It’s been four years since I spent time in Cape Town, and seven years since I came back to the U.S. The city has come a long way since then. Amidst stories of crisis and decline in the country as a whole, Cape Town stands out as a success story. The improvements made for the World Cup have lasted.The streets are cleaner, and–despite some sensational crimes–feel rather safer. A new bus system has launched, and people seem to be using it.
I have not yet spent time in the townships this trip, but on my last visit they had improved remarkably. In one squatter camp, which had remained virtually unimproved for nearly a decade, there were suddenly houses all over, the result of an effective provincial housing policy which delegated the actual building work to community groups rather than encouraging residents to wait for the government to build matchbox houses for them.
All of the above is testament to the success of an opposition government now in its second term in the city, and in its first term at the provincial level. The Democratic Alliance (DA) has done a fairly good job and seems likely to win next year’s provincial elections again, despite the efforts of the African National Congress (ANC) to cause havoc. (The ANC is even more extreme in opposition than it is in government–thus far, thankfully, to no avail.)
The question is whether the DA’s local success could be repeated nationwide. The answer is that it may never get the chance. A recent study by Freedom House on the state of South Africa’s democracy on the eve of its 20th anniversary found that black voters like the DA as an opposition party, but that most would not (yet) vote for it to govern. Except where demographic diversity permits, the DA may be stuck–which is South Africa’s loss.