The DA is more efficient at Twitter spin than at delivering basic services to Khayelitsha

Doron Isaacs
Opinion
I work every day in Khayelitsha. From time to time I am there at night, usually to drop somebody at home after a meeting or social event. In the daytime I am as good as any taxi driver at avoiding the potholes that litter the streets. At nights it’s not so simple.

There are no streetlights in major sections of Khayelitsha, including the main road, Lansdowne Road. I wait for that pothole jolt and wince at the vehicle damage which might only emerge in years to come. I stare intently ahead, anxious that a child whose shack home borders the street may wander in front of me. For me the lack of streetlights means money and inconvenience. For the residents of Khayelitsha walking home it means constant exposure to danger and crime.

One night in Khayelitsha, with no other immediate outlet for the years of frustration, I tweeted the problem at Premier Helen Zille and Mayor Patricia de Lille. It was July last year. We’ve all seen Zille responding briskly to a burst water pipe in Bellville, a collapsed tree in Pinelands, or a pothole in the suburbs. She often appears to be sorting out the province’s problems with nothing more than the Twitter app on her Blackberry. I was sure that the streetlights on the main road in a township of nearly a million people would rank as a Twitter priority.

@doronisaacs: No street lights Landsdowne Rd Khayelitsha. Potholes invisible. Criminals on easy street. Months. @patriciadelille @helenzille 21 Jul 2012

@doronisaacs: Driving now in Khayelitsha. Still no street lights on Mew Way or Landsdowne Rd, the main roads. Disgraceful. @patriciadelille @helenzille 26 Jul 2012 _@helenzille @doronisaacs Reported. So sorry. 26 Jul 2012 _ @doronisaacs @helenzille Appreciated. Thanks for the reply Premier. Looking forward to action now.

Helen Zille
@helenzille: @doronisaacs Reply to lights out Mew Way: HUNDREDS of meters of cabling stolen. Will take time to replace. Contractors busy on it.  
3:57 AM - 31 Jul 12 
Doron Isaacs @doronisaacs: @helenzille There are no globes in the sockets. Not sure how those were stolen. I will notify you in two weeks on developments. Thanks. 31 Jul 
Helen Zille @helenzille: @doronisaacs I do not know what happened in this case but I do have experience of vandalism involving stone throwing to take out globes. 31 Jul 
Helen Zille @helenzille 
@doronisaacs I don't think 2 weeks will suffice to replace 100s of meters of cable but let's see. City trying. 31 Jul

By the end of July Premier Zille adopted her primary justification: criminals (or perhaps residents) had stolen the electricity cables, and destroyed the lights with stones. I knew this explanation was, on some level, plausible, but it seemed convenient and symptomatic of a mentality that blames the poor for their problems. Nevertheless, the Premier had said that the contractors were busy solving the problem and I decided to give her the benefit of the doubt.

Doron Isaacs @doronisaacs
@helenzille It has now been 6 weeks. Still no lights in Khayelitsha. See http://groundup.org.za/content/switch-lights …. Delay is likely costing lives. 
9:15 PM - 12 Sep 12
Helen Zille @helenzille:
@doronisaacs I have taken this up URGENTLY. Pls tell me who the ward councillor is. Tks. Hz 12 Sep.

Doron Isaacs @doronisaacs: Still no lights Landsdowne Rd Khayelitsha. RT @helenzille: Pinelands power outage. (Wind). Northway: pole down. 30-call back-up. 
 1:19 PM - 29 Nov 12
Helen Zille @helenzille: @doronisaacs Will investigate urgently and let you know. I take it you are referring to street lights, not traffic lights.  
29 Nov 
Doron Isaacs @doronisaacs: @helenzille Thanks. Yes. No street lights. Please see http://www.groundup.org.za/content/street-lights-out-lansdowne-road-years … & http://www.groundup.org.za/content/its-still-dark-khayelitsha … & http://www.groundup.org.za/content/switch-lights …. 
30 Nov 
Helen Zille @helenzille: @doronisaacs Tks. Outages often due to cable theft - takes considerable replacement time. Asked @Paulboughey to look into this and revert. 30 Nov

In late November, when I saw Zille rallying to the Pinelands power outage I decided to remind her of the small problem of kilometers of main roads with no street lights in Khayelitsha. She seemed to have forgotten our previous correspondence, but soon reverted to the cable theft explanation. The links that I sent her were to a news article on the Khayelitsha lights problem, a follow-up article, and an editorial, all from the GroundUp website.

Patricia de Lille @PatriciaDeLille: @doronisaacs Lights out due to cable theft. Being seen to and fixed by our department. Apologies for the delay @PaulBoughey @helenzille
12:56 AM - 30 Nov 12

Last night I drove the full length of Landsdowne Road to assess the situation. After more than six months of requests by me, and promises by the Premier and Mayor, it appears to have worsened.

This was the map of the streetlight situation in September last year published as part of the GroundUp editorial:

A map of the streetlight situation in September last year published as part of the GroundUp editorial

At present there is no longer any section where all the lights work. The lights that were working at the corner of Landsdowne and Mew Way Roads, the principal intersection of the township (green on the map), no longer work. In fact, on the 8.5km stretch from Baden Powell Drive heading west on Landsdowne there are only eleven working street lights. For the residents of Khayelitsha this is equivalent to there being just eleven working streetlights on Main Road or Beach Road all the way from town, through Sea Point, Bantry Bay, Clifton and Camps Bay beach.

It is clear that there has been no work done on the lights on Landsdowne Road in Khayelitsha. It is now six months since the Premier first responded to me and indicated that she was “hoping for a rapid response”. Try to imagine for a moment if there were no street lights for more than a year in Kloof Street, or Rhodes Drive in Newlands. It is simply inconceivable that, despite repeated promises, the inconvenience and danger to residents in such middle-class areas would be deprioritised in quite the same way.

I am quite happy to give the Premier and the Democratic Alliance credit when it is due. During these six months of growing frustration and anger I have used Twitter to praise the Premier for the new Khayelitsha hospital and for setting up the Commission of Inquiry into Khayelitsha Police.

I also don’t rely exclusively on Twitter. (Two months ago I wrote to a DA member of the City Council about the Khayelitsha streetlights in the hope that he could be of assistance.) But if the Premier is going to use Twitter to seem accessible and accountable, and to give firm assurances, then she must make good on those assurances.

Doron Isaacs is Deputy General Secretary of Equal Education. Follow him on Twitter @doronisaacs.