Civic duty must be Tatane’s legacy

2012-04-07 13:35

I was reminded of a scene from the classic South African film Sarafina when I first set foot in the township of Meqheleng around this time last year.

It was a day after police officers had descended on Andries Tatane with batons and rubber bullets, killing him.

The winding main road that leads into the township from the nearby town of Ficksburg was almost impassable; barricaded with rocks, steel bars, rubbish bins and an assortment of many other items.

Up the road where a rusted board welcomed visitors to Meqheleng, bands of youths were engaged in battle with riot police as a building which I later learnt was a library and home affairs office was being eaten away by flames.

The police were trying to stop the youths from destroying themselves and their community.

I thought of John Kani, the school principal in Sarafina giving his learners a dressing down at assembly for having burnt down part of the school building: “This is an act of mindless vandalism! You burn the school and you burn your own future!”

Like the youths of Meqheleng, I was angry and disgusted at the manner in which the police acted against Tatane, who was part of a peaceful protest against the Setsoto Municipality’s failure to provide basic services such as clean drinking water, sanitation and good roads, as stipulated in the Constitution.

But I was also angry at the burning down of a library, particularly in a place with the most meagre of resources, a place where the winds of change have still not blown away the legacy of apartheid’s under-development.

The youths struck an even more devastating blow to their own community.

By setting fire to a home affairs office, destroying records and the documents of people whose chances of rising out of poverty depend solely on the acquisition of an identity document – a document they require to apply for jobs, bursaries and government social grants, among other things – the youth were harming their own people.

It reminded me of my high school years where, during strikes, windows were broken and chairs and desks set alight.

It was in winter when the biting cold coming through the broken windows during lessons reminded us of the real victims of our actions.

Recently, Public Protector Thuli Madonsela, on a walkabout in Braamfischerville, Soweto, called on youths to refrain from burning down and vandalising public amenities but to use the constitutional resources available to them to make councillors who do not perform their duties accountable.

Perhaps the rest of South Africa can learn a good lesson in community activism from Meqheleng Concerned Citizens (MCC), an apolitical civic organisation formed by residents to fight non-delivery of services, corruption and nepotism in the Setsoto Municipality.

These citizens, when faced with a crumbling and almost dysfunctional municipality, came together, set aside their different political affiliations and got down to work towards bringing service delivery to their township.

They mobilised the people of Meqheleng into a united force and conscientised them about the importance of taking on public officials who were not delivering on their mandate.

Peaceful protest marches, one of which culminated in the death of Tatane, followed, while petitions and memorandums were delivered to officials.

Perhaps one can argue that Tatane’s killing and the media frenzy that followed acted as a catalyst to get the provincial government to speed up intervention into the affairs of the Setsoto Municipality.

But if the MCC hadn’t been formed and taken the grievances of the people to the relevant structures, there may never have been a provincial task team to investigate their demands and non-performing officials would never have been fired.

There probably would still be no end in sight to the water shortage, poor roads, pools of raw sewage in the streets, the plague of municipal contracts dished out to pals and the downright “don’t care” attitude of councillors and municipal officials.

But as reported in the pages of this newspaper recently, change seems to be on the horizon in Meqheleng.

The municipality has just completed a R40-million upgrade of the Ficksburg Water Treatment Works, which has doubled its capacity.

That cost included the R15 million spent on the construction of a dedicated pipeline to feed the Meqheleng reservoir and the province has also begun the ambitious task of drilling a network of seven boreholes to supplement the water supply.

It is tragic that it all came too late for Tatane. This is a man who, according to various accounts from people in Meqheleng, lived for his community.

He was a maths tutor who would pluck his students from taverns and drag them to his home for lessons.

He was a community activist who quit party politics after becoming disgruntled with what he termed the lack of commitment to changing the lives of the people by politicians who spent much of their time engaged in battles for position and power.

He was an outspoken critic who never shied away from speaking out against incompetent officials and residents looked forward to his fiery charges on the local Setsoto FM Community Radio, where he was a regular caller.

He was a model citizen who an elderly citizen described as “a treasure, gold that was taken away from the people of Meqheleng”.

Perhaps in tribute to his memory, the youths of this country should refrain from engaging in acts of mindless vandalism by destroying public property to express their anger.

Instead, they should follow the example of Tatane and the MCC by using the various legal channels available to them to expose corruption, protest against poor service delivery and get councillors to account for their actions.

Andries Tatane’s blood should nourish the birth of a new way to tackle the problems that plague most of our municipalities.

It should extinguish the fires that have become synonymous with service delivery protests and replace them with letters, petitions and memoranda to the relevant authorities.

It’s the only way to carry forward this country that Tatane loved so much.

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