There is hardly a country in the world that is as deeply divided as South Africa. But in the town of Makhanda, blacks and whites have joined forces in an effort to throw out the city’s corrupt administration. They could change the country if they succeed.
By Heiner Hoffmann in Makhanda, South Africa
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The border between the two worlds is a foul, litter-choked stream. On the one side of the waterway lies Makhanda West, a neighborhood of white, colonial villas with lush front yards. On the other side is Makhanda East, a region of townships and corrugated tin roofs. But the two sides do have a couple of things in common: plenty of deep potholes and a number of stray donkeys. And those two things, along with other shortcomings, have proven to be enough to bring the city’s residents together.
Makhanda was called Grahamstown until a short time ago, named after a British lieutenant colonel who led the white colonialists to a victory over the indigenous Xhosa people in 1817. In 2018, though, the appellation Grahamstown was officially dropped, and the town is now named after a Xhosa warrior, though on the “white side” of town, people still use the colonial name.
Still, a movement is underway here that is almost completely unique for South Africa: The privileged whites and the black township residents have identified a common enemy and have gone into battle together. Their ire is focused on the incompetent Makhanda city administration, and on the African National Congress, the party currently in power in South Africa.
And now, they are standing together on the bridge over the malodorous stream. One of them is Ayanda Kota, a resident of a Makhanda East township and the founder and leader of the Unemployed People’s Movement, an alliance of jobless black people in the city. Next to him is Daphne Timms, who works as a real estate agent selling the lovely villas with their lush front yards. And next to her is Tim Bull, a retired police officer of British descent who has long wanted to move away but has never quite managed to do so.
In the past, these three would likely never have crossed paths. But today, they sit together to discuss legal strategies, finances and their joint battle. The goal? Getting rid of the likely corrupt and demonstrably incompetent city administration. As ammunition, they have discovered a passage in the South African constitution that allows citizens to sue for exactly that. Two court decisions have already gone their way, and the case is now on the docket of the Supreme Court of Appeal.
If they win there too, it would set an important precedent for the entire country, allowing citizens to demand accountability from their political leaders not just on election day, but also in court. “We can’t survive another five years with this broken municipality,” says Ayanda Kota.
The ANC, the party of Nelson Mandela, has been in power since the end of apartheid in the early 1990s – and was initially successful. The situation in Grahamstown was relatively good and tourists were fond of visiting. But over the years, the ANC became embroiled in an increasing number of corruption scandals, with ex-president Jacob Zuma, who was forced out of office in 2018, becoming synonymous with malfeasance and cronyism.
Decay also took hold in numerous South African municipalities, with Makhanda representing perhaps one of the most extreme examples. Ayanda Kota turns on the faucet in front of his shack, but again, nothing comes out. “The water has been coming and going for months, often not working for days. The municipality doesn’t manage to fix it,” he says angrily.
It’s a problem for Daphne Timms as well. “The first question asked by prospective buyers is: Is there water? Then I tell them honestly that it frequently doesn’t come. And the potential clients never get back in touch.” Even in the city’s most luxurious hotel, nothing but a smelly swill comes out of the tap. Still, the people in Makhanda West are at least able to afford large water tanks and costly private pump systems.
It’s a recent Thursday in Makhanda East, and the water truck has shown up – for the first time in a month, say residents. Nox is standing at one of the truck’s nozzles and filling her buckets in the 30-degree Celsius heat. “We can’t wash ourselves every day and have to save every drop of water. The ANC has abandoned us. We need new people in power,” she says. Nox used to have running water – and a job. These days, though, she lives off the social welfare she receives for her children.
Makhanda city hall looks like it is from a different era. The impressive pillars at the entrance still bear plaques honoring British settlers and military leaders. Quotations from human rights activists like Mahatma Gandhi hang in the long hallway inside. The mayor’s office is reached via a stately, red-carpeted staircase. Mayor Mzukisi Mpahlwa turns to a complicated, technical drawing on the wall to illustrate his passionate account of the water situation.
Ultimately though, his explanation for the current water-supply problems is quite mundane: The pumps are worn out, and when one failed, all the others were flooded. The engineer on duty was apparently asleep. “If that is the case, there must be consequences,” the mayor promises.
Tim Bull of the Makhanda Residents Association, which primarily represents those living in Makhanda West, just laughs. “Nobody has been held accountable here for years. Nobody does their job.” Even the mayor admits that a culture of unaccountability has taken root in the city administration. But then he still quotes a rather astonishing sentence from a different politician: “No matter how badly the ANC messes up, people still vote for the ANC.”
Ayanda Kota leads us to a house in the township, where the owner points to her yard, several areas of which are submerged beneath a murky sludge, with human excrement floating around. The sewer pipes are leaky, she says, but nobody has come to make repairs. “For the first time in my life, I won’t be voting for the ANC. They have failed us,” says the family’s grandmother. And it’s not an easy thing for her to say: She experienced the horrors of apartheid firsthand, in addition to the liberation brought about by Nelson Mandela.
“We need new people, a new beginning,” agrees Ayanda Kota. And to accelerate that change, Daphne, Tim and he filed suit to dissolve the city council.
“This could potentially change the political landscape,” hopes Rebone Tau of the Germany-based Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, which supports Kota’s Unemployed People’s Movement. Tau is an active member of the ANC and held positions of responsibility in the party. But even she has lost faith in the ANC’s ability to renew itself. “One has to force the changes, like here in Makhanda,” she says.
“Makhanda is a deeply racist and colonial city,” says Ayanda Kota. He is standing on the steep road of a township that is more pothole than it is pavement. He looks across to the hillside of Makhanda West. The top of the hill is dominated by the Settler Memorial, built in 1820. It is one of the largest buildings in the city, commemorating the arrival of hundreds of white settlers, brought here as a bulwark against the Xhosa. “The memorial is confronting us with our defeat,” says Kota.
Born in 1976, Kota’s political roots are in the Black Consciousness Movement, a liberation drive that fought against apartheid. At the time, the group made the conscious decision to do without the support of liberal whites. Today, though, Kota is happy that white residents on the other side of the river are supporting his fight against the city administration.
“The politicians used the black versus white narrative, dividing us, but here in Makhanda, we are uniting at the moment,” Kota says – despite all of the inequalities that still remain. It is a fight that isn’t without risk for Kota: He has received several death threats and believes the ANC might be behind them. There is simply too much at stake for the party.
In his interview with DER SPIEGEL, Mayor Mzukisi Mpahlwa sought to discredit Ayanda Kota. There are rumors, the mayor said, that Kota is controlled and financed by Western powers. It is a narrative that the allegedly corrupt former president Jacob Zuma frequently turned to, referring to it as “white monopoly capital” – likely also an attempt to distract attention away from his own failures. Because the ANC has not been able to improve the severe inequalities in the country. Programs designed to improve the economic prospects of black residents turned into quagmires of corruption.
“The municipality is supposed to ensure that we build a community together,” says Tim Bull, the former policeman. “But they prefer to play the race card instead. So we are taking over that role.” He has joined forces with Ayanda Kota on several occasions to organize demonstrations against city hall. Bull relates that the former mayor once remarked on how nice it was to see people from Makhanda East and Makhanda West gathering together. “He apparently didn’t care that he was the object of the protests,” Bull says shaking his head.
Even the judiciary in Makhanda has abandoned its normal restraint. Tim Bull and Ayanda Kota have already made it through two instances, with the courts agreeing that the city administration has, indeed, failed. In one ruling, the court noted that the government “ought to be hanging their heads in shame.”
But what will happen if the citizens of Makhanda win the final appeal and achieve the dissolution of the city council? What then? Initially, a caretaker government would take over for a period of around three months before new elections would then be held. And the mayor believes the ANC would win again.
Kota and his allies are currently in talks to find a candidate of their own. “At least then we wouldn’t be accountable to a party, but to the people,” says the leader of the Unemployed People’s Movement. And that would be akin to a mini revolution in South Africa. A revolution that even some members of the governing party would welcome. In comments to DER SPIEGEL, an ANC member of the Makhanda city council said: “We need that pressure. Otherwise the incompetent people will never be replaced.”
Eugene Ripenz, meanwhile, is trying to make the best of a bad situation. He owns a large cocktail bar in Makhanda, right on the slowly decaying high street. The bar is called The Pothole and Donkey – named after the city’s best-known features.
Immediately after its opening, Ripenz says, people from the city administration showed up and complained about the name, saying it was bad for the city’s reputation. “I answered: No problem. When you fix the street, I’ll change the name right away.” So far, though, that hasn’t happened.