Democracy in action for local elections

2011-02-03 08:15

There was already a crowd singing struggle songs and chanting slogans when I arrived at a church hall in Diepsloot at 5pm on a Tuesday.

By 6pm, there were at least 600 rowdy people crammed into the hall.

I had not seen any posters or banners ­advertising this gathering to present the four ANC candidates shortlisted for the ­local government elections in Johannesburg’s ward 113.

I wondered how people knew about the gathering.

It turns out that word of mouth sometimes works better than media. And it helped that the branch executive had been moving around the area that day with a megaphone, calling people to attend.

Maybe this is why this branch, known as Havana City, won the Sol Plaatje Award for branch of the year last year. It is not a very big branch, but it is tightly organised.

The meeting was lively, even boisterous. Diepsloot is a politically divided place, with the ANC leadership having engaged in a tussle for control of the area with its alliance partners, the SA Communist Party (SACP) and the SA National Civic Organisation.

Local politics is fractious and hotly contested, though it all takes place within the alliance.

To be city councillor in this place, which includes one of the most deprived areas of Joburg, is to be king.

Lobbying to get rid of the incumbent and secure the position has been going on for months.

The ward’s screening committee presents four shortlisted candidates, including two women, as required by Luthuli House.

The incumbent, Isaac Maella, is dressed like a man who has enjoyed the fruits of office.

More casual in a man-of-the-people red T-shirt and baseball cap is Abraham Mafuke, an imposing figure who holds office in both the ANC and the SACP.

Evelyn Nkomo and Paulinah Molekoa both hold ANC Women’s League positions and have long records of community involvement.

But it is apparent from the cheers and boos of the crowd that the contest is between the two men.

The chair, deployed from the ANC regional office, has a tough task. He tells the audience that the candidates were interviewed until midnight and were assessed until 4am.

The crowd is here for an evening of rowdy fun, but the chair is quick to keep order. Many songs are sung, but the one that draws everyone to their feet is “Umshini wami” (Bring me my machine gun).

Each candidate is given 15 minutes to answer four standard questions.

Each outlines a history of involvement in the local political structures, with Mafuke being able to make a show of being the only one with a degree (in environmental management from the University of Venda).

For each one, an involvement with the local community policing forum is central, reflecting the problem of crime and lack of policing.

Two candidates claim credit for an Absa recruitment scheme that provided call-centre jobs for a number of Diepsloot people.

At question time, 50 people are selected.

Many want to make statements or demands rather than pose questions, but the issues they raise are constant, and they ignore the chair’s imprecations for people not to repeat them.

When is there going to be more housing? Why is there not more land available?

Why are more locals not employed in city projects?

What can we do about crime?

Why are taverns open all night?

There is a reluctance to pay for poor services.

There are demands for sports fields and permanent church structures (to replace the tents many use).

The candidates cannot address all of the questions, so branch chair Chris Vondo intervenes to ­assure people that they are taking note.

It is a four-hour display of raucous, rambunctious, participatory democracy, with ­robust exchanges about priorities, needs and personalities.

The outcome though was never in doubt. Branch leaders had told me long before who was tapped for the post, and so it was: Abraham Mafuke is nominated, with Paulinah Molekoa as the alternate.

» Harber, the Caxton professor of journalism at Wits University, is completing a book about Diepsloot.

It will be published by Jonathan Ball this Easter

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