South Africa


The fight is on for the heart and soul of Matatiele — can the AIC claw back votes in the town where the ducks have flown away?

The fight is on for the heart and soul of Matatiele — can the AIC claw back votes in the town where the ducks have flown away?
A woman walks towards her house at Matatiele, in the northern Eastern Cape. (Photo: Mlungisi Mbele)

The raison d’etre of the formation of the African Independent Congress more than 15 years ago has been to fight for the reincorporation of Matatiele, from the Eastern Cape to KwaZulu-Natal. But during a visit to the poorly developed, job-scarce rural area in the build-up to the November 1 elections, the enthusiasm to effect the change in the community was more subdued in the wake of the violence and looting that swept through KwaZulu-Natal.

In 2006, 15 years ago, the demand for the reincorporation of Matatiele and surrounding villages from the Eastern Cape to KwaZulu-Natal was a big political and electioneering issue, with many residents deserting the ruling African National Congress to form and vote for the breakaway African Independent Congress (AIC).

Matatiele is among the cross-border areas incorporated into other provinces in 2005. Surrounded by mountains, it is located in the northern part of the Eastern Cape.

Residents of Matatiele resisted the move, saying that doing so would compel them to travel to the Eastern Cape provincial capital, Bhisho, about  473 km away, for administrative, property and licencing issues, instead of going to the KZN capital of Pietermaritzburg, about 277 km away, for the same purposes. They said they spent most of their income in KZN, not the Eastern Cape. 

But now, ahead of the November 1 local government elections, residents have things to worry about other than being reincorporated into KZN. The recent looting and burning of businesses in towns and cities of KZN has also forced a rethink among residents of Matatiele and surrounding villages.

AIC: From kingmaker to self-destruction

A view over Matatiele, located in the northern part of the Eastern Cape. According to the South African National Census of 2011, it has 12,466 residents and 4,107 households. It is the largest populated town in the Matatiele Local Municipality. (Photo: Mlungisi Mbele)

The AIC, which had become kingmaker in some municipalities across the country, is now a shadow of its former self and is bedevilled by leadership squabbles and counter-accusations of corruption.

Matatiele derives its name from the Sotho language. It means “the ducks have fled, or flown away”.

Tabling the town’s integrated development plan recently, Matatiele mayor Momelezi Mbedla said that while the municipality had attained many of its goals and objectives, he acknowledged that there were still many challenges.

“We… understand that while these challenges are vast, we have limited financial resources to provide for adequate services. As a predominantly rural municipality, this financial limitation is a huge challenge. However, we remain committed to delivering adequate services and making the most of the limited resources we have,” Mbedla said.

Workers make concrete blocks using a block-making machine in the Tshepisong area in Matatiele. People rely on local workers for building supplies. (Photo: Mlungisi Mbele)

The Matatiele council, he said, had committed itself to realising the following key strategic priorities:

  • Reduction of service delivery backlogs and refurbishing of infrastructure;
  • Sound financial management;
  • Sustainable development and growth of the local economy;
  • Proper spatial development planning through a localised spatial development framework (SDF) throughout the municipality;
  • Promoting proper institutional arrangements; and
  • enhancing public participation and integrated planning.

Opinions among residents of Matatiele about the achievements of the municipality ranged from critical to positive, with some blaming the ruling party for the challenges.

The Eastern Cape attraction

As in other towns and cities across South Africa, jobs are scarce (in Matatiele, only 22% of people were employed, according to the 2011 Census). Citizens rely heavily on social grants for household income.

A local white businessman — who was at the forefront of the campaign to reincorporate Matatiele into KwaZulu-Natal, but later his retail business was targeted and boycotted — said that the reincorporation issue was not uppermost in many locals’ minds.

“In fact, many people are saying we are better off in the Eastern Cape, especially after the looting of many towns and cities in KZN. The politics of KZN is also strange and there are many killings. Now, here in the Eastern Cape, some things are alright, our clinics here are running smoothly. We go to Durban for a private hospital and to Pietermaritzburg to sort out some administrative issues. So there is no need to be incorporated into KZN because we are doing fine without it,” he said.

His sentiments were echoed by some residents.

Vukile Mhlelembane, ANC regional secretary in the Alfred Nzo region (which includes Matatiele), said reincorporation into KZN was no longer an electoral issue.

A woman stands near her house with shopping bags. The job-scarce Alfred Nzo area is poorly developed. (Photo: Mlungisi Mbele)

“The pro-KZN lobby formed AIC and they won 10 seats. But in the last elections they only got four. This time around they would be lucky if they get one or two seats. Their struggle is no longer relevant,” Mhlelembane said.

He said Matatiele was now “stable” and doing very well in terms of service delivery. “A problem which is not [just] affecting Matatiele, but affecting the whole region, is the issue of water and sanitation. Another problem affecting the region is joblessness. Hopefully the upcoming council will work with other stakeholders to tackle and deal with these issues.”

Zinhle Mazibuko, a 28-year-old resident of Tshepanong, said she was not eligible to vote in 2006 as she was 13. “When you are poor and jobless you don’t care about demarcations and boundaries. We young people don’t care whether Matatiele is under Eastern Cape or KZN, as long as there are job opportunities for us… or we are supported to start and sustain our businesses, we will be okay.”

Call for jobs, houses and better roads

Election fever had gripped the town and surrounding areas on Wednesday, 7 October. There are 52 seats up for grabs in Matatiele. In the 2016 local government poll, the ANC took 38 seats, the DA won five, the AIC took four seats, EFF got three seats and the United Democratic Movement got one seat. (In the previous elections there were 51 seats, but this time around there is an extra ward, which was recently demarcated.)

Cedarville is a one-street mini town that falls under Ward 26 of the municipality. Here, the ANC was having a mini-election rally on the N2. Supporters danced and sang struggle songs. 

Lungisa Luthuli, a 36-year-old ANC Ward 26 councillor candidate, is running for the first time, but promised that he would do better than the present ANC councillor. He said, if he won, his efforts would include a push for youth employment, women’s cooperative projects, housing projects and poultry projects.

“The ANC has done a lot for the people of this ward. I believe that they will still vote for the ANC,” he said.

Nontobeko Maganda, (36), who was among the young people singing and dancing in ANC regalia, said they hoped Luthuli would listen to young people and help alleviate their plight.

Julius Chapa (76) lives in a peri-urban, mountainous settlement called Tshepisong (Sotho for “Promised Land”), about 3km from the Matatiele town centre, but accessible only on a rough and stony gravel road.

Julius Chapa (76) leaves his home at Tshepisong for the local tuckshop. (Photo: Mlungisi Mbele)

Chapa has lived in the area since childhood. He lives alone in a dilapidated mud house. 

Chapa said he would vote ANC and hoped that the party would build him an RDP house and improve the local roads. “We are the ANC and the ANC is us. We grew up during the apartheid time and the ANC was able to free us from the oppression of the boers. The ANC was able to get us pension (old-age grant); the party is starting to build us houses and very soon I will get my own (RDP house),” he said.

Open the tap and no water runs out

This attitude from elderly voters annoys EFF activists like 30-year-old Mandisi Tenene, who lives in one of the nearby mountainous Maluti villages a few kilometres from the Lesotho border.

“Our job is difficult, but we have to convince voters, especially the elderly folks, that it is not the ANC that gives them old-age and child-support grants, it is not the ANC that gives them RDP houses. This is the money of the taxpayers and they will still get these things even if they don’t vote for the ANC.”

Tenene said all areas around Matatiele suffer from water shortages due to the incompetence and the corruption of the ruling party.

“Four or five successive days you can open the tap and no water comes out. These people (the ANC) have been making promises that they will create job opportunities, but we, as the youth, are all sitting at home without anything to do,” he said.

A woman hangs up clothes after washing laundry at Tshepisong in Matatiele. (Photo: Mlungisi Mbele)

Tumi Mothapa, EFF leader in Matatiele, said they will be fielding candidates in all Matatiele local municipality’s 27 wards. The party is hoping to get anything between six and 10 council seats.

“We are targeting some wards and so far our election campaign in Matatiele is going very well. Youth, in particular, have been welcoming to us. They want us to champion their causes, they want us to drive their campaign to have jobs, to have incomes.” He said that the first thing his party would do was to introduce a motion that would prevent the municipality from hiring countless consultants because that was where “the chunk of the budget goes to”.

AIC fights on for reincorporation

Mandla Galo, founder and leader of the AIC, whose raison d’etre is to fight for the reincorporation of Matatiele into KZN, is adamant that his party is still fighting fit.

Galo recently had a running battle with a faction led by AIC deputy president Lulama Ntshayisa (who died recently of natural causes).

The Ntshayisa-led faction accused Galo of rigging AIC conference results and of being bribed by the ruling ANC to stay put in the coalition with the ANC in municipalities such as Ekurhuleni, despite the ANC failing to honour an agreement to return Matatiele to KZN.

Galo denied accusations of bribery, saying there was no evidence linking him or AIC leaders close to him to receiving bribes from Ekurhuleni or any municipality where the AIC is propping up the ANC in a coalition.

“We are still saying Matatiele must be reincorporated into KZN. People who say Matatiele residents want to stay in the Eastern Cape are hallucinating. We are still championing the causes of the people of Matatiele and Maluti and we know that they still want to be under KZN,” he said.

Democratic Alliance takes opposition from AIC

The Democratic Alliance, which pipped the AIC to become the official opposition in the Matatiele council in 2016 by gaining four council seats and adding a fifth in the by-elections, said it is eyeing at least 12 council seats this time.

Wonga Potwana, the DA’s Eastern Cape deputy leader and a councillor in Matatiele, said the party had run a successful campaign, especially in ANC strongholds. Potwana, a former ANC member, will be contesting Ward 23. 

“In Matatiele we have 183 villages. Some are lacking water and others don’t have electricity. The ANC boasts about bringing liberation to this country. The elderly generation is dying out and now there are young voters. People don’t care who brought liberation, they want service delivery. We as the DA will bring immediate changes,” he said, adding that the party’s focus would be in rural villages and in providing agricultural projects to these areas.

Prediction for 2021 election

Elections analyst Wayne Sussman said the upcoming local government elections would surprise many parties, especially in Matatiele.

“This municipality is very interesting. On one hand, you have the AIC, which did very well in places like Ekurhuleni and Rustenburg, but in Matatiele, their home ground, they did poorly [in 2016]. The DA beat them to become the official opposition. It would be interesting to see whether the AIC will continue their slide or whether they will become an official opposition this time around.

“I think the DA will battle there this time around and it’s not the most ideal place for the EFF to make inroads, with all the rural areas. Although there have been challenges there, you have to favour the ANC to win big in Matatiele,” Sussman predicted. DM

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