Vuwani in Flames: Revisiting the Malamulele Debacle

2016-05-06 07:18

Fallen Libyan leader Gaddafi had a peculiar form of “democracy" as expressed through the organisation of the Libyan democratic state called a Jamahiriya, which means a “state of the masses”. Central to this was the Basic People’s Congress- the smallest administrative sub-division of government where ordinary people supposedly had a direct say in the running of  affairs in their communities. It was supposed to be a consultative space where the government could listen to the man on the street and use his inputs in determining how the country was run. Supposedly.

Over the last few weeks we have seen the breaking down of our own form of basic local governance: the local municipality. Schools and clinics have been torched, streets have been blocked and both private and public property has been set alight by the residents of Vuwani and it’s surrounding villages in the Limpopo Province. Ethnic tensions are running high in the predominantly Venda-speaking area with some people producing disparaging posters and slogans deriding VaTsonga.

Tensions have spilled over into neighbouring villages, like the Tsonga dominated Bungeni area. The residents of Vuwani are embarking on a form of protest called “Total Shutdown”. All commercial and governmental activity has been brought to a halt barring essential services and schooling has been disrupted. Sounds familiar doesn’t it? It should. The nearby town of Malamulele fought a battle for more than ten years to have their town and 82 surrounding villages separated from the administration of the Thohoyandou-based Thulamela Municipality. Malamulele residents complained of atrociously shoddy and sometimes non-existent service delivery from Thulamela who focused most development on Thohoyandou and its’ surrounding areas. This was especially egregious given that more than half of the 500 000plus people in Thulamela Municipality were in the Greater Malamulele area and the minority in Thohoyandou (Thohoyandou is a mainly Venda-dominated area, whereas Malamulele is predominantly Tsonga).  Although the government repeatedly denied it at the time: the root cause of this disparate distribution of services isn’t “inefficiency ” or “weak systems”, it is Tribalism.

Protests in Malamulele reached their zenith when the residents embarked on a total shutdown of all activities. The town was turned into a no-go zone and shops were closed. Some criminal elements took the chance to loot schools of their computers and other equipment, before setting the schools alight. The then minister of Co-operative Governance Pravin Gordhan visited the area and held talks with the local communities. These talks had to be held at a church building since there was no government facility in the town which could accommodate the large crowd which was gathered. This underscored the gripes of the community about the municipality.

The protests came to a jubilant end when the Municipal Demarcation Board announced the de-establishment of four local municipalities, mainly within the Vhembe District to form new municipalities with new boundaries. The new “Malamulele” municipality, still code-named LIM-345 was thus born. Some have suggested that it be named after the late Minister Collins Chabane since he was from the area. To the surprise of many, the new municipal boundaries included parts of Vuwani which were previously administered by the Makhado Local Municipality. This, unsurprisingly didn’t go down well with some people in the Vuwani area who feared a backlash from the Tsonga speaking people who would now be in the majority in the new municipality and be tempted to neglect Vuwani when administering services and development projects. There are also interest groups like some"tenderpreneurs" who will have the power bases in the old set-up being compromised who are exploiting the situation and mood to protect the flow of tenders. The communities consulted together and sent a delegation to meet with Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa and present their case. When this intervention failed, they took the fight to court where the judge subsequently dismissed their application, sparking the violence we now see.

At the funeral of Minister Collins Chabane in Xikundu Village near Malamulele , Chief Xilungwa Mhinga, speaking on behalf of the Tribal Authority made an impassioned plea for President Zuma and his government to hear the cries of the people of Greater Malamulele and grant them their own municipality. The president responded by saying “hi mi twile”, meaning “we have heard you” /”we are listening”. Now that we’re here again, one really wonders, if they were really listening?

The people of Malamulele didn’t ask for Vuwani to be included in the new Municipality and the people of Vuwani didn’t ask to be included in the municipality either. They are refusing to be used as pawns to silence or ignore the complaints about tribal tension which have long been bubbling under the surface in the Vhembe region. The feeling is that the only reason parts of Vuwani are being included in municipal area LIM-345 is for the government and ruling party to be able to say “look! We have both vaTsonga and vhaVenda, there is no tribalism here”.

ANC provincial secretary Nocks Seabi has called for calm in Vuwani "While we explore ways and means of strengthening our engagement ...".  His voice has not been heeded and it appears that the engagement should have been "strengthened aeons ago. Now the new Co-Operative Governance Minister Des “Weekend-Special” Van Rooyen has been sent in to quell the literal and figurative fires and “listen” to the communities.  While we continue to wonder what this latest round of “listening” will entail, the government still downplays the issue of tribalism, government services have stopped, schooling has been severely affected and Vuwani burns...

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