Cape Town: best-run metro in SA or a tale of two cities?

There are many Cape Town residents who claim that their city is the best-run metro in the country, and many residents of other metros who lament the fact that they do not have the privilege of former mayor, Helen Zille, and the Democratic Alliance’s (DA’s) wisdom.





But on the other end of the political (and at times social) spectrum, many other residents of Cape Town claim that the DA looks after only the rich middle-class suburbs clinging to the edges of the mountain, ignoring the townships of the poor majority that sprawl across the desolate, fire and drought-ridden Cape Flats.



As in the case of other metros, the truth is, of course, never quite as straightforward as either side claims.





Cape Town is by South African standards a well-to-do city; with the lowest level of poverty (measured by rates of unemployment and access to income) and the highest access to basic services in the country. But much of this is historical, with Western Cape municipalities generally having benefited from many years of preferential apartheid investment as well as “influx control” and other policies, at the expense of marginalised and neglected municipalities in poorer provinces containing vast homelands, such as KwaZulu- Natal and the Eastern Cape.



This trend remains evident in Municipal IQ’s municipal productivity index (MPI), with most of the top-ranked municipalities situated in the Western Cape. Of course, this historical context, while important, does not take away from the recent excellent performance of many of these municipalities on the MPI, as well as the significant implications of vastly accelerated post-apartheid in-migration to the province, spawning vast numbers of large informal settlements especially in Cape Town.





Also to be considered in assessing the city’s performance are the difficulties implied by its highly divided population — along spatial, racial and political grounds. Two weeks ago, African National Congress (ANC) spokesman Jackson Mthembu accused the ruling DA of having no regard for blacks and of being “racial in its outlook” after the local council built toilets with no walls in the Makhaza section of Khayelitsha.



But local DA councillor, Stuart Pringle, retorted that residents of this informal settlement had agreed to this arrangement three years ago, as part of a compromise solution to stretch the existing budget to provide a toilet per household, as opposed to the originally planned enclosed toilet per five households. At the time, it was agreed that each household would build its own enclosure and indeed, of the 1326 toilets built, only 50 remain unenclosed — less than 4%.



The DA has also claimed that local councillor, ANC member Nomfefe Gexa, agreed to the arrangement at the time, although Gexa has denied this. And who can blame her, with the Human Rights Commission investigating the issue and every ANC heavyweight shaking his or her head with moral indignation in the glare of national media coverage?





It is difficult to see how the DA-led city, already up against it in the ANC dominated townships and informal settlements of the Cape Flats, could be so naive as not to see the potential for scandal coming from this scenario — indeed, predictably, it has been interpreted by the DA’s detractors as nothing less than a return to the worst apartheid toilets-in-the-veld type of service delivery made infamous by National Party.





But while local ANC supporters might be unhappy with the DA-led council, in the eyes of middle-class residents of Cape Town it seems they can do little wrong, especially after the energetic and media-savvy leadership of Zille, for whom the majority of such residents voted.





Were Cape Town’s Integrated Rapid Transport planning fiasco — where the budget somehow more than tripled from R1,32bn to R4,2bn in a year, causing the city to postpone plans for most of the project — to have happened in Johannesburg or Durban, it would have been received by the middle class and the letters column of most newspapers with outrage and indignation as yet another example of ANC incompetence and corruption. Instead, it seems most middle-class residents were prepared to accept the lame explanation that the city was just being careful and prudent in tough economic times.





Objectively though, Cape Town is a well- run city. It has just received its sixth successive clean audit from the auditor-general (for the 2008-09 financial year), supporting perceptions of continuing excellence in financial management.





And contrary to what its detractors might claim, the city is delivering — it now claims that 100% of households have access to basic levels of sanitation and water and that, last year, the number of toilets in informal settlements was increased to 24954 — one toilet for every 4,7 informal households — with one tap available per 10,8 informal households, a record to be proud of given the city’s significant number of informal settlements.





Certainly, the city does not require, as the ANC is sometimes wont to suggest, provincial intervention. But, like most other South African cities, Cape Town is under pressure. Municipal IQ estimates that Cape Town is growing by more than 3% a year, similar to the rates experienced in highly urbanised Johannesburg, and until in-migration into Cape Town abates and its population stabilises, it’s unlikely the city will be able to sustain universal access to water and sanitation.





Dealing with urbanisation will take sustained expenditure; a bit of a worry considering that Cape Town’s average per capita expenditure rate for the past six years — R3169 — is below the nine-city average of R3411 and significantly below the expenditure rates of other large cities such as Johannesburg, Durban, Pretoria, Ekurhuleni and Port Elizabeth.





But expenditure, though a reflection of delivery, needs to be prudent, and the indebtedness experienced by Johannesburg to fund many of its large capital programmes, as well the cash crunch experienced by Pretoria last year, suggest the benefits of expanded expenditure must also be weighed up against long-term financial sustainability.





While Cape Town has arguably erred on the side of conservatism , it should be noted that its medium-term expenditure outlook is likely to accelerate given the city’s note-issuing programme.





Nonetheless, expenditure figures suggest that to claim that the city is delivering more than others is probably more an issue of (class) perspective than fact.





No doubt, Cape Town is not an easy city to manage; with its political contests and deeply entrenched spatial inequality, associated with large numbers of sprawling informal settlements and the focus of heavy media attention, neither the ANC nor the DA have an easy time of it.





But it is a city with considerable advantages — an exceptionally well-skilled population suitable for high-end service sectors, including a vibrant tourism industry, and of course, its iconic mountain.





What a shame, then, that it should be subjected to such polarised opinions in much- needed debates around its development — a path that will need to be carefully negotiated whoever rules.