Things won’t change by themselves

It was seven years ago that South Africa’s shortage of power generating capability first became evident with electricity blackouts.

Talk at the time was about how government would rectify the situation, albeit with a long-term solution. Content that a plan existed, we stoicly endured ‘short- term’ power outages while waiting for ‘someone else’, in this case government, to implement the plan.

The same can be said today for land reform. We knew that ‘something’ needed to be done to transform agriculture but few farmers voluntarily initiated land reform projects. There is of course a sound argument to be made for questioning why individuals should pay for something they are already funding through their tax payments. Whatever the validity of this viewpoint, there exists a widespread attitude among most South Africans that ‘it’s not my responsibility/job’.

You need only look at how people walk past rubbish on the pavement even though a rubbish bin is within easy reach. I can remember the campaign to ‘Keep South Africa Clean’, with its ‘Zibbie’ mascot which inspired a generation of school children to ‘Zip it in a Zibbie can.’ As children, we wouldn’t have dreamed of passing litter on the street without picking it up.

But these days, it is always ‘someone else’s responsibility’.

About the time of the first blackouts I attended a talk where a speaker voiced a different opinion of ‘taking responsibility’. Noticing the decline in the quality of public services, infrastructure, health services, education and more, he pointed out that resources were always going to be stretched thin after 1994, once government started to service all of its citizens more equally. Why, he asked, if we all recognise the decline for what it was, were we not doing something to improve our situation?

But here’s the rub: we have been doing so for years. We pay extra to have better quality healthcare, security or education. And now we have to pay more to get off the grid and enjoy a decent electricity supply. At least government regulations are allowing this to happen: private companies are able to generate alternative sources of electricity, and ‘power to the people’ is taking on real meaning.

Residents of Joburg’s Parkhurst suburb are now taking the principle of self-determination to the next level by using their collective buying power to negotiate with suppliers of solar geysers, broadband Internet and more, so as to go completely off grid by 2020.

Meanwhile, the majority of citizens wait to be served with discounted or free solar geysers, houses, education, power, you name it. And when these free services fall short of expected standards they take to the streets in protest. The adage ‘you get what you pay for’ comes to mind. Of course, government should always be held to account as to how it spends our taxes, but we could make an enormous difference by pulling together more as local communities.

One person picking up litter or doing something else civic-minded won’t make a huge difference, but imagine the result if a few hundred neighbours joined in. Now picture the impact a few million people would have.