2021 LOCAL ELECTIONS: PRINCE ALBERT
Ground Level Report: The battle for a seemingly perfect Karoo municipality
The municipality of Prince Albert has never seen a service delivery protest. Crime is almost non-existent. The municipality is one of a rare few to receive a clean audit. It’s a place where neither the ANC nor the DA hold ultimate political power – and the local government elections are likely to be the most contested yet.
Erica Pienaar has one of eight permanent jobs in the village of Klaarstroom in the Great Karoo.
“There’s five permanent workers for the municipality. One for the guesthouse. Two for the hotel,” she says, counting them off on her fingers.
Of the three towns that make up the municipality of Prince Albert – Prince Albert, Leeu-Gamka and Klaarstroom – this is the smallest.
Pienaar (36) is lucky in more ways than one. Not only does she have work, but her job in the municipal library comes with air conditioning – no trivial matter in an area where temperatures routinely surpass 40°C. There is no swimming pool for locals. To cool off, says Pienaar, “We must go there by Meiringspoort to swim by the waterfall.”
On a blisteringly hot day in Klaarstroom recently, almost every resident to be seen was wearing orange overalls and engaging in some form of manual labour: sweeping, shovelling, or wheeling construction materials around. It gave the village the strange air of a prison colony, but the orange overalls are the trademark of the government’s Community Work Programme (CWP), which together with the Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP) provides low-paid, temporary work contracts that seem in no small measure to be keeping places like Klaarstroom alive.
Residents essentially take it in turns to be given these jobs. Juwayne Arries (24) had finished his work on a CWP contract to pave a local road two weeks earlier. Now, on a Wednesday morning, he sat in the shade of a stoep playing dominoes with a friend. He said he always wins.
“In December I’ll go work on a farm cutting onions and carrots,” Arries said.
His big dream was one of the sought-after jobs in the local municipality, but he said his chances were minimal, because “they’re all political appointments”.
In the nearby town of Prince Albert there is more tourism and potentially more opportunities. But Klaarstroom residents laughed and shook their heads when asked if they would move there, as if emigration to a foreign country was being suggested.
“They have their way to do things, and we have our way,” was how Pienaar put it.
A visit to this part of the Great Karoo is – like so many places in South Africa – an exercise in contrasts. The mainly coloured, Afrikaans-speaking locals eke out livelihoods through piece-work on the farms or the temporary government infrastructure contracts, with some absorbed by the growing tourism demands on Prince Albert. Their dusty townships abut the wealthier areas where whites own increasingly expensive real estate, a substantial portion of which serves as holiday homes.
The apartheid spatial planning which dogs South African cities is still preserved here, in less visible ways: Prince Albert’s “lei water” system, which channels water from the Swartberg Mountain to the town in shallow canals alongside the road, ensures that the gardens of the south end are kept lush but stops short of the township, known as North End.
Yet, despite this unevenness of resources, things are peaceful here. Prince Albert Mayor Goliath Lottering told us that within living memory, the town had never had a service delivery protest.
“We don’t do crime,” said another resident.
The municipality received a clean audit for the 2019/2020 financial year. The scenery is heart-stirringly beautiful; the sky unimaginably wide. Extraordinarily for this drought-stricken part of the country, there is even enough water, thanks to the nearby mountains and some savvy projects – for now.
But even here, politics intrude. With only a couple of weeks remaining until the 2021 local government elections, the battle is well and truly on.
Goliath Lottering is a big man who exudes unflappable confidence and a sharp intelligence. For two consecutive local government elections, he has emerged as the single most important political figure in Prince Albert Municipality. A former teacher at Prince Albert Primary School, Lottering founded a political party in 2010 called the Karoo Gemeenskap Party (KGP) which has performed well enough in the last two elections to serve as kingmaker in the municipality and win Lottering the title of mayor.
“People trust us,” Lottering said simply.
KGP’s success is, to an outsider, slightly mystifying. The party is not erecting a single poster before the November elections; Lottering says there’s no money, and what little funding there is would be better spent on poor families.
“We are not a poster party. We are not a T-shirt party. We are not a party for social media. We are not a party that only visits you a month before elections,” he said.
“We do things in the community where people can feel us.”
Canvassing local residents for their views of Lottering, people were polite but reserved.
“He is a good man but he has his faults, like all of us,” one said. Another commented that he appreciated Lottering’s passion for community sporting projects.
Indeed, politeness appears so ingrained in this part of the Karoo that even Lottering’s political opponents could not be drawn into harsh criticism on record. This is despite the fact that in July 2020 Lottering committed one of the ultimate acts of political treachery.
After the 2016 elections, the DA had three of the seven council seats, with the ANC and Lottering’s KGP taking two seats each. Lottering went into coalition with the DA – and for four years, this appeared to be that rare South African example of a municipal coalition that works well.
“We seemed to sing from the same hymn sheet, and things were stable,” the DA Deputy Mayor Linda Jaquet said.
But in July 2020 Lottering broke the coalition with the DA and hopped into bed with the ANC – a choice the mayor is unapologetic about.
“We struggled to get funding from national government [in a DA coalition],” he claimed. “We realised that to work with the DA in the Western Cape you only receive funding from the provincial government. With the ANC, we could do more for our people.”
Jaquet says this reasoning is news to her, because Lottering never gave the DA an official reason for breaking the coalition. Neither did he follow the steps supposed to be followed ahead of this drastic step, which involves mediation. Jaquet also pooh-poohs Lottering’s suggestion that the national government was withholding funds to a DA municipality.
“We get [infrastructure grants from the national government] irrespective of who is in charge; it just has to be in previously disadvantaged areas,” she says.
Asked if she thought the average Prince Albert resident would have noticed any difference on the ground after the DA was kicked out of the coalition, Jacquet paused – and, with remarkable candour for a politician, replied: “Probably not.”
To Jaquet, though, there is potential trouble afoot if the DA is kept out of the municipality after the elections.
“The town is a little scruffier than it used to be; the roads are a little worse. Mostly, we are worried about the financial sustainability of the municipality.” She says there is a skills shortage throughout the municipality, and poor planning for large capital projects.
Lottering, for his part, makes no secret of the fact that if the KGP is once again in a kingmaker position after the elections, the party will opt again for a coalition with the ANC.
As dusk falls in the township of North End on an evening in mid-October, small groups of political campaigners walk the streets, canvassing door to door.
There will be 12 parties on the ballot here on 1 November. A few are established political animals with a national footprint: the DA, the ANC, the Good party, the Patriotic Alliance. The rest are small local parties, the majority of which – like Lottering’s KGP – have no aspirations of political power outside this municipality.
In recent weeks, purple posters have gone up in the townships of Klaarstroom, Prince Albert and Leeu-Gamka, advertising the newly formed United Community Front (UCF).
“We don’t like the term ‘party’. It’s a movement,” said North End ward councillor candidate Attieen Arendse, who previously served in local government alongside Lottering but left for reasons which he implied were largely Lottering-related but on which he refused to elaborate out of courtesy.
The small group of UCF activists said they had something that no other party could match: a tangible pledge of the most desirable commodity in the Karoo – jobs. One pulled out a cellphone to show a promotional video for a recycling plant which, they said, could be built in Prince Albert by a private investor if only the current politicians would get out of the way. It would provide 1,000 permanent jobs, they said, and this was the offer they were taking door to door.
Around the corner, a group of ANC campaigners were erecting street posters with the help of a ladder. Candidate Marius Hanse was every bit the polished politician, announcing: “It is time that the ANC claimed back some of our small municipalities.”
In contrast to the UCF, Hanse said the ANC would not promise jobs. Instead, they would point to the legacy of Nelson Mandela that had been fulfilled: the number of free schools built, the growing levels of literacy.
Asked if it was easier to campaign for the ANC under the presidency of Cyril Ramaphosa than the previous administration, Hanse and his fellow activists laughed in wry agreement.
“With Cyril it is a lot easier for us as candidates,” Hanse said. “[With Zuma,] the voter wanted to know a lot: Why is this happening in government? Cyril has given us a head start over the opposition.”
Earlier, another ANC campaigner had handed us a sheet of paper containing proposed talking points for party activists canvassing prospective voters. Its message was quite simple: the EPWP and CWP projects on which so many Karoo residents depend is the work of the ANC government. It was thanks to the ANC government that EPWP and CWP workers continued to be paid their stipends during the hard lockdown. The current R350 Covid hardship grant comes from the ANC government. The social grants come from the ANC government.
Back in Klaarstroom, local hotel owner Salome Steenkamp announced: “Any time of the day is Gin O’Clock!”
Even in this little-known village, tourism is booming as weary city-dwellers seek out peace and quiet. Her hotel had been fully booked the night before, Steenkamp said.
She estimated that of the houses in the “white” area, only seven were the homes of permanent residents. The rest were holiday homes.
Steenkamp disagreed that there was little work available for township residents.
“There’s a lot of work. They just don’t want to do it,” she said. “There’s a lot of labour-intensive farming around here, but they work two days and say it’s too hard.”
This claim was strenuously denied by other Klaarstroom locals, but Steenkamp was not to be swayed, saying: “I know, I work with them a lot.”
She pointed to a stitched tapestry on the wall, saying that she runs workshops for local women to learn free-stitching and mosaics.
“Everyone tries to help them,” she shrugged.
The idea that the wealthier residents of this community are more engaged with the plight of the township than in many other South African areas was reiterated by several (white) people.
Prince Albert stalwart Denise Ohlson, who has been running her estate agency in the town for 30 years, says that she tells prospective property-buyers: “You’re not just buying here; you’re buying in North End too. I take them to the township and show them it and tell them they must get involved in helping North End.”
The property boom in Prince Albert has seen houses sell for eye-watering prices. Ohlson says one home, advertised recently on Property24, sold within 19 hours, unseen.
“There’s not enough houses in Prince Albert [to meet the demand]. For the first time in my life I will have to go and knock on doors and ask people if they want to sell, at my age.”
She describes Prince Albert as having become a “Zoom town”: a place where people now come to live and work remotely, with the Covid-19 lockdown having spurred an awareness that such arrangements are now possible.
Ohlson made no secret of her political affiliation. “After the elections, we hope it will stay a DA ward and keep getting clean audits.”
The DA’s Jaquet said the major problem with mounting a political campaign in a place like Prince Albert is the vast difference in needs between the “different sectors” – the rich white residents and the poor township residents.
For the township, said Jaquet, the hot-button issue of these elections is jobs.
“They want a municipality where there’s no favouritism in terms of jobs, and they don’t just want EPWP, they want proper jobs,” she said.
For the white residents, meanwhile: “People want things to work properly, and for the town to be crime-free.”
Whatever result is delivered by the elections of November 1, one thing is certain: political contenders will shake hands on it politely.
“We are only seven councillors, and we all need to work together in the best interests of the people of the area,” said Mayor Lottering.
Gesturing around at the Swartberg mountains, the church spire, and the broad, quiet road, Lottering added: “We are blessed in Prince Albert.” DM
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