canary fell off its perch, dead, it was time to tip toe out of the workings, lest a spark ignite the cloud and incinerate them all.

Kimberley is the canary in the gold mine that is South Africa.

Originally published by the Saturday Star on 23 April 2022.