Media, Politics

Carte Blanche report: Memory Booysen, mayor with a bulletproof vest

By Theresa Mallinson 4 August 2011

Plettenberg Bay may be one of South Africa's top holiday destinations, but politics there is far from relaxing. Certainly not for Bitou municipality mayor Memory Booysen, who leads the DA/Cope-run council – and has feared for his safety since taking up his position. His long-standing feud with former mayor Lulama Mvimbi (and the ANC in the region) seems to be the root of his problems. By Carte Blanche team and THERESA MALLINSON.

The local government elections in May this year resulted in a hung council for Bitou municipality (Plettenberg Bay and surrounds), which had previously been governed by the ANC. Of 13 council members, six were from the ANC, six from the DA, and one from Cope. The DA’s coalition agreement with Cope meant that a DA/Cope-led council was formed.

But the fallout from the change of power was far from over. Bitou’s new mayor is Memory Booysen, who began his political life in the ANC. Now, he fears his former comrades are out to get him. Since 1994 Booysen had come up through the ANC ranks, eventually being elected as an ANC councillor for ward six in Kwanokuthula, a township outside Plett. This was when his problems started, as he clashed with his party on corruption and expenditure issues.

“Eventually, I was regarded as too independent minded. I would question things, and not just agree. If it doesn’t sound right to me, I need an explanation and they weren’t used to that. Eventually, they had to plan how to get rid of me within the party,” said Booysen. “Eventually, I gave them what I wanted by default by not voting with them in council on a particular issue. And that’s what they were waiting for all along, and they charged me and expelled me on that.”

After his expulsion from the ANC, Booysen was re-elected to his position on the council as an independent and, after a brief flirtation with Cope, joined the DA. Right now, on top of having to deal with the responsibilities and stresses of being mayor, Booysen has the additional burden of his personal safety under threat. “I’ve always been the enemy… [the ANC] always regarded me as the enemy,” Booysen told Carte Blanche “And now, all of a sudden, I’m the enemy with executive powers. Now it is a different ball game for them and probably the best thing is to get rid of me.”

Booysen told Carte Blanche that Lulama Mvimbi, the former mayor who is still an ANC councillor, was the ringleader of the group making threats against him. And he’s alleged the people out to get him include the former mayor’s own bodyguards. “Those are the people who have been instigated to do all kinds of violent stuff against me. So that’s my surrounding,” he said. “And what’s funny is they work for the municipality.”

Speaking to the Daily Maverick, Booysen explained the new security arrangements to which he has to subscribe. “My life has changed dramatically in the sense that I knew if I become mayor, it’s going to come with a price, but I did not expect the 180-degree turn it took in terms of the threat (to) my life,” he said. “I need personal protection based on an assessment that was done by the crime intelligence unit… (Given) the animosity from within the ANC circles, it’s not worth taking the risk of not having a safety fence around me, until this whole thing subsides. But I’m getting briefings on a regular basis; it’s not a forever arrangement.”

One of Booysen’s protective measures is wearing a bulletproof vest. “It’s very uncomfortable for me at this stage, because it’s something that I never projected for myself, and I’m still not used to it,” he said. His safety concerns are exacerbated by the fact that Booysen currently has nowhere permanent to live. “I left my house in Kwanokuthula because of the rumours. I then got visits from people toyi-toying to my house, putting up placards of the opposition party just to intimidate me,” he told Carte Blanche. “It’s uncomfortable and unbearable for them (his family) as well, in the sense that I need to change safe houses every now and then and we live out of a suitcase and eat takeaways.”

But there is a house in which Booysen is entitled to live. In 2007, Mvimbi himself felt threatened after people in Booysen’s ward were angry at his expulsion from the party, and a safer place was found for him to stay. “That house was identified as a safe house (and) security features were put on to the house; it then became a mayoral house,” Booysen said. But, although Mvimbi is no longer mayor, he is refusing to vacate the house. “The law is clear that when a mayor loses an election, he must vacate in 30 days. I’m in exactly the same position he was in in 2007. He’s actually now 60 days overdue. There’s a housing policy which stipulates that, and the mayoral handbook also stipulates on the position,” Booysen said.

The new mayor’s theory is that Mvimbi’s refusal to leave the house is an act of provocation. “I think one of the reasons why he’s refusing (to leave) is actually provoking, because now we need to physically remove him from the house, and that’s going to trigger a reaction from his supporters, which is what he actually wants, so that the town can become ungovernable,” Booysen told Daily Maverick. 

Mvimbi, for his part, has denied doing anything wrong. “By being in that house I’m not breaking any law,” he told Carte Blanche. “But I know that the DA has been harassing other black people who are living in council houses in town. The only reason they are using that they want me to leave is because they don’t want black people living in town.” But considering that it is Booysen himself who is due to occupy the council house, this defence is, well, not defensible.

Also on the television programme, Mvimbi accused Booysen of being a habitual liar. “The mayor is a liar. He is used to telling lies and getting away with it. The media and the newspaper keep on writing his lies.” Booysen points to the number of votes the DA received in the local elections as proof of his honesty. “I say you can’t fool 16,000 people; you can’t lie to 16,000 people and they fall for it. I’ve been saying the same thing that I said in 2007 – that it was all allegations and trumped-up issues involving my work as a politician. The people had a choice – either to vote for me or vote for him.”

Meanwhile, despite the threats to his safety, Booysen has a job to do. Already, since becoming mayor, he’s started an investigation into the council’s finances. Municipal manager Lonwabo Ngoqo has been suspended, after refusing to cooperate in giving information to the council. “There are big, big, big problems in our supply-chain and procurement policy… There’s a lot of alleged corruption. When we started asking for information about all the tenders, that’s when (Ngoqo) started to say he’s ending all cooperation with us,” Booysen said.

Booysen is clear the investigation is not about settling scores. “The intention, you know, was not to be vindictive, or try to start a witch hunt. It’s just that I would like to satisfy myself that I’m starting off on a clean sheet. That’s why I’ve been asking these questions, to be sure (about) our financial status – is everything above board?” he said. “So when (the council) is going to be audited, I’m going to be responsible – ignorance is no excuse.”

At a time when corruption is rife in municipalities across South Africa, Booysen’s approach is a breath of fresh air. “I would love to create conditions where investors would feel comfortable to come in and invest in the town,” Booysen said, speaking of what he hopes to achieve during his term as mayor. “I would love to take us out of the red financially, and the only way to do that is to fight corruption and to make sure that taxpayers’ money (is) put towards real issues… to assist this town to grow.”

Since the airing of the Carte Blanche feature, Booysen has had a positive response from the community. “We had a huge reaction; people just gave me the thumbs-up… Now they also know what is happening… They thought something was happening, but they didn’t know to what extent. People came forward pledging their support and assistance to get over this bad patch.”

Booysen will need as much support as he can get, if he is to succeed in his mission of cleaning up politics in Plett. DM



Read more:

  • Plett Politics transcript, on Carte Blanche;
  • Memory Booysen’s journey – Helen Zille;
  • ANC manager in Bitou suspended at IOL.

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