A total shutdown of Makhanda in the Eastern Cape could provide a blueprint for residents in other towns to force provincial governments to provide municipal services in places with collapsing infrastructure.
The impromptu three-day shutdown from 24 to 26 May was an imposed general strike, with every workplace in Makhanda forced to close. But the strike also showed that shutdowns cannot succeed when they are not initiated and controlled by the residents and workers of the town.
Taxi associations called for the shutdown but Makhanda’s Black working-class residents quickly took up the call, coming out in their thousands to support the strike.
The municipality supplies Makhanda with water for only 12 hours every other day. Often, a malfunctioning component in the system means that it halts the supply of water without warning for six or seven days. High-lying townships often get no water at all.
Furthermore, in some areas potholes are so deep that taxis will not use those roads, sewage bubbles up out of broken pipes into homes, and gardens and many public amenities such as halls are derelict. There is not a single public playground for children.
Several court cases against the municipality are either under way or under appeal. Lungisa Sixaba, the coordinator of the taxi drivers, said taxi associations decided to initiate a shutdown and not wait for the courts. “Our municipality is failing us,” said Sixaba. “They don’t even come to us and explain when we have been five days without water. When we try to engage them, they don’t even report back to us. This strike is only about the community. We don’t want any political organisations grabbing this strike.”
The protest was initially extremely successful, with the N2 highway between Gqeberha and East London blockaded just outside Makhanda. All entrances and exits to Makhanda were sealed. Taxi drivers visited businesses and schools on the first day of the shutdown, insisting that they close their doors.
On days two and three, every business in town was closed with residents saying it was the first time they had seen Shoprite and Pick ’n Pay closed for two days since the 1980s. Spaza shops owned by businesspeople from Ethiopia, Somalia and Pakistan were the only shops allowed to open for two hours in the evening so that hungry protesters could buy supplies.
“We are with the public. But don’t name us because we are foreign and we don’t want trouble with the police. We sponsored food for this strike because we face the same problems of water, electricity and roads,” said a group of four local spaza shop owners.
Toilet paper in the drinking water
Many residents said they too appreciated the move by the taxi associations and wanted to show their support.
“The tap water is so dirty that we sometimes find loo paper floating in our drinking water,” said resident Nonkululeko Peyi*. “Where I live with my child, it has become a dump. Nobody helps us by removing the garbage. Now and again people burn it. The politicians in this town even keep the food parcels for themselves. The food parcels are for the rich, the perfect ones. Police don’t arrest drug dealers or criminals. The Mampararama [local criminal gang] come in the night to our homes. When we wake up, there is nothing left, not even a cupboard. And the most important thing is that we don’t have jobs. We don’t know the process this municipality uses to hire people.”
The taxi associations that initiated the shutdown decided on the main demand, which was that Eastern Cape premier Oscar Mabuyane come to the town and listen to a mass meeting of thousands of Makhanda residents and then sign a contract guaranteeing the delivery of municipal services.
The Unemployed People’s Movement (UPM) was initially sceptical about this demand. “Those people don’t even care about their own signatures. You can catch them with a million rand in their hands and they will deny it even if you are looking right at them,” said UPM activist Chumasande Ncula.
But UPM chair Tshezi Soxujwa said it was “only reasonable and responsible” for Mabuyane to be summoned to Makhanda. “We have been crying a lot to the mayor and his council but Mabuyane has never come to us, so we feel that it will be the best if he can come to us and listen to us. The residents want the town to be under their control. The shutdown is a very democratic and good move by the people. We hope other people in other regions will follow this example.”
Sand and water
The ANC runs Makhanda. Its alliance partners, the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the South African National Civic Organisation (Sanco), initially slated the ANC politicians in charge of the town. Sanco regional convenor and former ANC councillor Xolani Simakuhle described the town as “not just dirty, it is filthy beyond reasonable doubt”.
“The sewage is overflowing. People are just not safe in this municipality because there is nothing being attended to in the correct manner. All of them are unable to deliver: the mayor, the councillors, the executive committee. We need to take the premier on a tour of this town so he can see for himself.”
SACP regional spokesperson Bongani Hanise said, “We have tried to engage the leadership here but have been met with deaf ears. The people of Makhanda have been patient enough. R50 million was given to resolve water problems in 2009. The extension of the dam has now taken more than 11 years. There is actually nothing the municipality can demonstrate that they improved water. Our township roads are deteriorating and over the weekend, the municipal workers were told to mix sand and water to fill these potholes.”
The EFF supported the shutdown. The party’s Mzukisi Jonathan Mthuthi said, “This is all for and about the community. Our people are prepared to protest for as long as it takes. The councillors are highly inactive here. They do not help the youth in any way. The youth have no sports, they have nothing to do, they spend almost half their day on drugs and end up quitting school.”
The taxi associations appreciated the support of the residents, who endured the police throwing stun grenades and firing rubber bullets at them. One such bullet fractured resident Lithemba Koliti’s wrist.
By day two, police officers had been brought in from all over the province. In a tense moment, a group of mainly white police officers arrived and immediately advanced on the protesters, with one saying, “This is why I brought my 9mm [gun].” But UPM and taxi association leaders talked them down.
“They can shoot us, they can kill us, we don’t care. We just need the leadership to come and account to us. Each and every information that comes we will report it to you. You have sacrificed a lot to be here so we are not going to be grabbed here by people who want to come and take an opportunity. It is us who are leading this thing,” said Sixaba on the third day, ahead of the hoped-for meeting with Mabuyane.
The ANC and its alliance partners had vowed to keep the strike focused on community demands. But by the end of day three, they had overwhelmed the taxi association leadership and struck a deal with local ANC politicians. They included the mayor and his executive committee, and members of the executive council for cooperative governance and traditional affairs Xolile Nqatha, transport Weziwe Tikana-Gxothiwe and finance Mlungisi Mvoko.
The meeting was held at the 1820 Settlers monument, several kilometres from the protest. The participants eventually agreed that the provincial government would start fixing infrastructure and restoring municipal services by 9 June, and that Mabuyane would visit Makhanda on 15 June to speak to the town’s residents.
Realising that the ANC was taking over the meeting with the members of the executive council and that the party would not heed the residents’ demands, the UPM distanced itself formally from the protest and did not attend the meeting.
“The demand was that the premier must come down and account for the rot in this town. The residents were united in that call, that they will not meet anyone except Mabuyane. Instead, he sent MECs [members of the executive council] who did not promise anything. The ANC and SACP went outside the mandate so when they came back, people booed them [and] rejected them,” said UPM spokesperson Ayanda Kota.
The UPM says it will convene a meeting with residents after Mabuyane’s upcoming visit to see what forms of action can be taken next.
The UPM applied successfully to the high court last year to dissolve the Makana municipality for failing in its constitutional duty to provide municipal services, the first such win in South Africa. Judge Inga Stretch ruled at the time that the municipality had already been placed under administration twice with no improvements, and that neither the member of the executive council for cooperative governance and traditional affairs nor the municipality could show “a single practical step” they had taken to address the crisis in Makhanda.
The council should have dissolved immediately and an administrator should have been appointed by the member of the executive council for cooperative governance and traditional affairs to run the town until a new council was voted in. But this did not happen because the municipality appealed the judgment, with the backing of Mabuyane. The date of the appeal is yet to be disclosed.
In the meantime, residents of the town have crowdfunded R300 000 to pay lawyers to bring a new application to the high court. If successful, it would force the municipality to comply with the January 2020 court order immediately.