Makhanda made it to The Times of London this week. This is an abridged version of Jane Flanagan’s story published on Wednesday 27 October:
Its choppy history as a pioneering frontier town helps to explain Makhanda’s mobilisation of the most significant grassroots challenge South Africa’s ruling party has ever faced.
After years of campaigning on issues such as rivers that flow with sewage, taps that run dry and mountains of rubbish that are left uncollected, a diverse group of disgruntled citizens are contesting every one of the town’s 14 wards at next Monday’s local elections.
Formerly known as Grahamstown, the name of the Eastern Cape university town was changed by the African National Congress in 2018 to honour a Xhosa warrior who fought against early British settlers — a decision that sums up the ruling party’s skewed priorities, according to Xolelwa Donyeli, 26. “Spending money on what a place is called is much easier than fixing its roads,” she said.
Many of those in the ward where Donyeli is campaigning for a council seat live in leaky shacks with pit latrines and no power. She represents the Makana Citizens Front (MCF), a group of independent and diverse community members determined to convince neglected voters that there is an alternative to the party in power.
“Residents have been living in filth for years, but they still support the ANC even though it doesn’t care about them. It suits the party for voters to believe that they will lose their pensions if they aren’t in power,” Donyeli told The Times. As a so-called “born free” — those who never experienced life under apartheid nor witnessed the ANC’s struggle to end it — she judges the party solely on its brazen disregard for the citizens of her town, reflected in its decision to spend Covid-19 funds on a local mayor’s new car.
In the absence of state services, Makhanda, like many other towns across the country, relies on volunteers and businesses to pick up the slack. With Monday’s vote looming, the MCF’s blood is up after winning a string of legal rulings that have revealed the potency of Makhanda’s civil society as much as its authority’s collapse. A landmark High Court judgment last year found that the failure by the ANC officials to deliver services was “unconstitutional” and grounds for its dissolution.
Another successful community-led action resulted in a judgment for the council to clean up illegal dumping sites that sprouted freely as regular bin collections dried up. Eskom, South Africa’s bankrupt power provider, was also successfully sued by the town’s business federation and ordered to keep the town’s lights on even if its feckless authorities had failed to settle their bills.
Nthuthu Blow, 40, watched Makhanda’s accelerating decline during the Zuma era when as much as R1-trillion was looted from the state. She resents the growing normalisation of South Africans doing the government’s heavy lifting. Contesting a ward on behalf of the MCF, she believes that only independent, paid, and accountable locals can effectively serve communities.
“People don’t need politicians; they need responsible citizens,” she said at the recent rowdy launch of the MCF’s manifesto. “The ANC has no sense of duty or responsibility to its voters. That party will always put its own interests above ours.”