My fellow Democrats

What a wonderful city to celebrate Freedom Day in. Nelson Mandela Bay is a truly special place, and home to some of our country’s friendliest and most welcoming people. I always love visiting the Bay.

Today we celebrate 27 years since our very first free and fair election as a democratic nation. Anyone who voted in that election back in 1994 can tell you exactly where they were and what they did that day. The moment was so big it made a lasting impression.

On that day, and for many years after, millions of South Africans were filled with genuine hope for a better future. Putting a cross on that first ballot paper symbolised the freedom that so many had fought and sacrificed for.

But I think you will agree with me that this symbolic freedom of 1994 has not yet translated, for most people, into real economic freedom. The freedom to access opportunities, the freedom to earn a decent wage, the freedom to pursue big dreams and ambitious goals, the freedom to raise your children in a better world than the one you perhaps grew up in.

The struggle for democratic freedom may have ended in 1994, but the struggle for economic freedom is still far from won. For many it is yet to begin.

But if we are to have any chance of victory in this struggle, we will all need to agree on what we’re fighting for. We need to agree what this freedom entails.

Now, many members of the ruling party seem to have a different idea of what freedom means. For many of them it clearly means freedom from accountability. Freedom from repercussions. Freedom from prosecution for crimes committed against the people of this country.

Many of them consider the ongoing looting of the state their legitimate reward. The spoils of war.

In two days’ time the ANC Secretary General, Ace Magashule, will reach the end of his 30-day grace period before he has to step aside due to the serious corruption charges hanging over his head. Why he was given 30 days in the first place is not entirely clear. His position was surely just as untenable 30 days ago as it is today. But nevertheless, that deadline will have come and gone on Thursday.

What happens when this deadline arrives is as significant for you as it is for the ANC itself.

The truth is that people like Magashule and every other ANC cadre who has stolen from the people, cheated the tender system and advanced the interest of their friends and family, have stolen the freedom of ordinary South Africans.

Corruption is not a victimless crime. Its victims are each and every man, woman and child whose dreams of a better life have been deferred, over and over again, because their so-called leaders can’t keep their hands off public money.

Greed is the enemy of freedom. The bigger the greed of the ruling elite, the more unattainable the dream of freedom becomes.

So tomorrow’s step-aside deadline isn’t just about one corrupt man’s desperate attempts to dodge his own party’s rules. It’s a test of the commitment of this government to the freedom of the people they swore to serve.

But Democrats, there is good news too. Your future and your freedom is not entirely in the hands of a corrupt government. You have a big say in it yourself.

There may be many things wrong with our country right now, but our democracy still works fine. And this means you have all the power you need to determine your own future.

Last week the date for this year’s local government election was announced. 27 October – go and put that in your diary. Or even better, write it in big letters and stick it on your fridge. Because that is the day you get to take back control of your future.

And if you’re still doubtful about the role a different government can play in your life, consider the independent report just published by Ratings Afrika which found that seven of the eight metros in South Africa were financially unsustainable. The only metro with sound finances was the DA-run City of Cape Town.

The same report found that almost all the non-metro municipalities that are financially stable are also located in the Western Cape. The notable exception being Midvaal in Gauteng, which also just happens to be governed by the DA.

There is no coincidence here. Where voters put their trust in the DA, the government functions and people are able to live better, more fulfilled lives. This is supported by evidence across every single criteria.

This is not to say everything is perfect wherever the DA governs. We know very well that there are still massive challenges and many areas that need improvement. But there is simply no comparison between DA-run towns and cities, and those run by the ANC. It’s two different leagues.

And I’m not only talking about these government’s financial management. I’m talking about every single measurement of a better life; every measurement of freedom.

Take jobs and unemployment. There is a reason why thousands of people leave their provinces and move to the Western Cape every month. If you look at the jobs data released by Stats SA every quarter you will see that your chance of finding work in the Western Cape is much higher than anywhere else in the country, and far fewer people there give up looking for work.

Even before people vote with their election ballots, they vote with their feet. Every man woman and child who moves to the Western Cape in search of better work opportunities, better schools, better healthcare or simply better access to services like water and electricity is casting a vote for the competence and success of a DA government.

But it is important to note that these successes don’t happen overnight. It took years to undo the mess inherited in the City of Cape Town back in 2006 and to turn the metro’s fortunes around. And the only reason the DA government there was able to do so was because, after an initial shaky period under a coalition government, they were given a full mandate from the voters in the next election in 2011.

Having such an outright majority frees you up to implement your whole plan without having to make compromises for coalition partners or worry about one or two disloyal councillors who might be tempted by offers and bribes.

Here in Nelson Mandela Bay you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. Back in 2016 the DA came agonisingly close to securing such a full mandate. 12,500 votes – that’s all we were short to take full control of the government here and put in motion our plan to bring the DA difference to NMB.

And so we ended up with the next best thing – a coalition government in which we played the central role. But we all know how that story went. Barely two years into our first term in government here – and just as our plan for this metro was gaining momentum and bearing fruit – we were ousted in a council coup that saw NMB fall back into the hands of the people who had inflicted such damage here for two decades.

We just didn’t have enough of a grip on this metro to prevent it from being taken back with the help of one disloyal councillor who found himself seduced by the offers of our opponents. It’s taken us a full two years to place NMB back in the hands of a DA-led government and under a DA mayor.

There have been many lessons for the DA these past few years here in Nelson Mandela Bay. Lessons about managing coalitions, and lessons about trust. But there has also been one very important lesson for you, the people of this metro, and that is the following: If you want your city run the way only the DA can run a city, you need to ensure that the DA is given a full mandate to do so.

Five years ago you very nearly did this, but you ended up 12,500 votes short, and the result has been five years of turmoil and chaos – two years of gains followed by two years of losses, and now finally some gains again as we try to clean up the mess and restart our projects.

Those missing 12,500 votes could easily have come from just a fraction of the voters who stayed away on the day, or who didn’t get themselves registered to vote ahead of the elections.

Just imagine how different things could have been today in this metro after five years under a DA government with an outright majority, followed by the prospect of another five uninterrupted years. Because, as we saw in Cape Town a decade ago, it is in the second term that the real progress is made.

I have no doubt that many of those absent voters from 2016 would have gotten themselves registered and voted DA in a heartbeat if they could do it all again, knowing what they know today. But without the benefit of a time machine, the next best thing is to set things right in the next election.

That is why I want to ask each and every one of you today – here in NMB and across the country – to think very carefully about the town or city you’d like to live in – the place where you’ll raise your family, or perhaps think of building a career or starting a business.

In an ideal world, what would this place look like?

Do things work the way they should?

Do you have dependable basic services?

If you were to fall ill or contract Covid, does this place have sufficient healthcare facilities?

If the rain stayed away and the dams threatened to run dry, is there a plan in place to avert disaster?

Do your children attend a school where you know they’re getting a decent education?

Do you see companies investing in this place?

Do you see yourself getting a job?

These are the questions you should ask yourself ahead of any election. Because only a committed, capable and accountable government can help tick all those boxes for you. If you don’t vote for such a government, you will end up with the exact opposite.

The Eastern Cape demonstrates this principle very clearly. Almost all the municipalities in this province are under extreme financial distress. Almost all of them owe massive amounts of money to Eskom. Most of them can’t pay their creditors. At least 14 of them are considered financially unsustainable.

Local government has all but collapsed across the entire province, except for one clear exception, and that is just 80km down the road from us.

The municipality of Kouga has had an outright DA government since 2016, and the difference this has made to every single aspect of the municipality’s governance cannot be ignored.

Since 2016, almost 1600 households in Kouga have received electricity for the first time. New water treatment works have been constructed and old ones upgraded. Many kilometres of road have been resurfaced and tens of thousands of potholes have been repaired.

60 new vehicles were added to the municipality’s fleet and a further 130 vehicles and plant were refurbished.

In 2018 and 2019 alone, more than 1800 historic title deeds were handed over to rightful beneficiaries, and further 110 have been handed over so far this financial year.

Kouga now also has the country’s first eco-friendly road built with waste plastic, as well as over 1,000 streetlights and floodlights fitted with energy-saving LED lights.

And last year Kouga passed its first-ever billion Rand budget.

In a sea of local government failure in the Eastern Cape, Kouga stands out as an island of excellence. And again, this is no coincidence. Given a full mandate to execute our plan, this is what the DA does.

We don’t steal. We don’t empower our friends and family. We don’t protect the corrupt. We simply do the basics of good governance, and we do it well. And this means that wherever the DA governs, people have a better chance of building a life of value for themselves and their families.

A better chance at freedom.

If that sounds like the kind of place you would like to live in, you need to make the first move. You need to make sure your name is on the voters roll now so that you can cast your vote in October.

And when the 27th of October arrives, you need to go out and do your bit to ensure that your town or city ends up with a government that can deliver.

Don’t think the other voters will do this for you. Because that’s when you end up and handful of votes short of a proper government.

Yes, there is plenty a DA government can do for you, but the first move is all yours.

Thank you.

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John Steenhuisen

John Steenhuisen is federal leader of the Democratic Alliance, opposition party of the Republic of South Africa.

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