We remain a nation of two halves; of insiders and outsiders; of rich and poor; of access and scarcity; of elites and the excluded, writes Mmusi Maimane
Last week two seemingly unconnected events occurring in the same city and within a space of 24 hours illustrated in the most vivid manner the sad tale of “two South Africa’s” we have become so accustomed to.
Late on Thursday afternoon, as hundreds of thousands of commuters in Cape Town were about to begin their daily travel home from work via rail, the city’s entire railway network was ground to a screeching halt.
Without any prior warning it was announced that Eskom had cut off Metrorail’s electricity supply, allegedly due to failure of payment by one beleaguered SOE, Prasa, to another, Eskom.
In reaction, Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula blamed the incident on Prasa’s “deep financial crisis”.
The Minister stated: “It is a matter of public record that Prasa is experiencing a cash flow crisis as a result of a depleted operational budget.”
Anyone who has used Metrorail, which is a subsidy of Prasa, will tell of the daily frustration of unreliable schedules, inconsistent arrivals and departures and overcrowding due to an under-resourced and poorly managed operation.
Yet for the approximately two million daily users, they have little other choice.
When it comes to transport, our society’s “Two South Africa’s” divide is most visibly on show.
Insiders travel by car and by plane.
And outsiders travel by taxi, bus, train and on foot and remain dependant on public transport.
Thursday’s disruption was but one of the countless incidents that negatively impact the lives of one half of our nation – the outsiders.
Just 24 hours prior, South Africans waited with bated breath as the Minister of Finance tabled the country’s national budget for 2020/21 in Parliament’s National Assembly in Cape Town.
The annual event itself signifies the gulf between the elites and the excluded, as the other half of South Africa – the “who’s who” of business, labour and government – gather to hear how the country’s R1.95 trillion budget will be spent.
Simply, it’s a battle between the interests of the small, connected elite, and the rest of South Africa.
When it came to rail transport, the Minister announced that funding to public transport will be cut by R13.2 billion over the next three years.
Most of that money was to be directed to Prasa.
This despite the “deep financial crisis” alluded to by the Transport Minister just hours before.
In addition, the budget speech told us that Cabinet has approved “the economic regulation of transport bill in November, which takes us toward a fairer process for third party access into the rail network”.
The Finance Minister could have announced additional funding to Prasa in the short-term, while committing to devolving the powers over transport to local authorities.
This would act as a double boost for poor and working-class commuters who rely daily on rail transport.
Instead, this government chose not only to slash funding to public transport, but is proceeding with clumping together the economic regulation of aviation, marine, rail and road transport sectors into one single entity through the Economic Regulation of Transport Bill.
A step backwards and a hammer blow to the pockets of the poorest South Africans.
However, it wasn’t this move that demonstrated government turning its back on the poor and excluded. Rather it was a single line item relating to another SOE, South African Airways (SAA).
SAA is a government vanity project and has not made profit since 2011. It is a black hole down which billions of precious public funds have been thrown in the form of continuous bailouts.
And the airline adds very little value to the lives of ordinary South Africans, only carrying the rich elite who can afford air travel.
Despite this, the budget allocated another R16 billion to SAA.
While more than half of SA’s population (30.4 million people) live on less than R41 a day, the government has effectively told South Africa that cutting funding for rail public transport while subsidising the travel of the rich elite is the most prudent of fiscal choices.
This story of two South Africa’s can be witnessed in every facet of our society.
From education to health care, from transport to the economy.
We remain a nation of two halves; of insiders and outsiders; of rich and poor; of access and scarcity; of elites and the excluded.
And this structural inequality is kept in place by the actions and inaction of this government and the current political system.
Today millions of citizens not only feel excluded, but are materially excluded and unless we urgently and deliberately bridge this divide, the very future of our miracle nation remains at stake.
This is why I am focused on building a Movement for One South Africa where we can reform our political system, pursue justice, build an inclusive economy, and hold those in power to account.
Our time is now.
– Mmusi Maimane is the Chief Activist of the One South Africa Movement