Have you ever taken special note of a prominent pothole in your district and checked on it every now and then to see how long it would take to be repaired? There was one in north St Augustine that lasted years. I called it names in tandem with a rapidly rotating roster of boastful works ministers.
When rim comes into brutal contact with ragged asphalt and soil, and the violent rattle of weary engine mounts breaks the silence, there are words that form in your mouth and throat. You forcibly contemplate the state of your spare tyre, and note that it’s possible for music on a jump drive to “skip” much like the old vinyl records.
People I knew in the area said the pothole had been repeatedly reported to all concerned – the regional corporation, the MP, the works ministry, priests, journalists, and sundry citizens with “connections.” Acceptance of responsibility remained elusive, and nothing changed.
That neighbourhood learned the hard way that a serious pothole can be one of the most politically uniting forces on the planet. Nothing like a twisted rim to extract bipartisan condemnation. That particular St Augustine pothole spanned political administrations at both local and central government levels. When it was repaired, I am sure somebody hosted a party in the area.
This came to mind recently while following the budget debate in parliament. The challenge of converting plans and money into action came up again and again. How was it, Independent Senator Sophia Chote asked, that national budgets go to parliament, money is approved, and for some reason allocations do not reach their intended agencies for implementation? How come this seemingly involuntary stasis?
Of course, the senator was aware that sometimes the revenue to meet intended expenditure does not always materialise. In that case, something, somewhere will have to take a back seat. Sure. But what happens when the money appears to have already been available? Such as the subventions the police commissioner griped openly and embarrassingly about recently (before promptly receiving the dough).
We hear the same from local government bodies, and no doubt, as we approach December 2, we will have our earful of it. But, why is this so?
Could it be that the notion of “reform” whether at the constitutional level, or as clearly required under our system of local government, needs to skip the elaborate language and get more immediately to the task of how best to get simple things done? I participated in the public discussions on local government reform and thought that was precisely what was being proposed by level-headed citizens who did not turn out to score partisan points.
Also, anybody coming from the private sector with an eye on profitability and the protection of investments would understandably be appalled by this state of affairs – though huge inefficiencies riddle that sector as well. But impatience over these issues is more than impulsive petulance. This is a perfectly understandable area of concern. It is a statement on our level of social and political under-development and points to an absence of community empowerment - a state of civic impotence even.
Recently, the attention of my neighbourhood WhatsApp group turned to this precise issue on account of what ought to be routine compliance with basic citizen expectations. “We,” one resident exclaimed, “are at the stage of shock and surprise when someone is actually doing his or her job and we aren’t in the least surprised by poor or non-existent service.”
Even this person’s professional credentials in the behavioural sciences could not fathom the reality that, in this country, a chronic incapacity to execute basic duties is in fact the norm. There has to be a pathological link somewhere – some kind of mass disorder evidenced in measures of civic disempowerment.
At one time I thought it had exclusively to do with administrative paper-pushers for whom process overrides objective. Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot of that, and I have personally witnessed willful administrative obstructionism.
But, there has to be more to it. Why do we seem incapable of getting simple things done? One resident reckons it has to do with “systems”. Perhaps it truly does. Perhaps it means turning the power dynamic on its head with decision-making and action positioned at local levels - power effectively in the hands of the people.
I have also followed the anguish of a St Augustine citizen who over the space of months witnessed, brick by brick; felled tree by felled tree, the emergence of what is now a fully-populated squatter community – complete with an electricity supply yielding music loud enough to keep original residents awake all night.
Not minister. Not councillor. Not priest. Not pundit. Not police. Nobody intervened. Nobody was at fault, which rendered everybody guilty.
Could it just be that the “systems” referred to by my neighbour ought to derive their weight and effectiveness more directly through the will of discrete communities? Could it be that true “local government” holds the key to resolving the tragedy of our civic impotence?