Laying bare Cape Town’s chronic dysfunction

Academic and writer Crispian Olver has released the second in a series of three books aimed at exploring why South African cities are moving so destructively close to the edge.

“You’ve been through hell,” Crispian Olver tells a packed house in the Book Lounge on Buitenkant Street, Cape Town, at the launch of his book A House Divided: The Feud that took Cape Town to the Brink

“Half the room were wondering what I’d said about them,” he says. The other half were there to hear a champion of plain speaking. The Book Lounge is an oasis of civility in a city whose rough edges run deep. Olver’s latest publication lays bare the chronic dysfunction of the City, as opposed to the city, and drapes it, in all its inelegant wilful wastefulness, on the bones of the 2018 water crisis.

In 2017 he published How to Steal a City: The Battle for Nelson Mandela Bay, his exposé of what publishers Jonathan Ball called the “rotten heart” of the Eastern Cape conurbation.

Eighteen months or so from now Olver’s book on Johannesburg should appear. Like the other two it will complement his work towards his doctoral studies.

Olver strips away bullshit and presents what he finds unflinchingly. Not only is his truth stranger than fiction, it’s also more readable than much of the work of public intellectuals. He doesn’t sling strings of statistics, or warble walls of weighty words. He speaks fluent human. “You’ve been through hell,” he tells us. Man, don’t we know it.

Glory not worth basking in

What became A House Divided took shape when Olver was refused permission to research, as he describes, “how the city was governed, and in particular the way that financial interests intersected with politics and the City administration”. His request was denied, he was informed, “due to the high risk and significant impact on the CCT [City of Cape Town]”. Why didn’t the best-run metro in the country want to bask in that glory?

Because many, including highly skilled and experienced city planners, who disagreed over major construction projects with the then mayor, Patricia de Lille, found themselves restructured out of their jobs. 

Because De Lille was worryingly close to the money flowing into those projects, and demanded that the experts did little besides implement her decisions. 

Because the City, far from being the epitome of efficiency, worked despite itself. But its attempts to keep Olver out only strengthened his resolve to get in. 

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“Sparing none of the political actors, [A House Divided] demonstrates how ordinary citizens and the poorest among us get detracted [sic] by intra-party battles and business interests,” Adam Habib, the Vice-Chancellor of Wits University and a doyen of Olver’s ilk, endorses the work, which he describes as “public interest writing at its best”.

We know the government is corrupt. Just as we know Eskom can’t keep the lights on, and that we live – and die – in the shadow of outrageously high rates of vicious crime against women and African migrants. So writing about South Africa’s problems means engaging an audience suffering from dysfunction fatigue.

Who is corrupt?

“I find the South African debate about corruption incredibly binary,” Olver says. “There’s this tendency to sweeping generalisations where anything – even a minor finding in an audit report – is deemed to be corrupt. Whereas a whole lot of other stuff that goes on right in front of our noses, day in and day out, because it involves people we’re biased towards, we don’t describe as corrupt.

“I, for a long time, tried to suspend my judgement about what’s corrupt and what’s not, and looked at the nature of the deals [in Cape Town] that underpin all of this. And pay attention to their lineage. How far back to these modes of interaction and involvement go?

“Local government’s a fertile terrain to do that in. The tax base is, basically, the property rates system. And municipalities are directly incentivised to grow the value of the properties in their jurisdiction because it grows their taxes. It’s been like this for 150 years.

“I do quite deliberately try and deepen the debate. The discipline of writing a book is that you’ve got to force yourself to articulate what you’re trying to say in very clear forms that everyone can access and understand. Which is not to say it’s about simplifying it.”

Not that it’s simplistic to say a nation doesn’t get only the government it deserves – it also gets the opposition it merits.

Trench warfare

“I think we’re dealing with a systemic failure across our political system as a whole,” Olver says. “There were moments in the fall-out with De Lille when the DA [Democratic Alliance] could’ve chosen a different path, before the different factions sort of dug themselves in and embarked on trench warfare.

“The more right-wing group basically decided to go for broke. They weren’t just going to get rid of Patricia, they were going to undertake a purge that would involve a right-wing shift.

“And Patricia herself failed because she was this hubristic, ultimately very narcissistic politician who was obsessed with power and ruled by fear – and who I don’t think was prepared to do some of the hard legwork in building coalitions. If she was really committed to her non-racial city that was spatially integrated, there was so much more she could have done.

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“But she went to war with whole swathes of the city that she needed if she was genuine about her social transformation programme. She overplayed her hand in the most terrible way.

“The planners who would’ve been natural allies for her in driving her agenda; she liquidated them. The housing department was full of very progressive, technically very competent people; she liquidated them.

“Even [the City’s executive director for corporate services] Craig Kesson’s ambitious restructuring could have gone in a more positive direction if she hadn’t subverted it with her own patronage appointments and loyalty.” 

All fall down 

De Lille became a victim of the DA’s self-harming tendencies despite it having won, under her mayoralty, two-thirds of Cape Town’s vote in the 2016 municipal elections. Two years later she was thrown out of the party.

That proved a harbinger of the meltdown that cost Mmusi Maimane his leadership in October and exhumed Helen Zille, as the new federal council chair, to preside over the DA’s imminent great leap backwards into identity politics. And all because the Freedom Front Plus siphoned off some of the reactionary white vote in the general elections in May. 

The next time the DA calls itself a home for liberals, liberals should sue for defamation, says Olver. “We desperately need a decent opposition in this country,” he adds. “What played out [in the DA] nationally has been almost a carbon copy of the Cape Town battle, where once again the neo-cons dug in. This is really about accountability for the 2019 electoral losses. They used that issue to effect a comprehensive party-wide purge and a drift to the right. The neo-cons are incredibly effective at pulling the DA back to a particular ideological position on the back of genuine mistakes made by other, more non-racially inclined leaders.”

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Politicians will have another chance to improve their performance when they tackle another looming water crisis, this time in Johannesburg.

“Jo’burg has no water resources other than the poisoned water underground,” Olver explains. “And I think we’re really in the dwang. The only way you’re going to be able to manage it is by cutting water consumption; the demand-side management stuff.

“If push comes to shove I think they’re going to wheel out exactly the same strategy. So they’ll re-hire Tony Leon’s Resolve Communications, and they’re going to frighten the bejesus out of us until we stop using water. There’s some uncanny resemblance to what happened in Cape Town.”

Olver was half joking about former DA leader Leon, executive chair of Resolve, which ran Cape Town’s awareness campaign, landing the same contract in Johannesburg. But his laugh was hollow: he’s been shot in this movie before.

Difficult questions, dirty answers

“I interview to the point where I’m hearing the same story over and over. Normally that takes place at around 60 interviews. But I can’t tell you when because if I’m getting multiple different stories I may go to 80 interviews. Only then will I start analysing it and sequencing it and looking at what to tell out of this whole mass of information,” he says of his approach.

He has recently reached that part of the process in what will be his take on Jo’burg. “The story may be less on government and more on what the motor of the city is: not just the private sector but all the way down to the informal economy and the street traders, and everyone just trying to find a place in this complex, dirty, violent crime-infested place that we call home,” he says. 

“How much does government really matter? Is that where the real deals are being made? Or are they being made elsewhere?”

The problem with Chippy Olver asking questions is that he will find the answers. Damn the bloody man.

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