Eastern Cape activists want community control of towns

The failure of coalition governance in the Eastern Cape is making way for civic organisations to contest the upcoming local government elections.

Whereas the 2016 local government elections saw the rise of coalition governments at municipal level, the 2021 elections could herald wins by newly united civic fronts. Two grassroots organisations in the Eastern Cape are planning to contest the upcoming municipal elections using different models.

President Cyril Ramaphosa announced in his recent state of the nation address that the municipal elections will take place between August and November 2021 on a date yet to be decided.

The Independent Komani Residents’ Association (iKora) says it will contest the elections. iKora has the advantage of being well known in the town. It has been involved in supporting local workers’ struggles at factories in Komani and in forming brigades of volunteers and hiring equipment to clean rubbish-strewn open land in Ezibeleni township. It also raised funds to buy and distribute more than 6 000 food parcels during level five of the Covid-19-enforced lockdown, and regularly organises large protests against electricity cutoffs.

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“We have been consistent in serving our communities and advocating for service delivery to come to the people,” said iKora secretary general Thulani Bukani. “We can’t wait for 2026. Our communities are in a deteriorating state. If we procrastinate, we might not have a country to change by 2026. The local sphere of government is where large sums of monies get to disappear without a trace, only to learn later no one is held accountable for such corrupt activities.

“The people on the ground have long been neglected. Corruption is the order of the day, unemployment is widening, young people are sitting at home with qualifications because the system of employment is about whose circle you are in and not how qualified you are. Even on the most fundamental things like water and electricity, in our communities we spend days without those, with no word from the authorities,” Bukani said. 

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In Makhanda, the Unemployed People’s Movement (UPM) is in discussion with other civic organisations to contest the elections, according to its spokesperson, Ayanda Kota. The UPM has a long history of working with civic organisations and academics from the university currently known as Rhodes University to bring legal action against the Makana local municipality for failing to meet its constitutional obligation to deliver municipal services. 

One of the legal challenges culminated in a victory in 2020 when the Makhanda high court, for the first time ever in South Africa, ordered the municipality to dissolve and hold new elections within three months. However, because the municipality is appealing the ruling, it has not been dissolved and looks set to continue to run the town past the date of the local government elections.

“Communities are determined to have community-driven municipalities,” said Kota. “It is not surprising that this is also happening in other parts of Eastern Cape, considering that the province has been dubbed a crime scene due to high levels of corruption.” 

Overcoming divisions 

A multi-class residents’ front like the one Kota refers to has the advantage of being able to create an alliance of equal partners, with everyone pulling together to “fix our town”. However, in many small or medium-sized towns, the deep class and race divisions of apartheid are still highly visible. For multi-class alliances to work, they would need to be built on commitments to distribute the town’s budget in a manner that is anti-racist and aims to end inequality. The more privileged partners in the coalition, for example, would need to agree that the municipal budget should be spent on new roads and electricity and water infrastructure in townships and shack settlements before fixing potholes in the suburbs. 

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The fronts would also need to determine their positions on privatisation and outsourcing, two key areas of fruitless expenditure in municipalities. Working-class movements tend to favour the less expensive option of hiring municipal staff on a permanent basis, whereas middle-class organisations such as suburban ratepayers’ associations often see privatisation as a way to give contracts to their members who own businesses.

The movements can learn from the experiences of the United Front, a formation of unions and other activist groups that contested the 2016 elections. It currently holds the human settlements portfolio in the Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality, but with only one seat it has very little real power to drive a socialist public housing agenda. To win power, the civic organisations need to field full slates of candidates. Campaigning will have to be grassroots driven and councillor candidates elected democratically by communities.

Uphill battle 

For these fronts to succeed, they have to get off the ground within the next four months. In the past, some prominent social movement activists have stood as independent ward candidates, but it has been difficult for them to win seats. As one popular anti-eviction ward councillor candidate was told when he stood for election, “you are just a drop in the ocean”. 

This signifies that people do not believe that individuals with no control over municipal budgets can improve their living conditions, no matter how principled they may be. Independent candidates polled less than 1% of the vote overall in the 2016 elections.

The other likely alternative is more hung councils where coalitions need to be forged. But over the past five years, parties in coalitions appear to have focused on pursuing their own political agendas and have been just as embroiled in corruption as those that rule with outright majorities. As academics Mashupye Maserumule, Renosi Mokate and Sibusiso Vil-Nkomo wrote shortly after the 2016 elections, “one possibility is that the new coalitions simply become arrangements for the politics of patronage to change hands … a case of fighting patronage with patronage”.

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The Nelson Mandela Bay coalition has been politically unstable. Initially led by the DA and with Mongameli Bobani of the United Democratic Movement (UDM) as deputy mayor, the coalition collapsed when he switched allegiance to the ANC and EFF, forming a new majority and ousting DA mayor Athol Trollip. 

This new coalition also did not last. The DA sponsored four motions of no confidence in Bobani and the last one got enough support for him to be voted out. After this, the municipality had no mayor for almost one year, and the National Treasury withheld R800 million of the equitable share and conditional grants meant to pay for service delivery. 

Eventually, the DA managed to again form a majority coalition in January by convincing a number of parties that have only one seat each to join it. They are the socialist United Front, the Patriotic Alliance, Cope and the African Christian Democratic Party, along with the UDM, which has two seats. 

Trouble brewing

Shortly after forming the coalition, public braai facilities on the beachfront were bulldozed, with inside sources blaming the DA mayor, Nqaba Bhanga. “The coalition partners only got a briefing the next Monday in our first coalition management meeting. We had agreed that the coalition management committee would meet fortnightly but it had not met for two months,” said the sources.

An internal document by some political parties in the coalition that analyses its state also said the DA had installed roadblocks in townships and disconnected the electricity of people who could not pay, both without consulting its coalition partners. This had “attracted anger and resentment from communities” towards the smaller parties too, even though they had not been part of the decision.

“Ever since the new mayor was installed, it became very clear that the DA is on the campaign trail. The political risks associated with [working with the] DA show that smaller parties are gradually losing support,” the document states.

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But Bhanga said none of the allegations were true. Electricity was not being disconnected and roadblocks were erected, first in the suburbs, for safety and security reasons, he said. Bhanga would not say who had given the instruction to bulldoze the public braai facilities, only saying that “it was nobody in the executive. I was not even consulted myself. I didn’t send anyone to bulldoze anything.” 

He denied the allegation made by some of the coalition partners that the DA was using its mayorship of Nelson Mandela Bay to sideline smaller parties ahead of the local government elections, and said the coalition was “more united than ever”. He lashed out at the statements made in the internal document, calling them “lies”, “a wrong narrative” and “hogwash”.

It is unclear if the Nelson Mandela Bay coalition will hold until the municipal elections. The internal document concludes that “continuing with this coalition is both politically suicidal and costly to smaller parties”.

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