“We’re basically dysfunctional. If we weren’t so close to an election, I would be calling for us to be placed under administration [of central government],” said Leon de Villiers, veteran Port Elizabeth city councilor.
He’s running for mayor of the city for main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance [DA]. Port Elizabeth, on South Africa’s south coast, is the hub of the country’s motor industry and the economic heartbeat of the largely impoverished Eastern Cape province.
It forms the primary part of a municipal region called Nelson Mandela Bay, named in honor of South Africa’s legendary former president, who, like many ANC stalwarts, was born in the Eastern Cape. The region once formed the bedrock of the anti-apartheid struggle.
Port Elizabeth has been under the control of the ANC since the nation’s first local government elections in 1995. But de Villiers says the city is now a “dishonor” to Mandela, the man who did so much to overthrow white minority rule.
“Since 2009, we have been plunged into a complete financial crisis. We are for all intents and purposes bankrupt,” he said.
De Villiers blames the crisis largely on massive costs and “poor budgeting and mismanagement” by the ANC relating to South Africa’s hosting of the 2010 soccer World Cup. Port Elizabeth, as one of the competition’s centers, spent 3.4 billion rands [US$ 500 million] to upgrade the city for the world’s biggest sports tournament.Much of the costs were unforeseen, and local ratepayers have had to pay almost 880 million rands [US$ 132 million] towards the debt.
De Villiers said the World Cup left Port Elizabeth with arguably one of the best sports stadiums in the world, but at a “huge” price.
It’s a wonderful facility, he said, but unfortunately the city paid 578 million rands [US$ 86 million] more for it than originally expected. “All this cost has left us with a cash crisis. The minute one is as cash strapped as we are now, service delivery plunges to an all-time low.”
As a result of the World Cup “overspend,” de Villiers added, Port Elizabeth no longer had any money to deliver essential services, such as water, electricity and housing, to its citizens. He added, “We’re not maintaining our parks, we’re not maintaining our cemeteries; we’re not maintaining our sewerage works.… Health services, roads maintenance – everything’s stagnating.”
Approached for reaction, ANC provincial local government minister Mlibo Qoboshiyane said he wasn’t able to comment on municipal issues in Port Elizabeth. He referred VOA to the regional secretary of the ANC in the Nelson Mandela Bay area, Zandisile Qupe.
But repeated calls to him went unanswered and he did not return any of the numerous messages left for him requesting comment.
Qupe was however recently quoted in Port Elizabeth’s Township Times newspaper as saying, “People of the metro don’t have to read about what the ANC has done; they can see it for themselves. I’m confident the ANC will once again be given the mandate to govern.”
The newspaper reported that while the ANC city council had instituted “small scale development” in Port Elizabeth in recent years, such as tarred roads in townships, houses it had built for poor people were now “caving in” and many residents did not have electricity and toilets.
The ANC municipality has also been criticized for its response to a drought that’s been afflicting Nelson Mandela Bay for the past two years. Because of its “poor reaction” to the crisis, said de Villiers, Port Elizabeth’s taps could “run dry” very soon.
The mayoral candidate warned, “If we run dry it will have a devastating effect on the economy of our area. It will hit our factories very badly; it will have a devastating effect on unemployment, which is already at very serious levels.”
De Villiers said the ANC had “inexplicably” failed to take action to avert a disaster, despite several “emergency measures” being available to alleviate the drought.
“We have excess water coming to us from the north, which is an area called the Gariep Dam, which is actually overflowing at the moment, and the excess water is running into the sea,” he declared. “To be able to harvest that water for this metro we need to put in additional pipes and treatment works here.”
De Villiers explained that while the central government had given the Port Elizabeth municipality 450 million rands [US$ 67 million] towards this, another 350 million rands [US$ 52 million] was needed to bring the project to fruition. He added that the local authorities could also end the drought by establishing a desalinization plant to harvest and process seawater to make it potable.
“We’ve got all the plans for it; we’ve got the location; we’ve had the environmental [impact] studies done; we just need the funding,” said de Villiers.
But, instead of approaching private firms to partner with it, and to thereby provide the outstanding funds for either of these projects, he said, the ANC council had done “nothing.”
DA sees opportunity
As a result of the ANC’s “failures” in Port Elizabeth, the DA clearly regards the forthcoming polls as its best opportunity yet to snatch the city from the ruling party.
“Our optimism is based firstly on the election results in 2009, where we had a general election and we reduced the support for the ANC in this metro by 20 percent,” de Villiers maintained.
The DA mayoral candidate’s confidence isn’t misplaced, according to political analyst Marius Roodt, writing in the journal of the South African Institute of Race Relations. He pointed out that in 2009 ANC support had dropped to just over 50 percent of the vote in Port Elizabeth, from a previous high of over 70 percent.
If the voting on May 18 follows this pattern, say observers, the DA will need to boost its support in the city by only a small margin and perhaps form an alliance with another minor opposition party in order to gain control of the municipality.
De Villiers said the DA has also been “greatly encouraged” by its ability to deliver services in municipal regions it already controls in the Eastern Cape. “The best run municipality in the Eastern Cape is Baviaans; it’s had a DA mayor for 10 years,” he said.
ANC shambles in Eastern Cape
Ahead of the elections, the ANC in the Eastern Cape appears to be in disarray. Some party officials stand accused of plotting to murder senior ANC provincial leaders, as a result of political rivalry. Disgruntled ANC members, protesting against some of their party’s election policies, have stormed the ANC’s provincial headquarters, beating up a senior party representative and damaging ANC property.
“In recent times the ANC here has tumbled down a slippery slide where the infighting in its own ranks has been unbelievably high,” said de Villiers. “Their indifferences have spilt into public, into council meetings. On one occasion we’ve even had 13 ANC councilors voting with the DA on certain resolutions that were taken – because there are people within the ANC who are concerned at…the lack of service delivery and the dysfunction of our administration.”
But de Villiers insists the DA’s focus is less on the ANC and more on ending the “shambles” in Port Elizabeth. “We are not fighting the ANC, in my opinion,” he maintained. “As far as I am concerned, we are fighting poverty; we are fighting for good houses and we are fighting for decent service delivery, including [good] roads, etcetera.”
If the DA triumphs on May 18, said de Villiers, its “number one challenge” will be to “fight poverty and create jobs.” Then, he said, the party “will immediately consolidate financial and human resources by appointing a competent municipal manger. Our appointments will not be done on political lines or as rewards for friends; we will do them simply on merit.”
De Villiers added, “That manager’s brief will be to make sure that we have competent executive directors in place to take control of the city’s finances.”
Roodt said should the ANC lose the biggest city in the Eastern Cape – the ruling party’s “spiritual and intellectual heartland” - to the DA, it “will be a further blow to the ANC's prestige.”
The analyst continued, “While it is unlikely that any opposition party would manage to wrest control of the Eastern Cape away from the ANC in the foreseeable future, the presence of an efficient, well-run opposition-controlled metro in the province may make the party's supporters more amenable to voting for an opposition party. This will bode well for South African democracy and the country's future.”
And, say other commentators, it could signal the beginning of the end of the ANC’s political hegemony in South Africa.