In Mayfair and Fordsburg, just west of the Johannesburg city centre, lampposts have once more become sacrificial flag bearers for local politics. It’s by-election time again. But unlike the ho-hum routine of the last by-election last year, this time around there’s a palpable excitement among voters. Much of that excitement is due to an ANC candidate who’s brought a refreshing energy to the tired problems of municipal service delivery. By KHADIJA PATEL.
When I meet Muhammad Cajee in a plume of smoke outside the outdoor chicken tikka grill on Church Street in Mayfair, he explains he’s had a very busy day. “It’s deadline day for the community newspapers, so I’ve been trying to get all our ads in on time.” Around us, yellow ANC posters stand above the blue DA posters, alongside the traffic, people and chicken tikka.
Cajee is representing the ANC in the by-election next week. As he shows me the letter he’s sent to one of the community newspapers, a smiling car guard approaches us. Pointing at the ANC posters across the road, he asks Cajee excitedly, “Is that you?”
Cajee follows his gaze and responds with sham solemnity, “No, it’s my brother.” The car guard looks at the poster and then back at Cajee, unconvinced. Cajee smiles and confesses, “It is me.”
He extends his hand to the car guard and asks if he is registered to vote. The car guard perks up immediately, assuring Cajee of his vote. “I always vote ANC,” he says.
Despite the car guard’s allegiance to the ANC, Mayfair, Fordsburg and the clutch of surrounding suburbs are actually not served by an ANC councillor. It was the Democratic Alliance who won the ward in local elections last year. The slight margin gained by the DA (49%) over the ANC (42%) was enough to ensure DA control of a former ANC stronghold. It really was not an altogether emphatic rejection of the ANC, but it did point to a trend of the ANC losing support among “minorities”.
Reacting to the by-election result in Ward 58 last year, City Press editor Ferial Haffajee wrote, “There is little community organisation in Mayfair any longer, so I’m not surprised that the candidate Junaid Pahad (brother of Essop and Aziz) lost to the DA candidate. While he’s a good neighbour, he hasn’t called us to a single meeting in the past five years, nor has the ANC responded as it did in the 1980s to all the very real local challenges.” For Haffajee, the pattern of losses in so-called minority areas was an indictment of the social distance between ANC leaders and people in these areas.
“My guess is this pattern of social distance and alienation has beset every one of the ANC’s previous strongholds in coloured and Indian areas,” Haffajee said.
Johannesburg’s Ward 58 is a hodgepodge of residential, industrial and commercial suburbs unceremoniously grouped together by electoral processes. It is a patchwork of the middle class, the working class and the bitterly poor living side by side along streets that have grown weary from cracks, crime and filth. Your Fordsburg curry, you see, comes with a side order of a rat infestation.
Comprising Fordsburg, Mayfair, Mayfair West, Crown North, Homestead Park, Langlaagte, Pageview, Vrededorp, Jan Hofmeyer, Vredepark, Burgersdorp and Amalgam, the area gives rise to complaints from residents on everything from congestion to housing shortages. These may not all be local government problems, but the local government – as the most discernable tenet of government – must at least be able to channel these complaints along appropriate lines.
As Cajee and I settle into conversation, I ask who among his ANC branch will be headed to the party’s elective conference in December. He shrugs, saying the branch secretary would be attending. “I don’t care about all of that,” he says. “I just want a clean neighbourhood where I can take my children to the park.”
Cajee believes that an ANC candidate would be better placed to lobby the various instruments of municipal governance to better service the ward. “I think more than 70% of a councillor’s work is communication,” Cajee tells Daily Maverick. While he’s emphasised the potential of better communication within the municipality, he also believes that his successful election may establish open communication channels with local residents and business people, which will be crucial to keeping people on his side.
It’s here where Cajee’s background as an industrial psychologist and his experience in various senior positions at Al-Jazeera English are evident. He speaks of his observations of local governance around the world, and wonders passionately why certain instruments that have been proven to work elsewhere cannot be used here. But why would a man who has seen the world and made something of himself out there come back to bat for the ANC?
A fair question. The outgoing councillor, Zaytoon Waja, is one who believes Cajee, despite his impressive CV, has been out of the country for too long to actually understand the gravity of the challenges facing the ward.
“He is rather young, and has been out of the country and ward for far too long,” she has argued.
Cajee, however, is stoic. He insists local politics is a natural progression of the values he was brought up with. “I grew up attending ANC rallies at FNB Stadium,” he says. Politics, he claims, has always been in his blood, and his time at Al-Jazeera was an extension of that.
Even the former councillor, despite the criticism, is not unconvinced Cajee is the “better candidate”.
“Voters need to assess the party’s delivery and not be short-sighted by voting for the ‘better candidate’,” Waja said. She and the rest of the DA campaign for the ward have sought to pit the ANC’s failures nationally and the more glaring of President Zuma’s problems against the ANC’s campaign promises. The DA has also rightly pointed out that it was under years of ANC administration that the ward denigrated into the holy mess that it is.
Cajee, however, is keen to advise voters not to treat the by-election as a referendum on the ANC’s health nationally. “I think people are smart enough to understand that I am a new candidate,” he says.
And even as the DA continues to raise allegations of “cadre deployment” against the ANC, Cajee argues that the DA’s wont to field candidates from outside the ward smacks of the cadre deployment they so loathe. “The DA keeps appointing candidates from outside the ward. Zaytoon Waja was from Cape Town, and Osman Cassiem [the DA candidate in the upcoming election] is from Ward 17,” Cajee says.
“The councillor resigned and decided to relocate, a clear indication that she and her party never had the interests of people of the ward at heart,” ANC regional secretary, Dada Morero, added at a press briefing in Johannesburg on Thursday.
Describing her political career as a “blessed curse”, Waja, however, blames the ANC and its control of the Johannesburg metropole for the difficulties she experienced as councillor. “Being a DA Councillor in an ANC Metropole has proven to be a difficult task due to the fact that many of the service delivery requests and projects that I have undertaken in the community had continually been delayed, undermined and in some cases even dismissed because of my political affiliation,” Waja says.
Waja takes issue with Cajee’s assessment and argues that she was born and brought up in Johannesburg – despite leaving the city for Cape Town as a teenager, she has actually lived in Johannesburg for a number of years, she explains. She believes that her Cape Town links actually stood her in better stead to serve the community as she brought the superior experience of a well-run municipality. “I do not believe that my biographical detail places me at a disadvantage. In fact, CT can be used as a model city when it comes to service delivery. Johannesburg holiday makers can vouch for the clean green city they enjoy visiting compared to Johannesburg which is filled with rubbish and suffers urban degradation of the worst kind,” she says.
Cajee, for his part, is not depending on the ANC brand to deliver him to victory in next week’s election. He has noted the various complaints voters have raised and has already gone some way to investigating possible solutions. He certainly has the look of a man on a mission. And though his plans are admirable, the sustainability of his drive is yet to be questioned. Would he really be able to maintain the determination he’s shown on the campaign two years from now when the challenges may only have escalated?
“I have a lot of energy; I’m young,” he says simply.
Mayfair and the rest of Ward 58 may well have found a hero in Cajee, but realistically, the ANC will need a whole army of Cajees to pull themselves out of the rut they are currently in. The immediate test of Cajee’s credentials, however, will be at the ballot box next week. DM
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