South Africa


Ground Level Report: ANC has won awards in Steve Tshwete Municipality, but now even party’s star mayor has joined opposition ranks

Middelburg's first black mayor, Ben Mokoena. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

Ben Mokoena helped make Steve Tshwete one of the best-run ANC municipalities in the country. Now he’s part of the opposition trying to remove the party. With less than five weeks until the local government elections, we visited the area in Mpumalanga as part of a series seeking to understand the people and politics behind the upcoming polls.

Twenty years ago Ben Mokoena opened a guesthouse in Middelburg, and named it Kilimanjaro, after the highest mountain in Africa. Each of the rooms bear the name of a city on the continent that harboured Struggle exiles like him, such as Lusaka, Harare, Dar-es-Salaam, bearing tribute to South Africa’s allies in the struggle and his Black Consciousness roots.

“When I started it I said to myself, I owe the African continent for the support they gave to us as the movement,” he says, sitting in the lounge of the guesthouse. “I needed a name [for the guesthouse] that is known internationally and that will be attractive to national tourists.”

These dried up during the Covid-19 lockdown when the guesthouse became home to a few long-term tenants. 

Middelburg’s first black mayor

As a singer, Mokoena travelled the world to perform, spending time with the likes of Barbara Masekela, Abdullah Ibrahim and Jonas Gwangwa in the cultural ensemble of the ANC. Mokoena returned ahead of SA’s 1994 transition to become the first black mayor in the town where he was born in 1956, establishing the foundation for what is still one of the best-run ANC municipalities in the country. 

Ben Mokoena
Middelburg’s first black mayor, Ben Mokoena, has become part of an effort to oust the ANC. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

The municipality bagged one national and two provincial Masakhane Awards under his leadership, as 100% of residents paid for their services. Unlike in many other areas, such as Soweto, compliance is still high, with 98% of residents regularly paying. The Steve Tshwete Local Municipality’s books are in the black.

Politicians vs bureaucrats

Mokoena credits the life lessons he learnt in exile for this success. “We said, what the ANC taught us was politics, and policy, and how to dismantle and assemble an AK-47, and how to explode bombs. Because we were in the armed struggle, the ANC had no time to teach us administration,” he said.

When the party was preparing for government there was no time to learn about administration either, so the town’s first democratic leadership decided to leave the white administration intact, and focus on providing political leadership.

“So we had a group of well-trained ANC politicians, and a group of well-trained bureaucrats. We handled this affirmative action thing differently.”

For many people, affirmative action meant removing the white people, and that is what ANC-run councils did in many places, but in Middelburg, the governing party’s administration worked with them.

ANC members were taught that they were not fighting white people, but a system of white oppression. In exile in European and Scandinavian countries, Mokoena learnt further lessons and found white people who treated black people as equals, as human beings. 

In 2001 he was re-elected mayor by 18 ANC and three opposition votes, but the ANC’s national leadership was in the process of dealing with “mavericks” in party ranks who didn’t toe the party line at the time and Mokoena was sacked. Ironically, Steve Tshwete, whose name the municipality now bears, was one of those who wielded the axe.

“When I started saying, ‘The town is more important than the political party’, they said, ‘We are going to get rid of you.’ ”   

steve tshwete
The late Steve Tshwete. (Photo: Shaun Botterill / Allsport UK)

Opposition hopes

The Steve Tshwete Local Municipality, with its mining activity making it one of the industrial hubs in the province, has from the start won numerous awards for excellence. It’s had clean audits for two decades and is one of only 27 municipalities (out of South Africa’s 278) to have received a clean audit in the Auditor-General’s most recent report.

Yet, the opposition is making inroads and the municipality could become the first in Mpumalanga where the ANC’s share of the vote drops to below 50%.

The DA has even put up a mayoral candidate here, Bosman Grobler, who says the opposition only has to convince 8,000 ANC voters to turn up and change their choice at the ballot box for the governing party to fall into opposition. 

“The DA decided to make Steve Tshwete our strategic municipality in Mpumalanga just to show people we can. It doesn’t help that you always fight elections and you think you will always be in opposition,” he says.

Mokoena too has become part of this effort to oust the ANC. He helped found the Middelburg and Hendrina Residents Front, which will contest the local elections for the first time. Mike Masina, another former mayor, is part of this effort. 

They are putting up candidates in 24 of the 29 wards. Mokoena himself will contest in Ward 10, and he is number four on the party’s proportional representation list.

Ward 10 spans the traditionally Indian area of Eastdene and the predominantly black township of Hlalamnandi — the result of a 2016 delimitation that included more black voters in the previous opposition stronghold. 

In the 19 May by-elections in Ward 22, the six-month-old party managed to get 20.8% of the votes, beating the more established EFF, which previously had a 15% share of the vote.

Mokoena says the biggest problem, and his party’s biggest campaign point, is the ANC’s cadre deployment policy, and the way the party is bringing people from outside the province to fill senior administrative posts while skilled people are available locally. These people, in turn, bring their family members to work in the municipality, and the administration ends up in the hands of people who are not competent.

“Take back your town,” is the party’s campaign slogan, and posters will be going up soon, Mokoena says. 

Keeping the balance

Grobler and a team were busy putting up posters on Monday, 21 September with, among others, the party’s national slogan: “The DA gets things done.” 

Even the opposition admits that the town is well run, but Grobler says that’s because they are breathing down the ANC’s neck and holding officials accountable. 

The 38-year-old is the party’s only mayoral candidate in Mpumalanga and says he’s running because “although it’s going well here, it could be better”. 

Small things like the occasional water and electricity outages are an indication that the infrastructure is decaying and needs upkeep. “We had a lot of good people in the administration who were very accountable, but who have retired in the past five to seven years, and those gaps are now visible.” 

DA Bosman Grobler
The DA’s Bosman Grobler (with arm in the air) talks to his team as they prepare to put up election posters. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

It’s not as bad as in other towns, and when people protest here, it’s about politics rather than service delivery. 

Grobler says one thing that could play into the opposition’s hands is the “data cleansing” of municipal accounts recently done by the administration, which resulted in people having to pay 300% to 400% more to make up for months in which they were undercharged. Those who don’t have much money to start with are angered by this.

Grobler also says the service at municipal offices is not as smooth as it should be, and criminal elements have moved into the centre of town. The DA has proposed a plan with security cameras before, a system similar to the one they had installed in Cape Town, but the municipality didn’t connect the cameras and the system isn’t fully functioning, he says.

ANC a divided house

Another thing that could work in the opposition’s favour is the divisions in the ANC. President Cyril Ramaphosa was supposed to make a stop in the municipality to campaign, but in town it is said that he was diverted instead “so that he would not hear the thuggery committed here in the name of the ANC”, a local ANC leader says. 

“We also picked up something now from social media. In Nelspruit when people were complaining and said they will not vote for the ANC, [Ramaphosa] said they must vote for the party they want. He was there to campaign for the ANC. How does the first commander of the ANC say people must not vote for the ANC?”

Although the Nkangala region is considered to be one where Ramaphosa’s support is strong, there are others who claim there were fears that disgruntled party members would boo him out of town as happened in Naledi, Soweto, recently. 

The ANC has gone as far as reabsorbing the members of the Practical Radical Economic Transformation (PRET) forum formed a few years ago by disgruntled members. “PRET is going to continue calling for Radical Economic Transformation and land,” former PRET secretary-general Sunday Mathebula says. “We said everyone must go back to their respective political parties and advocate for what they want.” 

Mathebula says things have been unstable in the ANC since the former premier and ANC provincial chairperson David Mabuza left to become deputy president in 2018. The province has still not managed to hold a regional conference to elect a replacement for him, but hopes to do so shortly after the elections in November.

Some of the squabbles about party candidates stem from these contests, and Mathebula says campaigning for the provincial conference is already ongoing. “We are going to make sure we go out there in numbers and influence the branches of the ANC,” he says.

david mabuza
Former Mpumalanga premier and now South African Deputy President David Mabuza. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sunday Times / Masi Losi)

ANC confident of 70-80% win

ANC provincial elections manager Mandla Msibi, however, says the ANC is confident that it will do well in the municipality. “The target of the province is 80% [of the vote], given by the president. In Steve Tshwete we are looking at 80%, or 70% if we fail.”

He reckons the ANC’s manifesto commitments, which include cleaning up government and appointing people who are capable of doing the job, especially young people, will lure voters back to the party. 

“If we are looking at the trends, the only problem is that there are migrant workers. We have to visit their homes and ensure that they stay behind,” he said, with reference to the fact that voting day is on a Monday, and it will be a holiday. Many of the voters would look to that as an opportunity to go home and come back late on Monday. 

informal workers
Informal workers sit outside a hardware store in Steve Tshwete Local Municipality waiting for work. Some leave their homes as early as 5am and return in the early evening, often without finding any work for the day. They are unhappy with the unemployment rate and say that the ANC is leading South Africans to a civil war. Some of them also said they will not be voting because politicians forget about them once elections are over. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

Msibi said Ramaphosa himself will come to campaign there ahead of the vote, adding that he didn’t make it for his recent visit to the province because the National Executive Committee meeting on the manifesto went on until the weekend. The programme had to be rejigged since Ramaphosa’s visit to the province had to start in Mbombela, meaning his visit to Steve Tshwete had to be postponed. 

Msibi said efforts by the opposition to drive the ANC below 50% was “a dream that will never come true”. Referring to the Middelburg and Hendrina Residents Front, he said there was a trend towards elections of “many mushroomers, and many of them are former mayors”.

He rubbished criticism of the ANC for appointing outsiders in the municipality. “South Africa is a unitary state. When we advertise a post of municipal manager, we place it in a national newspaper, and the best candidate becomes the appointed candidate.

“Ben Mokoena is myopic. Must we only employ people of Steve Tshwete in Steve Tshwete, and only people from Mbombela in Mbombela? Then we have the Republic of Mpumalanga. We need a person who is qualified. That is politicking by him, and I will not comment on Mickey Mouse politics. I have real issues to focus on, like service delivery.” DM


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All Comments 3

  • Why is it that if the ANC appoint the “best candidate” as municipal manager, so many of the ANC controlled municipalities are close to being non-functional? Could it possibly be cadre deployment?

  • This proof the impact of having a strong opposition iro of who the ruling party is. Vote for the opposition, politicians are all cut from the same rotten cloth.