LICHTENBURG, South Africa – Pedestrians walk the charming streets of Lichtenburg, surrounded by trees in the rural center of South Africa, surrounded by piles of uncollected rubbish. Along the main road are the facades of shops, darkened by power outages. The newly built community center was stolen, brick by brick.
Mayor Daniel Buthelezi believes he can turn the city around. Also Mayor Tsholofelo Moreo.
The 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 neglected city.
Lichtenburg is just one of dozens of cities across South Africa that are stagnating as politicians in the same party fight each other.
When South Africans go to the polls on Monday to vote for local leaders, dysfunction in their cities tests their long-standing allegiance to the ANC – Nelson Mandela’s party that led the fight to liberate South Africa from the apartheid regime. Because municipalities do not provide basic services such as water, electricity and garbage collection, the election has evolved into a national referendum on the chaotic administration of the ANC government and failed promises.
Other cities also find themselves in duels with mayors. Just an hour’s drive southwest, Tswaing County has two mayors from opposing ANC factions. Last year, voters in an impoverished city in KwaZulu-Natal province were also confused by two mayors – in this case from the opposition free party Inkatha.
The battle to control the meager resources of small towns and local departments sometimes ended in violence. At least four local councilors have been killed in political clashes over the past month.
“Such banditry going on in politics needs to stop, as it did yesterday,” said Job Mokgoro, a former prime minister of the northwestern province that includes Lichtenburg.
Mr Mokgoro said he was trying to bring the two ANC factions in Lichtenburg to the negotiating table in 2019 when Mr Buthelezi, then the only mayor, was challenged by his rival, Mr Moreo, for the post of mayor. But Mr Mokgoro said he was ousted from the council chamber by angry councilors, prompting the two men to demand mayoralty two years later.
Mr Mokgoro himself was removed from office by national ANC leaders after clashes with party factions in the province in August.
After the fall of apartheid, municipalities were thought of as a democratic 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 corrupt individuals who have created “personal feuds overlapping with regional political structures,” Mr Allan said in a written comment to The New York Times.
Nearly two-thirds of South African municipalities are in financial distress, and more than a third have adopted budgets they cannot finance, Tito Mboweni, the country’s former finance minister, said in his budget speech earlier this year. Many are unable to collect taxes or revenue for services rendered because their residents are too poor or too angry to pay for anything.
The municipal IQ rated Lichtenburg as one of the poorest municipalities in the country. It owes 600 million rads (about $ 39.5 million) in unpaid electricity bills, and for basic services such as the city library, it depends on grants from national and provincial governments.
The mayors, however, did not have many opportunities to find solutions, as their rivalry led to interruptions of meetings and even chairs bouncing around council meetings. A wooden plaque with gold letters listing each mayor since the city’s founding was vandalized in the mayor’s office.
Mr Buthelezi, a 63-year-old school principal, said in an interview that he had been too afraid to enter the mayor’s office since February, when he was met by a group of strong private security guards who prevented him from entering.
“I can’t go there alone,” Mr. Buthelezi said. “They hired people to attack me, harass me, or do other things that wouldn’t be good when they saw me there.”
Mr Buthelezia was removed from the post of mayor by the city council in December last year by a no-confidence vote, but he challenged the legality of the vote in court and was in office again the following month. Meanwhile, his rival, Mr. Moreo, was sworn in as the new mayor. Mr Buthelezi called on the ANC national leaders to resolve the matter.
Nevertheless, the mayor’s car – a low-lying Mercedes-Benz that seems unsuitable for city potholes – is parked in Mr Buthelezi’s garage.
Mr Moreo is in his mid-30s, a spokesman said, and began his career in government as a personal assistant to the previous mayor. Mr Moreo did not appear at the scheduled interview earlier this month and was not available by phone later.
Mr Moreo told local media that Mr Buthelezi had been removed due to the municipality’s poor performance. Mr Buthelezi accuses Mr More of corruption.
Their clash received national attention when South Africa’s largest dairy producer, Clover, announced in June that it would close its cheese factory in Lichtenburg and move to a city with more reliable services.
These provincial embarrassments tarnished the ANC’s national image. Desiring to restore voter confidence, President Cyril Ramaphosa, who is not in Monday’s election, has become the face of the party’s local campaign. In Lichtenburg, there are no mayors on campaign posters, although Mr Moreo is on the ballot. Mr Buthelezi is not, but said he is still asking the ANC to reinstate him as mayor.
Instead, the face of Mr Ramaphosa shining from campaign posters on residents asking them to give the ANC another chance.
“Only Ramaphosa is everywhere. It’s as if Ramaphosa is running for mayor, “said Susan Booysen, head of research at the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Thinking in Johannesburg.
Mr Ramaphose’s party is betting on polls showing it is more popular than the ANC, Ms Booysen said.
In selecting local councilors, however, the ANC used a “sensitive and sometimes disastrous recruitment process,” he adds.
To expand its base, the party is appointing its allies to appease political actors, Ms Booysen said. This has enabled patronage and poor services, especially in municipalities that do not receive national attention.
Nevertheless, this record does not necessarily deter voters. In the focus groups, Ms. Booysen found that voters see the ANC as a family and a family provider, so they forgive its shortcomings.
According to voters, they were more likely to trust the ANC than the largely untested opposition parties research of the University of Johannesburg. Many voters receiving social assistance said they feared their aid could be taken away if another party came to power.
This family is a common refrain of Mr. Ramaphosa on the path of the campaign “Hold it together.” It reminds them of the houses, schools and other infrastructure provided by the ANC government after the end of apartheid.
Outside the post office in Lichtenburg, Matshogo Magwatane, a 32-year-old father of two, was waiting in line one day since dawn for a monthly aid for a pandemic of 350 rads (about $ 24).
Mr Magwatane has lost his job in the local government, blamed on nepotism. He turned to selling kebabs and chicken legs on the street corner until piles of garbage made street food dangerous to health.
He describes the ruling party as a cave of snakes biting. Nevertheless, he said he would vote for the ANC in Monday’s election.
“I’m going with a snake that will win,” Mr. Magwatane.