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A South African city lacks water and electricity.  But the mayors?  He has two.

 | Local News

A South African city lacks water and electricity. But the mayors? He has two.

| Local News | Google News

LICHTENBURG, South Africa – Walking through what could be the charming tree-lined streets of Lichtenburg in the rural heart of South Africa, pedestrians bypass piles of uncleaned trash. Storefronts obscured by power outages line the main road. A newly built community center has been robbed, brick by brick.

Mayor Daniel Buthelezi thinks he can turn the city around. Mayor Tsholofelo Moreo too.

Two men simultaneously claim to be the mayor of Lichtenburg, a community of about 182,000 people 150 miles west of Johannesburg. Both are members of the African National Congress, or ANC, the party that rules South Africa and this abandoned city.

Lichtenburg is just one of dozens of cities in South Africa that are stagnating as politicians from the same party fight against each other.

As South Africans go to the polls on Monday to vote for local leaders, the dysfunction in their towns is testing their long-standing loyalty to the ANC – the party of Nelson Mandela, which has led the fight for liberate South Africa from apartheid rule. With municipalities failing to provide basic services like water, electricity and garbage collection, the election turned into a nationwide referendum on the chaotic administration of the ANC government and promises not kept.

Other cities also find themselves with mayors in duel. Just an hour’s drive southwest, Tswaing Municipality has two mayors from opposing ANC factions. Last year, voters in an impoverished town in KwaZulu-Natal province were also baffled by two mayors – in this case, from the opposition Inkatha Freedom party.

The battle for control of the scarce resources of small towns and local neighborhoods has sometimes ended in violence. Over the past month, there have been reports of at least four local councilors killed in internal political struggles.

“The kind of thugs that are going on in politics must stop, like yesterday,” said Job Mokgoro, the former premier of the North West Province, which includes Lichtenburg.

Mr Mokgoro said he tried to bring the two ANC factions in Lichtenburg to the negotiating table in 2019, when Mr Buthelezi, then sole mayor, was challenged for mayoralty by his rival, Mr. Moreo. But Mr Mokgoro said he was kicked out of the council chamber by angry advisers, a deadlock that two years later led the two to claim mayoralty.

Mr. Mokgoro himself was removed from his post in August by national ANC leaders after clashes with party factions in the province.

After the fall of apartheid, municipalities were seen as the democratic and popular platform to replace the centralized control of the apartheid regime. But this political decentralization has been exploited by corrupt or incompetent politicians, said Kevin Allan, head of Municipal IQ, an independent organization that monitors local government.

“The independence of the sphere has been exploited by local political factions” and by corrupt individuals, creating “personal strongholds that straddle regional political structures,” Mr. Allan said in a commentary to the New York Times.

Almost two-thirds of South African municipalities are in financial difficulty and more than a third have passed budgets they cannot finance, said Tito Mboweni, the country’s former finance minister, in his budget speech earlier this year. Many are unable to collect taxes or income for services rendered because their residents are too poor or too angry to pay nothing.

Municipal IQ ranked Lichtenburg as one of the worst performing municipalities in the country. It owes 600 million rand (about $ 39.5 million) in unpaid electricity bills and relies on grants from the national and provincial governments for basic services, like the city library.

The two mayors had little opportunity to come up with solutions, however, as their rivalry resulted in disrupted meetings, and even chairs thrown across council rooms. In the mayor’s office, the wooden plaque with gold letters listing every mayor since the founding of the city has been vandalized.

Mr Buthelezi, a 63-year-old school principal, said in an interview he had been too afraid to enter the mayor’s office since February, when he was greeted by a group of private security guards strong who forbade him entry.

“I can’t go there alone,” Mr. Buthelezi said. “They hired people so that when they see me there, I would be assaulted, harassed or other things done that would not be good.”

Mr Buthelezi was ousted from his post as mayor in a vote of no confidence in city council last December, but he challenged the legality of the vote in court and was reinstated the following month. In the meantime, however, his rival, Mr Moreo, had been sworn in as the new mayor. Mr. Buthelezi appealed to the national leaders of the ANC to resolve the issue.

Yet the mayor’s car – a low-slung Mercedes-Benz that seems unsuitable for the city’s rough roads – is parked in Mr Buthelezi’s garage.

Mr Moreo is in his mid-thirties, a spokesperson said, and began his career in government as a personal assistant to a former mayor. Mr Moreo did not show up for an interview scheduled for earlier this month and was subsequently unavailable to speak by phone.

Mr. Moreo told local media that Mr. Buthelezi was dismissed from his post due to the municipality’s poor performance. Mr. Buthelezi accuses Mr. Moreo of corruption.

Their clash gained national attention when South Africa’s largest dairy farmer, Clover, announced in June that it would close its cheese factory in Lichtenburg and move to a town with more reliable services.

These provincial embarrassments have tarnished the national image of the ANC. In order to restore voter confidence, President Cyril Ramaphosa, who is not a candidate in Monday’s election, has become the face of the party’s local campaign. In Lichtenburg, none of the mayors are on campaign posters, although Mr Moreo is on the ballot. Mr Buthelezi is not, but said he was asking the ANC to reinstate him as mayor anyway.

Instead, it is Mr Ramaphosa’s face beaming from campaign posters to residents, imploring them to give the ANC another chance.

“It’s just Ramaphosa everywhere. It’s like Ramaphosa is running for mayor, ”said Susan Booysen, head of research at the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection in Johannesburg.

Mr Ramaphosa’s party is betting on polls which show it is more popular than the ANC, Ms Booysen said.

However, when selecting local councilors, the ANC resorted to a “delicate and sometimes disastrous recruitment process,” she adds.

To broaden its base, the party appoints its allies to appease political actors, Ms. Booysen said. This allowed for patronage and poor service, especially in municipalities that do not receive national attention.

However, this record does not necessarily deter voters. In focus groups, Booysen found that voters view the ANC as family and the provider of the family, and therefore forgive its shortcomings.

Voters were more likely to trust the ANC rather than largely untested opposition parties, according to a University of Johannesburg study. And many voters on welfare have said they fear their aid will be taken away if another party comes to power.

Mr. Ramaphosa’s frequent refrain during the election campaign is that the family “stick together”. He reminds them of the houses, schools and other infrastructure that the ANC government has provided since the end of apartheid.

Outside the Lichtenburg Post Office, Matshogo Magwatane, a 32-year-old father of two, had been lining up since dawn on a recent day for a monthly pandemic relief grant of Rand 350 (around $ 24 ).

Mr. Magwatane lost a job in the local government, which he attributes to nepotism. He turned to selling kebabs and chicken feet on a street corner, until the litter piles made street food a health hazard.

He describes the ruling party as a pit of snakes biting each other. Still, he said, he will vote for the ANC in Monday’s election.

“I’m going to go with the snake that’s going to win,” Mr. Magwatane said.

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