- Interview by
On November 1, 2021, South Africans head to the polls to elect candidates for district, local and metropolitan municipalities in the country’s nine provinces. As it stands, 325 political parties are contesting and more than 60,000 candidates will be fielded for the elections. These unprecedented numbers are testament to the widespread dissatisfaction with South Africa’s ruling and opposition parties, chiefly the African National Congress and the Democratic Alliance. Until the last elections, in 2016, the ANC comfortably controlled all but one of South Africa’s big cities, Cape Town. But from 2016 when the DA won narrow majorities in Johannesburg, Pretoria, and Gqeberha, the ANC lost power and parties like South Africa’s third-largest, the Economic Freedom Fighters, became coalition kingmakers. With poor service delivery, corruption and maladministration persisting against the wider backdrop of skyrocketing unemployment and inequality, many South Africans are disenchanted with the mainstream, with July’s unrest only deepening widening sentiment that South Africa’s political class is more concerned with preserving power than serving their constituents.
With political space more open than ever, South Africa’s progressive left is taking its chances too. After the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party’s humiliation at the 2019 general election following a rushed campaign (it amassed only 25,000 votes, below the threshold required to obtain at least one seat in Parliament), South Africa’s left was once again roaming in the political wilderness, ever more weary of the electoral road to social transformation (The SRWP decided it would sit these elections out). However, with social crises accumulating and grassroots activists on the frontline, it has become difficult to ignore local government as a key site of political contestation and struggle.
Amandla! interviewed representatives of three popular organisations that have decided to stand candidates in the local government elections. They are:
- Peter Lobese from Active United Front and former Mayor of Bitou Municipality on the southeastern coast of the Western Cape province.
- Motsi Khokhoma from Botshabelo Unemployed Movement
- Ayanda Kota from Unemployed People’s Movement / Makana Citizens Front
The three organisations are collectively running under the banner of the Cry of the Xcluded, a popular front launched in 2020 by the South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU), the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) and the Assembly of the Unemployed (AoU) to unite South Africa’s working class—employed and unemployed—in the struggle for jobs, services, and dignity. Their election manifesto can be read here.
Tell us about your organizations and how they began.
Active United Front derived its origin from United Front. It is a result of the NUMSA moment in 2013, when the United Front was established as a front that unites the struggle of communities and the workplace. And then in 2016, United Front at a national level indicated that they are not ready to contest at a national or provincial level. But they will allow those communities who are ready to contest to do so.
We just put an “A” in front of United Front. We used Active United Front in order to contest. As it happened, we won one seat in the election, and the ANC and DA won six seats each. So we held the balance of power and our councillor, Peter Lobese, became the Mayor. Despite the fact that Peter Lobese was ousted by the ANC and DA, AUF has grown. We are now contesting at a District Level—the Garden Route District. (PL)
Botshabelo Unemployed Movement (BUM) was founded in 1999 to address massive issues of unemployment, democratic control and social injustices in a non-sectarian manner. We aim to serve both the rural and peri-urban poor communities of our province. Botshabelo is a large township outside Bloemfontein. We have registered for the election as Botshabelo Unemployed Movement and they regard us as a political party. But we know, we are not a political party, because we are operating only at the local level.
Unemployed People’s Movement (UPM) / Makana Citizen’s Front was formed in 2009 because there was a vacuum. We started by attending IDP (Integrated Development Plan) meetings, and people were saying that we’ve got to do something. These people are taking us for a ride. Then there was a shut down in Makhanda on June 16 and a decision was taken to say, “We are sick and tired of political parties that are cruel, that are corrupt, that are not honest, that are lying, that have failed us. We must dismiss them. We must recall them. We must dissolve them.” And one way to do so, is to participate in this local government election, as a community. So we were given that mandate to form this civic structure, Makana Citizens Front.
What made you stand in this election?
Corruption, outsourcing of work, clinics of municipalities not functioning, roads bad, factories closing at the municipal level, no investments coming in, local economy falling apart, inequality growing, unemployment growing. All the municipalities are dysfunctional. But when you go to the budget of a ward, that ward every year is being given a particular amount of money that can change the lives of the people. But these things are not being done.
We have marched to the City Hall to highlight the scourge of rape in our society, the scourge of unemployment in our society, the scourge of the collapse of governance. They say “It is not our competency.” What bullshit. They are failing to collect the refuse, they are failing on the electricity, they are failing on roads. But they think we must only fight for roads. They don’t understand that these things are intertwined. They don’t understand if they don’t deliver on their constitutional obligations, like lights, it makes certain people vulnerable. There is nothing that can ever be delivered by the current status quo. It’s run out, it’s torn out, it’s finished.The only thing that they can do, over and over again, it’s promises and promises and promises.
Abuse of power, poor service delivery, and the high cost of services, land questions and many other issues that the community were not happy with. People in the communities are suffering. We are at a grass-root level; we are seeing this suffering on a daily basis. It’s going to be worse now with COVID-19.
Politicians don’t care
We have seen what happens when people are taking their mandate from political parties. Politicians don’t care about people. But when they are going to election, they suddenly remember them, because they want them to put them again in power. They are not implementing whatever the communities are asking them to do.
And one must be honest to say, these guys, they don’t listen, they don’t care. To them, it’s all about promises, it’s not about accountability. It’s coming over and over again with the same promises, with the same promises and different promises. The right to govern our people has been appropriated by the politicians. There was a slogan “The people shall govern” and that slogan has been appropriated by politicians, and it is the politicians that are in government now. It is politicians that govern now.
There are two organizations that are dominating politics. It is ANC and DA. And people are tired of those two organizations, they do not want them. They do not trust them anymore. And these organizations, they don’t even change their leaders. You find that there are leaders that have been leading in this organization since 1994, they have been councillors since 1995 and they are still councillors today. And they have done nothing for the community.
Why do you think you can do better?
We are not a political party. We are activists. So when you are an activist, you should be involved in issues that are affecting your community. You can’t just relax when you are an activist. You became an activist because of things that you see on the ground that are not going well. And that is why we are fielding comrades in terms of them being councillors. Because we want to change the status quo.
We are activists. You cannot separate our interests and those of the community, because we live in the community, we are part of that community, and we are pursuing the problems of that particular community. So, I think that makes us distinct from a political party.
We are community activists who are championing the struggle for the working class at a local level, at a grassroot level. So, we are a hand of the community, we are not a political party. You can say we are a movement, a community-based movement. At times, political parties have a tendency to divide the community. Ours is just to embrace the community struggle, because we are encouraging citizens to be active. Hence we are saying Active United Front, it means active citizens. You will find members from various political parties in the United Front, from the ANC, from the EFF, from DA and others. But even in the election, they said they will stand by what United Front is going to do and they will vote for United Front.
We have signed a pledge including: A living wage for councillors. Communities must have full control of our councillors, because they are not going to get that full salary. If you are getting R50,000 in PE, the organization and communities will agree to pay you the living wage—R15,000, R12,500 at least.
No corporate boards: We will refuse to sit on any boards of corporations. Politicians are serving in all these corporate boards, whose sole interest is to maximize profit. And it’s capturing them.
Live locally: if we get elected, our comrades will continue to stay where they are currently staying, in their respective wards. They will not hire trucks in the deep of the night and put in their furniture and go stay somewhere.
Subject to recall: we respect the right of recall. If our member is recalled, we will not be consulting with a political party whose head office is in Joburg. That makes us an activist organization. But also, that makes us a community organization.
Caretakers of the pledge
This pledge is important. Your councillors have committed to this oath. And most important, you have a very strong UPM outside, which will also be carers and caretakers of that pledge, to forever remind you that you have committed to this. That will continue to play that critical role that it’s playing now. I think that can give us a peaceful night.
Before we started attending, IDP meetings were conducted in English and a bit of vernacular. But the details are hidden in English. English really excludes a majority of people. But all that the politicians were worried about was to get the white cloth on the table, the bottles of water, and their chairs covered. We were challenging those details because they were excluding our people. Some of these wards are quite vast. It was important to organize transport for people to attend the meetings. And also make sure to give notice on time. And accounting to the community: to say, “We were here and this is what we promised. This is what we have done and this is how we are moving forward.”
Mandate from our communities
We must take the mandate from our communities. Everything will come from communities. What they need, what they are thinking, what you can do in council. So that is the backbone of us participating in this election. The mandate from the communities, the suffering of the community, the demand of the community.
Our manifesto should be localized and talk directly to what the municipality needs to do. Rather than to have this blanket, centralized approach of national political parties that there’s service delivery and electricity and all of that.
Our people have said, Active United Front has been looking after us for the last five years. They will vote for the organization that they know and they are used to, rather than following the old ways of voting. Communities don’t vote for a person, or an organization that mushroomed during the election. Because they will first look at who are these leaders, where do they come from?
What are you standing for?
Over and above everything, the concern to us was work, was jobs. And that very issue was absent in all the IDP meetings, the question of unemployment in this municipality.
We are not saying to people that we are going to do one, two, three, four for you. People and us, we must fight for these things, because we are trying to change how municipalities are functioning in totality. Why do we have EPWP workers who are not insourced by municipalities? Why are the people still staying in shacks? Our comrades should be fighting on a daily basis, not only for these elections. So we are building beyond elections.
The actual issue that the community wants is firstly land. All the available pieces of government land must be given to the community for farming, for housing and other recreational activities. Number two is job opportunities. People will be able to build their own houses, if you give them job opportunities. Number three is housing. Number four is crime. Violence against women and children, is another thing. And youth empowerment and women empowerment. Training and education is also very important. Those are the five key pillars that we think we need to consider.
A different approach
We can introduce a Basic Income Grant in Makhanda. But instead of giving cash, we give you food. With a municipality that has got more than six farms, you could start producing with a view to undermining hunger. And also extend that so that in our homes, in our roofs, in our backyard gardens, we introduce a culture of producing our own food. We undermine the power of corporations in deciding what to eat and not eat. We can introduce climate jobs. There’s a water crisis because of the climate crisis. We can show that climate jobs are really not impossible.
And you have got these things that have been privatized. We can start thinking into that. There are windmills, for example, that are privately owned instead of being socialized.
How do elections fit into building broader organization and struggle?
We are building the organization for beyond the election, not only for elections. We are always on the ground, we are here five years. These elections help us to popularize the organization, because on a weekly basis we are on the media talking about BUM.
It’s not a matter of electing councillors that will represent us. It’s a question of building a movement towards and beyond the local government elections. It’s a matter of pushing the struggle and making sure that the struggle takes place in those council chambers. It’s a struggle that must go on. It’s a struggle that is going on. You are reaching a number of people that you wouldn’t reach under normal circumstances. You have got to get their thinking, the thinking pattern of our people. So it’s also quite interesting.
Ours is not about winning elections. Ours is about fighting, whether there is an election or no election. People were saying, we are this group of people that is not happy with what the ANC, what the DA are doing locally. So we are not ready to go and support these political parties in the next elections. They asked, “What are you saying? Are you saying we should fold our arms and do nothing in this election. Or should we come together, establish ourselves and contest this election?”
Is this part of building a new Left?
If we have councillors or a councillor, we’ll be building around them in terms of building the Left. So that we can have a vibrant political party of the left. So that we change the situation of our people. But if we don’t do that, if we are just saying no, we will concentrate on BUM, we will exclude Amadiba Crisis Committee, we will exclude Amandla in PE, then we are not building anything.
We also connect our struggles. We connect with other civic movements that are participating in elections, because we are not narrow. We are also building a left bloc that could then start to challenge the predatory political powers in this country, in a very serious and meaningful way.
What we want to see at the national and provincial level, is a structure or a movement or a body that will resemble the struggles that are happening at a local level. At the moment, there is no organization that is championing socialist policy, the working-class struggles. We were hoping that the SRWP, the workers party under NUMSA, was going to fill that void, but it did not do well. The weakness here is the failure of a leading socialist movement. So all those people that want to see policies of the Left are wandering around. That’s why we see them contesting as individuals or as community-based organizations. We just need a coordinator at a national level that will properly coordinate and merge these local struggles, call these independent candidates, hear from them what it is that pushed them to contest as independents. Bring them into the social movement.
No socialism in one municipality
Even if you win, you will not deliver socialism in Makhanda alone. Even if you are a revolutionist, you’d understand that you cannot deliver socialism in Makhanda, living in South Africa. You can’t deliver socialism in South Africa, living in a continent. You can’t deliver socialism in a continent, living in a world. It’s just impossible. Though you want to better the lives of our people, but I mean, look here, you are living in an era of a neoliberalism, of local government that doesn’t have money. You have got a government that says fiscus is empty, fiscus doesn’t have money. And you won’t change them and say, “No there’s money there, there’s money in that”. Because they are very rigid in their austerity roll out.
Meaningful change depends on the national treasury, and a change in national policies, especially the austerity measures. The truth of the matter is that the austerity measures by the national treasury destroy all these beautiful manifesto ideas and then there’s a feeling that they’ve been promising people. When you look at the budget, it’s totally not enough to address some of the challenges that are there. The budget from municipalities is not enough.
At the moment, who is going to change those austerity measures? Toyi-toyis are not going to help. Burning streets is not going to help. The only thing that will change those National Treasury policies, is a movement that is based on socialism. Otherwise, in 2024, what are we going to do with all these voters that we have campaigned for, in this local government election? This is the question that we could not answer in 2018.
When people conduct struggles in their communities at a local level, who will complement them at a national level? We are not represented there. Which means we will toyi-toyi on the ground and people will be taken to prison, they will be shot by police, because they are not toyi-toying at a national and provincial level. And national will not change its policy and province will not change its policy because all these actions are happening at a local level, where they are not even touched, they are not even fearing the smell of the tear gas. They are not even fearing the shots of the rubber bullet.
National legislation and supply chain policies are all hindering service delivery. Just supply chain management processes, will take you three months. You finish almost half of the year, with supply chain processes, planning and all of that. By the time it’s the end of the year, the financial year, some of the budget is difficult to spend.
If you look at some of these creches and schools, they need support, even community gardens, they need the support from the municipality. But the national government policies, national treasury, are saying you can’t support those kind of organisations.
What is your experience from Bitou, Peter?
The jealousy from these two political organizations, DA and ANC. If they are elected, they must know that they will be dealing with that. It’s like you are sleeping with the lion or you are sleeping with the hyena. Even if you go into coalition with them, if you sleep with any of them, the chances are tomorrow we will not see you alive. On a daily basis they want to destroy you.
Sometimes the ANC councillors know all the ministers in the province or the departmental ministers. Behind your back, they will tell the minister not to implement certain projects, because if they implement those projects they will be at your benefit as a mayor of a small party, and they don’t want you to shine. Because once you deliver that, they will put you at another level in the community.
The ANC are not prepared to respect any other political party. They have got this political monopoly. It is either you allow them to dictate, or else, if you don’t allow them to dictate, everything is wrong. And everything must be destroyed. Rather than working and complementing other parties, they want to destroy what we are doing, the good we are doing, so that it should be implemented by them.
For example, I came with a lot of programs. I got land and all of that; things that they have been failing to get over the past years. I challenged the national minister, provincial minister and I got those through. But at the verge of implementing it, they don’t want you to be seen as somebody that implemented those plans. They want to implement themselves. So they will do anything to discipline you, to suspend you, to destroy you.
The ANC will allow DA to dominate and DA will allow ANC to dominate, but they don’t want to have a small party to dominate or to have influence in what is happening at a local level. I think our comrades, when they go there, they must go there once they know that if they work with the ANC or DA they are playing with the lion and hyena.
These communities are saying to the political parties that politics are not your monopoly, to us at a local level. If we come together, we can be able to force you to listen to us. We can force you to sit down in the council chamber with us, even if you don’t want. Whether they like it or not, they are hearing the voice of the Active United Front in each and every council meeting, in each and every workshop.
We influence policies, we influence budget. So we have said,we are having a seat, we will not vote for this budget if it does not address A and B. We will not vote for this policy if it’s a capitalist policy. And that itself has given the community power. And you have seen the change that has happened in Plettenberg Bay. The people are saying it has never happened before. That is why you have seen the growth of Active United Front in that community. It’s because of championing these socialist policies, which are poor orientated.
In the beginning, ANC and DA people did not understand this United Front thing. But, after we’ve been in government, it is only then they said no, this party when it’s in government, it did exactly what we’ve been asking as the community. Transparency around the housing allocation, transparency around job opportunities and increased job opportunities, getting land for the people, giving land to the people, giving bursaries.
When you give all this to people, you must not make favors or seek favors. We just gave it, whether you are DA or ANC or what. If you qualify, you get a house. We don’t ask what organization you belong to. We said as long as you are a beneficiary, whether you are EFF, DA you will get employment, you will get a house according to the housing policy, according to the recruitment policy of the municipality, according to the bursary policy. It’s for that reason that now people started to have confidence in Active United Front. And they want to give us another chance to be there again, to continue to champion the very same things that they are doing.
Unite for implementation
The only thing that we are a friend with is the service delivery combat plan and its implementation. Because that service delivery combat plan is composed of DA manifesto, ANC manifesto and our manifesto. We looked at those commonalities, those common issues that we say we are all championing for this community. You will find the ANC and DA are talking nicely—they are going to give this and this. Things that we will also identify as important in the community. But they don’t implement that, they don’t do anything about it. So if you fail to do that, we will review the coalition agreement and we will cancel it.