Bay’s cycle of toxic power
I was at the Boardwalk Convention Centre on Friday evening .
The room was buzzing with some of Nelson Mandela Bay ’s most prominent business figures poised in glitzy evening gowns and tailored suits.
Much to our delight, the Hollywood-acclaimed Ndlovu youth choir kicked off the celebrations.
The crowd was ecstatic, clapping and dancing to the beautiful, authentic sounds of SA’s latest rising stars.
By all accounts, the event was the most impressive of the Mandela Bay Business Chamber banquets in recent years.
Shortly after the fish starter, MC Ian Von Memerty called Andrew Muir to deliver the chamber’s annual presidential address.
A stutterer, Muir broke the ice with witty banter about his stammer. And then came the sobering moment.
“Like me, I am sure you care deeply about our city and are fully aware of the potential it has to become a truly great place to work, live and do business, ” Muir said.
“But, sadly, we are gathered here at a time when our city is facing its most critical period in recent history.”The room fell silent.
“To be blunt, our city has become dysfunctional. This has happened over a cumulative period of time.“In fact [it happened] over a good number of years and different political administrations.”
At the front row, a few metres away from the stage, sat mayor Mongameli Bobani, ANC chief whip Bicks Ndoni, former mayor Nceba Faku, businessman Saki Macozoma and the chamber’s CEO, Nomkhitha Mona.
Muir detailed the business community ’s frustration with the municipality’s poor services and the political chaos which has in recent months brought the administration to its knees.
This is why, Muir said, the chamber had circulated an open letter to the metro’s leadership in August highlighting its concerns.
As Muir spoke, my mind wandered to Bobani’s response to that open letter at the time. The mayor had found it “disrespectful, out of order” and said it “displayed the chamber’s shallow grasp of its role in engaging with the city”.
He further accused the big business of “riding on the wave of the narrative that has been created by those dark forces who are hell-bent on taking this municipality to administration.”
It was cringeworthy stuff. Nonetheless, as Muir wrapped up his speech on Friday, he received loud applause.
He walked back to his table where Bobani graciously got up, smiled and shook his hand.
But within minutes, and before the main course was served, Bobani was gone.
To be fair, he may have had some pressing mayoral duties to attend to.
But then again, it probably would have been difficult for anyone to sit there tucking into a medium-rare piece of fillet after your host pretty much told everyone in the room you really suck at your job.
But here’s the thing — what Muir said is not new.
It is spoken about in different spaces across the country. Municipal officials — the good ones anyway — are at their wits’ end.
The result of the political chaos is there for all to see, be it the heaps of rubbish on every open space, the sewage running down the streets or the pothole-riddled roads across town.
Our problems are well documented.
What we hardly do, however, is to honestly examine why we are in the situation in which we find ourselves.
You see, though Bobani epitomises the worst and most destructive of our political class, even more than the cause of our current municipal chaos, he is the product of a deeper and broader sociopolitical crisis.
Notwithstanding our pockets of economic and academic excellence, our city has for decades been trapped in a vicious cycle of inequality and the increasingly desperate search for opportunity, which is often characterised by the ever-present threat of violence.
This means if you are an adult with little or no skill, you probably have a much better chance at trying your hand in politics and its associated terrains as a means to an income than you would landing a job at some company.
Getting into political office, however, requires, among other things, a strong network of runners willing, able and desperate enough to do any and everything to help you acquire and keep your power.
In return you must, through whatever means necessary, dispense to them consistent patronage — their only means of income — which can only be sourced from public coffers.
From time to time, the runners may change. At times even the political players may move around, but the systemic networks that keep power intact remain in place.
The result of this mutually beneficial power play is the creation of an administration bubble that serves a few, where corruption is embedded, patronage normalised and any attempt at dissent and accountability is shut down by the threat of violence.
When this happens a constitutional entity such as a municipality becomes increasingly distant from the public it is meant to serve.
In the eyes of ordinary citizens, it increasingly appears like, even operates no differently to, a criminal syndicate. This is how power works in this city.
Until this system fundamentally changes, we are likely to be trapped in this never ending cycle of chaos and decay.
● Nwabisa Makunga is editorof The Herald.