By LINDA PONA
Batho Pele literally means “people first”, and it is a concept that emanates from the Ubuntu principle of “Umntu ngumntu ngabantu,” which can simply be translated as “I am because you are.”
Batho Pele is an initiative birthed in 1997, when South Africa’s dawn of democracy was still new, and the country was hopeful with the promise of a government that sought to place its people first and deliver excellent services. The initiative is still an overarching concept under which the government operates today.
Yet every day, I look at the things that happen, particularly here in Makhanda, and find myself wondering if some of them could be “putting the people first” in action.
For example, I sat in shock as a 70-something-year-old screamed hysterically in the confined space of the municipal office. Two men rushed into the office to find the old lady bent over screaming out of frustration, hurt, and anger over the treatment she had received because of her water bill, which was said to be outstanding, but the opposite was true. In fact, the municipality owed her money.
She needed to “go mad” for them to see her. She reasoned that she had to get angry for them to take her seriously. After the incident, her years-long issue was resolved. She was finally at peace.
Although her issue was resolved, the guiding pillars on which Batho Pele stands guide us and state that she should not have been treated this way in the first place. According to Batho Pele, citizens should be consulted about their needs; they should know what service to expect, and they should be offered apologies and solutions when their standards are not met. They should furthermore be treated courteously and given access to services, and are entitled to full information. There should be openness and transparency in how decisions are made and departments are run, and finally, there should be value for money in all the services that government provides to its citizens.
Yet how many of these principles do we actually see in practice? As I think of the crumbling Makhanda infrastructure, and begs the question: Do we still come first? Do the local leadership structures at all consider our humanity as their citizens?
If they do, if indeed we are Batho Pele and are the people that come first, how is it then that the latest Makana municipality’s Infrastructure Development Portfolio Committee meeting revealed that Makhanda needs R400 million to fix the most used roads in Makhanda? Yet, the Department of Transport agreed to contribute R50 million towards repairing a few streets?
A resident from Scotts Farm hasn’t had water since last year and relies on water from a neighbour to get by, and the municipality has not bothered to show up. This is but one of many stories that plague the town. Is this a Batho Pele approach?
Sewage leakages are found in many places around Joza, and residents are rightfully concerned that children will fall ill around these sewage areas.
Waste isn’t collected on time because of constant garbage truck breakups and downs, and we are told, “If the refuse is not collected by 11:00, please put it back in the yard.”
The latest Makana municipality Infrastructure Development Portfolio meeting has revealed that more than R21.6 million was returned to the national government because it was not spent.
I could go on and on, but by now, you get the point. We are not the people that the government considers first.
Although this state of affairs would incline me to give up on finding viable solutions to our problems, I still have hope because, in the midst of all these troubles, there are citizens who are working together to build this town through various initiatives. They are fixing the potholes, cleaning the streets, and taking responsibility and accountability for this town.
Although they aren’t walking around with branded placards of the Batho Pele principle, they are, in many ways, showing that the people do indeed come first in that they still consider the humanity of the citizens of that town. Community, hope and activism will surely carry us through.