A project that could potentially meet a number of national priorities would be if the government incorporated a new capital district somewhere in the centre of the country and moved Parliament there. Geography dictates that a site somewhere in the Free State would probably be most suitable for this purpose.
Twenty years after the advent of democracy, South Africa is beset by a range of economic, social and political challenges. The persistence of these conditions and the magnitude of their effects has fuelled popular perceptions that the new South Africa has not lived up to the promise with which it was greeted. Citizens’ frustration with this state of affairs can be seen in the social upheaval that wracks South Africa in the form of, inter alia, high rates of crime and inter-personal violence, frequent service delivery protests and xenophobic attacks against fellow Africans.
South Africa is also struggling to rid itself of the trappings of its colonial past and to forge a new inclusive national identity. This desire is apparent in the post-racial images which proliferate in companies’ advertising campaigns and the enthusiasm with which citizens have embraced notions like Braai Day for instance. This endeavour, however, is fraught with difficulties and raises uncomfortable questions for which there are no simple answers. In this environment, it is relatively easy for divisions to be sown and for the very notion of what it means to be South African to be bitterly contested. A measure of this animosity can be seen in the uproar that has been caused by the #RhodesMustFall movement and those who have defaced colonial-era monuments that is apparent in cyber forums and the popular media.
Social divisions have their counterpart in the vast, and growing, differences which characterise the national distribution of wealth and income. Economic inequality is widely reported to be higher than under apartheid whilst large segments of the population, especially members of vulnerable groups such as the youth, look set to be condemned to lead lives of chronic poverty through limited employment and educational opportunities. Furthermore, what economic development does take place is not evenly distributed and economic activity seems to be becoming more heavily concentrated in a few geographical areas. Consequently, the internal migration patterns established under colonialism and apartheid have been reinforced post-1994 and the steady movement of citizens from the rural hinterland to towns and cities has continued unabated. This influx has placed an increasing burden on public infrastructure and service delivery in urban areas.
As a result, service delivery protests have increased, in frequency as well as reported level of violence, as residents become fed up with the living conditions which they have to endure. Richer residents have responded to deteriorating infrastructure and poor service delivery by retreating into increasingly self-sufficient enclaves of affluence. The net effect of this phenomenon is that the landscape of every major South African city is now characterised by the development of ever-larger exclusive lifestyle estates alongside slums and informal settlements. The ramifications which the location of oases of opulence beside growing pockets of squalor might have for social cohesion, political stability and national unity can only be speculated upon at this stage. Presumably, this is likely to fuel social disharmony and increase levels of class tension.
The government is keenly aware of these challenges and has embarked upon several initiatives to address them. These have met with varying degrees of success. By way of examples of success stories, it implemented the Expanded Public Works Programme in an attempt to provide employment opportunities, albeit limited ones, for unemployed persons, especially those from the most vulnerable segments of society. It also embarked upon an ambitious electrification campaign and has managed to maintain momentum with respect to the rollout of this programme despite the increasing incidence of load-shedding and resultant electricity blackouts. In order to address these, it has increased the supply of electricity by constructing two large coal-fired power stations and, somewhat more controversially, plans to commission a fleet of nuclear reactors in the near future in what will be the largest state-driven enterprise to date. In a bid to foster nation-building and instil a greater sense of national pride, it bid for and successfully hosted the Rugby World Cup in 1995 and the FIFA World Cup in 2010.
The current administration has also made the reduction of non-essential state expenditure a priority and has mooted several budget-cutting measures. A measure that has received widespread political and popular support is its plan to reduce the burden on the fiscus by curtailing the expenses incurred by Members of Parliament (MPs). In the longer term, it has proposed moving Parliament from Cape Town to Pretoria in order to both reduce transport costs and increase the productivity of MPs and senior civil servants.
Given the scale and inter-relatedness of the multiple challenges facing the country, policies and programmes that comprehensively address several of these challenges simultaneously by maximising the impacts associated therewith and exploiting cost and administrative efficiencies would be of immense value to policymakers. A project that could potentially meet these criteria and enable policymakers to meet a number of national priorities would be if the government incorporated a new capital district somewhere in the centre of the country and moved Parliament there. Geography dictates that a site somewhere in the Free State would probably be most suitable for this purpose. Due to the probable high costs and the disruption to state activities involved, a decision on whether to move the entire government there could be postponed to a later date.
ARGUMENTS IN SUPPORT
Incorporating a new parliamentary district presents a number of opportunities to advance the social, political and economic development of the country. For instance, as regards infrastructure development, consider that building a new Parliament is not merely a matter of erecting shiny new buildings. It would also entail the construction of significant physical infrastructure. A parliamentary village would have to be constructed; a town would have to be planned and homes built to house support and administrative staff. Transport links would have to be established and upgraded and a host of other facilities developed to address specific needs. Seen from this perspective, carrying out such a project would complement ongoing infrastructure-related programmes rather than divert resources and attention from them. Admittedly, given how long many communities have awaited effective service delivery, allocating scarce public resources to this project could expose supporters to accusations of ‘queue jumping’ or, at worst, foisting grandiose vanity projects on already overburdened taxpayers.
Equally valid objections could be lodged on the basis of costs and affordability. Arguably, these concerns are likely to be heightened following revelations of the details of cost escalation that have emerged from investigations into the costs of the presidential homestead in Nkandla. The scandal generated by this controversial project, along with reports which hint at growing levels of corruption in the awarding of public tenders in general, might cause citizens to become sceptical of the underlying motivations for the proposed venture and thus question whether the estimated expenditure thereon could be justified at all given the myriad of pressing needs facing the country. Although project costs are likely to be considerable, not all the money budgeted for this expenditure may represent new expenditure per se but rather the consolidation of existing expenditure on infrastructure development, urban planning, etc.
In addition, building a new national precinct may obviate the perceived societal need of having to constantly engage in much publicised and ever-more expensive vanity projects that leaders take great pains to convince citizens are necessary to promote nation-building efforts but which all too often appear to be motivated by their (leaders’) desires to secure their political legacies or economic advantage for politically-connected members of the elite. Thus, costs could be avoided by diverting public funds earmarked for these enterprises to this proposed project. Prime examples of these include an Olympic or Commonwealth Games bid (the latter subsequently awarded) and the fast-tracked nuclear power deal.
The present proposal could also be dismissed on the grounds that it does not address the issues which originally sparked the debate on whether to move Parliament, viz. cost reduction and the lost productivity associated with long-distance commuting between Cape Town and Pretoria. These objections could be countered to a certain extent through the establishment of a high-speed rail link between Pretoria and Bloemfontein which would tie in with the existing Gautrain operation in Johannesburg.
By way of comparison, the travel time by rail between cities that are a similar distance apart in Europe is two hours. Ticket prices, however, are unlikely to be as high as those of an airline ticket between these two centres. Speculatively, improved rail transport links would also reduce congestion on a key national road and thereby lower transport costs. By so doing, it could serve to stimulate economic development in a part of South Africa that has fallen on harsh economic times.
Incidentally, improved rail transport may also allow South Africa to meet its commitments with respect to reductions in carbon emissions. Further reductions in carbon emissions could also be achieved and the economic feasibility of this project enhanced if South African Airways (SAA), the chronically cash-strapped state-owned national airline, cut the number of flights it offered between Johannesburg and Bloemfontein or ceased operations on this route altogether. Doing so may cause rail passenger volumes to increase sufficiently to ensure the profitability of this rail route whilst it would allow SAA to save on the cost of servicing an unprofitable domestic flight route.
At the political level, detractors will point out that the proposed new capital would likely be located in the old Boer republic of the Orange Free State. Others too will opine that moving Parliament from Cape Town would undoubtedly increase isolationist tendencies in that city and harden Capetonians’ attitudes towards ‘refugees’ from elsewhere in the country thus harming nation-building efforts.
Although plausible, and certainly grounds for concern, incorporating a new parliamentary district may also promote nation-building efforts. The advantages which these bestow could outweigh the drawbacks associated therewith. Foremost of these, a new parliament could provide a powerful symbol of our national liberation and focal point for our national hopes and aspirations, in much the same way that President Mandela embodied the spirit of reconciliation post-1994. The continuous affirmation of our free and democratic status it might provide could spur South Africans to give genuine and vivid expression to the vision of a proud and unapologetically African identity that underlies the notion of the celebrated African Renaissance.
Perhaps more hopefully, establishing a new Parliament and cultivating new ceremonies and traditions therewith would mark a definitive break with our colonial past and firmly refute accusations of pretensions towards a European identity that seems to underlie many critiques of the current approach to former colonial symbols. Conversely, establishing new traditions could be perceived as reflecting a firm commitment to forge a new and inclusive national identity on the part of a nation that is beginning to come to terms with itself and has accepted the challenge of doing so.
At the individual level, such sentiments could embolden South Africans to start grappling with tough questions related to issues of racial redress, historical accuracy and what it means to belong in an open and forthright manner. Arguably, broaching an honest national conversation about these topics, however discomforting, is long overdue as they seem to have been neglected in our drive for reconciliation and the national forgetfulness which has been deemed necessary to achieve this aim.
In conclusion, given the list of potential benefits described above, it is contended that incorporating a new capital district and moving Parliament there may address a range of economic and socio-political challenges. Indeed, coming so soon after the passing of President Mandela and many other icons of the struggle generation, when twilight seems to be drawing over the Age of Hope and the dream of the Rainbow Nation starting to fray, the question is put to the reader of whether South Africans can afford not to entertain the possibility of moving the capital.
* Dr Gerard Boyce is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Development Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa. He writes in his personal capacity.
* THE VIEWS OF THE ABOVE ARTICLE ARE THOSE OF THE AUTHOR AND DO NOT NECESSARILY REFLECT THE VIEWS OF THE PAMBAZUKA NEWS EDITORIAL TEAM
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