Soweto will have to break an old habit in a new South Africa: rebellion

SOWETO, South Africa

June 11, 1993|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Johannesburg Bureau

SOWETO, South Africa -- Almost a decade ago, the African National Congress called for townships like this one to become "ungovernable" as part of the fight against apartheid.

Now that it is on the verge of taking power in the country's first one-man, one-vote elections, which should take place early next year, the question is whether the ANC can make them governable again.

The ANC's control over the townships was called into question again recently when black students called for a boycott of classes over examination fees and then black teachers threatened a strike over salaries.

Requests from top-level ANC officials to avoid yet another interruption in black education were ignored. Only a last-minute meeting between Mr. Mandela and South Africa's President F. ** W. de Klerk resulted in an agreement that averted the crisis.

"These days, the ANC is literally beginning to run behind the people," said Tokyo Sexwale, leader of the ANC in the Johannesburg area. "The students march, and we have to run to put ourselves in front of them.

"We want our people to remain ungovernable now," he said. "Otherwise, you are in a situation where you are in cahoots with your own oppressor while you are trying to be free.

But we do have a responsibility to push ungovernability to a level where we can switch it off. When we have a new constitution, then we can say to our people, 'It's your government now.' "

Symbolic suburb

"Soweto" is an amalgam of Southwest Townships, a huge suburb whose row after row of boxlike houses contain 3 million black people, settled in this segregated bedroom community during the apartheid era so they could work in Johannesburg.

Its name became synonymous with the face of apartheid and the resistance to it.

A key part of that campaign for ungovernability was a boycott of payments for rents and services. Most people in Soweto have not made these payments since 1984.

The rents and services fees used to be paid to a Soweto civic governing organization appointed by the country's white rulers. There are plans to integrate Soweto politically into Johannesburg, but those are contingent on settling the payments boycott.

But several attempts made at ending the boycott since the ANC was legalized in 1990 and since negotiations opened on a new government have ended in failure. Another is under way as many ask if the people of Soweto have gotten so used to not paying that many will never pay again, even if Nelson Mandela is the country's president.

"These are the types of matters we like to leave up to the local jurisdictions," said Carl Niehaus, a spokesman for the ANC.

But in Soweto, most seemed to feel that people will only pay when they are getting democracy, and paved roads, in return.

Norman Ngweolozeni is trying to negotiate an end to the boycott for the Soweto Civic Association. "The rent boycott was about the delivery of services," he said. "It's not a question of people having a culture of nonpayment. They just wanted the services to be delivered."

On a dusty, bumpy Soweto street, Sebasto Selepe, a media officer for the ANC Youth League, explained how the brakes would eventually be put on the boycott.

"People are not going to start paying their rents automatically. We have to go block by block and show them the need to pay for services," he said. "Before, they might have thought their money was going out of the country. Now we have to go back to the people and teach them why they should pay, how they will benefit from the money."

Demand for change

Interviews with several Soweto residents revealed a nearly unanimous opinion -- the people will pay their rents when the money goes to a government they get to vote into office, and, presumably, vote out if they don't deliver the goods.

The goods they have in mind are not extravagant items, but things such as paved roads and repaired toilets, working sewers and trash removal, and better police.

Pat Ncanyiwe put it succinctly. "Why should we pay money to a government that's going to oppress us?"

The 33-year-old bounced his 1-year-old son on his knee and drank beer in the kitchen of his neighbor in the Orlando section of Soweto.

"What you have to understand is that, unlike in the United States, people didn't have the right to express themselves here," Mr. Ncanyiwe said. "The rent boycott was a tactic, a way of expressing ourselves. When we can vote, we will have a better way of expressing ourselves, so we won't need it anymore."

Barbara Theine, a 33-year-old mother of three, echoes the words of many Sowetans when she complains about the dusty dirt roads that turn to mud in the rain, the trash that piles up across from her house.

Catherine Mathibe also said the lack of services led to support for the boycott, talking about how when her toilet breaks, repairs are so slow that she ends up paying to fix it herself. Like many, she said the people would first want to see services improved before resuming payments. But again, her view went beyond the township.

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