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In South Africa, local elections could turn into a debacle for the ruling ANC party. Power outages and poor basic services in many cities and towns are fueling anger. Small parties and independent organizations are now pushing ahead. Some want to be completely apolitical. A visit to a community where almost nothing works anymore.

By Claudia Bröll (translated in English)

VANDERBIJLPARK. At some point, Fanie Barkhuizen got so annoyed with the three huge stately holes in the street in front of his house that he planted small palm trees in front of them. For beautification. A passenger car can easily disappear in each hole – or a hippo when it rains, as the residents of this area in Emfuleni, south of Johannesburg, like to mock. The holes have been gaping in the ground for three years now. So far, the local government has not paid any attention. But now, election campaign posters with candidates from various parties are hanging on all the lampposts along the road. They smile confidently down at the holes and palm saplings.

There is election fever in South Africa. Local elections will be held on Monday. For the national ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), they are the first major test after the Corona pandemic and after the riots in July, when thousands of people looted and destroyed shopping centers and supermarkets in two provinces. The riots were reportedly triggered by former President Jacob Zuma going to prison. He has since been released for “health reasons,” according to official reports.

According to polls, the ANC could lose votes in the election. In the 2016 local elections, it had already lost its majority in large metropolitan areas such as Johannesburg and achieved its worst results since the end of apartheid. Back then, the major opposition parties Democratic Alliance (DA) and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) benefited from the ANC’s losses. Now it could be different. Never before have so many small parties and independent candidates competed. The “Independents” are said to have good chances. In many places, this could lead to completely new coalitions.

Fanie Barkhuizen is standing in front of his house, gesticulating wildly with his three neighbors. He is so enraged that he also shares his anger with the reporter of this newspaper who happens to be driving by and stops only because of the holes. No electricity again, he grumbles, for a week now. He has a diesel generator. At least he has that, but the behemoth is loud and damn expensive. 500 rand a day, the equivalent of 30 euros. At least his everyday life goes on somehow, and the neighbors can also tap electricity. The streetlight with the election posters last worked in 2001, he adds.

For South Africa, the neighborhood meeting is still unusual almost three decades after the end of apartheid. The loudly rumbling Barkhuizen is a white Afrikaner, a man who wears beige shorts and a short-sleeved shirt stretched proudly across his stomach in all weathers. The three neighbors are black South Africans. They gradually moved into this previously “white” residential neighborhood with its single-story brick houses and large gardens after the end of apartheid. “We all stick together here,” says Vusimuzi Biyase, and the others nod. The anger and hardships weld together.

In South Africa’s poor neighborhoods, protests against poor basic services have long been commonplace. Residents of better-off areas usually don’t even notice anymore. But in these elections, “service delivery” is the big campaign issue in the country. “We promise the South African people that we will do better, much better than we have done in the past,” President Cyril Ramaphosa said as he unveiled the election manifesto, conceding, “We haven’t always done the best.”

For Nelson Mandela’s erstwhile party, preparations for these elections were also a bit bumpy. It almost didn’t even compete everywhere. First, it was criticized for not being able to pay the salaries of its own staff. Then it did not have the lists of candidates for numerous districts ready in time because it was counting on a postponement of the election due to the Corona pandemic. But the Constitutional Court rejected a request to that effect by the Election Commission. After some wrangling, it granted the ANC a reprieve. As the lists were hastily finalized, violence escalated in some localities. Some names had probably arrived there by devious routes, and there was talk of manipulation.

With 800,000 inhabitants, Emfuleni is a stately and above all economically important municipality, comparable to a county. It includes the cities of Vereeniging, Vanderbijlpark and the township of Sharpeville, which has gone down in history. Companies such as the steel group Arcelor-Mittal have plants there.

But the giant municipality is making headlines for other reasons. In the media, it is called the municipality with the worst administration in Gauteng Province: highly indebted, insolvent, failing. Earlier this year, the South African Commission for Human Rights got involved. Because of the collapsed infrastructure, one million liters of untreated sewage flow daily onto roads, into homes and into the Vaal River, the third largest river in the country and the source of water for millions of people. Desperate citizens had previously protested the many grievances with the slogan #EmfuleniMustFall. Nothing has changed. Since the municipality is no longer solvent, it has been run by an administrator from the provincial government since mid-2018. The ANC-dominated municipal council is still in office, although it should have been dissolved long ago according to the constitution. That is probably precisely the problem.

At first glance, everything is fine in Emfuleni on a sunny afternoon. The guesthouses there are called “Little Eden” or “Sunflower,” and one neighborhood is called “Peacehaven. But Gerhard Janse van Rensburg knows the corners that visitors normally shouldn’t see. He is a retiree who returned to his hometown after his professional life and now has a mission: to make Emfuleni a place worth living in again.

On a tour of Vanderbijlpark, he points out a stream by the side of the road in a copse. The water flows leisurely, but an acrid smell penetrates even through the closed car window. The water flows to the surface from a nearby leaking concrete lid on the ground. “No sewage pump or treatment plant is working here,” Janse van Rensburg says angrily. Next to the concrete lid is a dead tree, a few birds pecking at the cesspool. The next stop on this hellish sightseeing tour is a substation. The metal door hangs askew on its hinges, rotting mattresses of homeless people lie inside, and outside the lawn is littered with household garbage. At least the metal box inside makes a whirring sound. In another substation, the roof collapsed a few years ago, he reports. No one in the administration was in the administration. In the end, citizens rebuilt the plant themselves without permission and with their own money.

The residents of Emfuleni make up for the bad reputation of their community with friendliness. Everyone has time and a great need to communicate, especially before the elections. Angie Saohatse is a maid in a guesthouse next to the golf course. The landlady has to cancel guests time and again because of the smell of sewage, she says. Now she is worried about her job. As she talks about her unemployed husband and their eight children, she suddenly blurts out: “Put the whites back in power. By way of explanation, she quickly adds, “Believe me, somebody has to do something here, I don’t care who.”

Many voters are now hoping for the “Independents.” In Emfuleni, more than 30 independent candidates are running for election. Bishop Vincent Jones can be found in the rectory of a church that is no longer in use. A tall stack of election posters stands at the entrance. “Citizens take over” and “Save Emfuleni” are written on the posters. Earlier this year, he founded the New Horizon movement. It is not a party, he says in thoughtful words. “No, no. We’re a non-profit organization, we’re apolitical, we don’t want political power, we don’t want to run for office at the national or provincial level, we just want one thing: a non-political, professional and clean local government.”

The fledgling movement includes civic groups, business representatives and volunteers like Janse van Rensburg. Politicians are not among them. “Totally out of place at the municipal level,” Bishop says. There, he says, it’s about a functioning infrastructure, basic services and proper finances. “You don’t need politicians for that, you need professional people, engineers, financial experts, managers. It’s more of a corporate job than a party job.” He considers the emergence of the many “independents” in these elections the beginning of a paradigm shift not only in Emfuleni. “My hope is that by 2024, half the communities in South Africa will be unpolitical.”

He said that the patience of citizens has run out, especially in such completely neglected localities.  “This community is insolvent, dirty sewage is flowing everywhere, it’s a complete breakdown. Basically, there is no government.” Normally disgruntled people wouldn’t go to the polls at all, he says. “We offer them an alternative.” Depending on the results, his movement plans to join forces after the election with other independent organizations after the election to provide a majority of seats on the Municipal Council.

The bishop has also undergone a fundamental change of heart himself. He used to be a member of the ANC, involved in the resistance struggle against apartheid. His church in Soweto served as a meeting place for ANC comrades in the mid-1980s. “We were harassed by the police,” he recalls, “they threw tear gas canisters through the window of the church, they came at night and searched the mission house for weapons. We always slept half awake because we knew they could come and kick down the door at any time.” He himself was never arrested, but he always knew he was being watched, even abroad. At a conference in Amsterdam in 1986, he was approached by a man posing as an American journalist. “I looked at him and thought, he looks like a white South African, he talks like one too. He was a spy.”

Even after the first democratic elections in 1994, Bishop remained a staunch ANC supporter. The break came when corruption scandals mounted, especially during Zuma’s presidency. Today, he sees parallels with other African countries. “Unfortunately, there are bad examples all over Africa of how a liberation movement turns into a dictatorship and becomes thoroughly corrupt. This has happened everywhere. We are on the same path. We have not learned any lessons.” However, joining an opposition party is also out of the question for him. Therefore, he decided to start his own movement. He deliberately calls himself “CEO” rather than “chairman,” and speaks in managerial jargon of a “bottom-up approach”: starting at the bottom, at the local level, is the way to eliminate grievances, he says.

In the last days before the elections, the campaigns of all parties are in full swing. President Ramaphosa is making one campaign appearance after another. Some complain that he says the same things over and over again and even makes the same jokes. Other members of the ANC leadership are also in full swing. In some places, they are experiencing a frosty reception.

In Emfuleni, no one from the ANC leadership has yet shown up for campaign appearances. Two weeks ago, the national minister of water and sanitation, Senzo Mchunu, stopped by with the province’s premier. The group toured new water and sanitation projects to stop pollution in the Vaal River. “We have made many efforts in the past, but now it will work,” the minister promised. “We are absolutely determined.”

Not everyone seems convinced. When another meeting on the project was held this week, this time without a minister, dozens of angry residents stormed the conference room. Police had to intervene, and the event was called off. Janse van Rensburg was at the meeting. He is very worried. “This is a powder keg. People don’t want to be fobbed off with a few sentences anymore.”

Source: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung


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