He's always on the go - Soweto resident on ward councillor

2015-06-30 13:53
 (Genevieve Quintal. News24)

(Genevieve Quintal. News24)

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Johannesburg - "I just want to make a change."

This is Soweto ward councillor Themba Msibi's mission.

Msibi has been the councillor in Ward 39 in Orlando West for four years - an area plagued by, among other things, electricity issues.

I arrange to meet 41-year-old Msibi in the township's renowned Vilikazi Street on Tuesday.

My task was to find a ward councillor in Johannesburg and shadow him for the day. I found a list of the 130 ward councillors in the City of Johannesburg and picked one.

I decided on the councillor from Orlando West because the area had been hit by electricity protests a few months ago.

‘He’s always been there’

Vilikazi Street is busy when I arrive around noon on Tuesday. A group of young boys skateboard up and down the road, tour buses arrive, local car guards wash cars to make a bit of extra cash.

While waiting for Msibi, who is running late because of a meeting, I start talking to Tshepo Ramutumbu, the director at Umbuyisa School of Arts and Culture.

I ask about Msibi and his reputation in the community.

"Yes, he's active," a flamboyantly dressed Ramutumbu says.

"I've seen him, he attends meetings, he addresses peoples' issues. He's always been there. He's all over the show, he gets calls even at night."

Ramutumbu recognises Msibi's car and says, "There's the councillor."

Msibi, dressed in jeans, a blue Gauteng legislature golf shirt and blue Chelsea football club jacket, greets Ramutumbu.

Msibi addresses concerned residents. (Genevieve Quintal, News24)

Phones ring non-stop

He seems preoccupied with two cellphones which seem to ring non-stop.

We leave Vilikazi Street and rush off to his office so he can send an e-mail before he has to attend a meeting.

His office is nothing fancy - a desk, a South African flag in the corner and photos of the mayor and speaker of the City of Johannesburg on the wall.

Before we can start chatting, Msibi's phone rings again - it's a resident complaining that an ambulance was taking too long to arrive.

"The ambulance was taking time so I need to follow up on this," he tells me after the call. This is quickly followed by another call over a housing issue.

"There is a lot of work. You don't have privacy. You don't have time with your family. You are expected to be all over the show. For every problem, you must have a solution. This isn't wrong, but sometimes the expectations are too high."

Public enemy number one

Msibi says in many situations he can only advise residents as he does not have the power to make decisions. This isn't always well received by some.

"People will come with a problem and if I refer it somewhere else, some people feel I haven't helped them.

"They want me to actually resolve the problem and that makes life difficult.

"I call myself public enemy number one because some people feel I not doing anything," he says with a chuckle.

Difference between township and upmarket suburb councillor

Each day as a ward councillor in Soweto is unpredictable, Msibi says.

Being a councillor in a township is very different to being one in an upmarket suburb, he points out.

"You work on housing issues, economic development, health and social development, transport... you need to be able to assist communities. Also service delivery issues - street lights are not working, illegal dumping, housing disputes, people fighting or having a housing dispute.

"Like now - that call. There are kids who are being evicted. In some cases you don't have jurisdiction to take decisions, but you do your best...”

Msibi says he lacks resources and a decent budget. His monthly take-home pay is around R20 000.

Although Msibi isn't married, he does have three children to support.

He believes community organisations should be empowered to help out so that not everything falls on the shoulders of the ward councillor.

"On a daily basis you might find yourself addressing people who are looking for work, people fighting for houses, there's crime, someone has been knocked down by a car. You need to be there to assist, to call the relevant departments. You are just all over the show. You can't plan for anything."

He says he has even been called on to mediate in arguments between married couples.

From one meeting to another

Msibi's term as ward councillor will come to an end next year. He says that if he is approached, he will stand again.

In the meantime, he has put together a draft report highlighting the challenges for councillors in his and other wards.

"The draft [report] acknowledges the issues and challenges that exist, such as poor public confidence in ward councillors, violent and politically motivated protests and demonstrations as a result of poor service delivery or incompetence. Also, the abuse of public office by both officials and politicians," says Msibi, who has a degree in public management.

He is currently doing his post-graduate degree in public management through Wits and hopes to do his Masters and possibly get a doctorate.

"I just want to make a change - whether as a ward councillor or whatever."

Msibi has to rush off to a meeting at 14:30 at a women's hostel. Just before we leave he receives another phone call.

Some residents have gathered on the corner of Pela and Xorile streets and want to speak to him because they have been without electricity since Monday.

We arrive at the intersection and a group of women begin venting their frustrations. Others join in.
Msibi tries to explain the situation to them, even though he is running late for his meeting. He schedules another meeting with them for Wednesday.

His phone rings again just as he is about to leave. With a quick goodbye, Msibi climbs into his car and races off to deal with the next crisis.

Read more on:    soweto  |  service delivery  |  local government

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