Black, white leaders successfully join one another in running S. African city

August 21, 1994|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Johannesburg Bureau of The Sun

PORT ELIZABETH, South Africa -- The office that Necba Faku occupies in Port Elizabeth's city hall is bigger than the entire house he grew up in.

"Oh, much bigger," he tells visitors who have come to see South Africa's first black mayor.

He is the mayor because this city has dared to take on one of the most complicated challenges in the country's transition to nonracial, democratic rule.

Nelson Mandela is the country's president. A new national Parliament is dominated by members of his African National Congress. But local governments, by and large, are still run by the same white people who were running them before the April elections.

The negotiators who wrote the country's new constitution came up with an elaborate procedure for transforming local government. It was supposed to lead to elections in October.

Now, government officials concede those will not be held before next April or May, and that's at the earliest. There's a good chance the voters won't go to the local polls until 1996.

In some places, town councils dominated by members of the right-wing Conservative Party are digging in their heels.

In others, the prospect of drawing up a multiracial list of voters seems too daunting to contemplate. Various other complications and distractions have also slowed down the transition.

City is an exception

Except in Port Elizabeth, where the process is moving apace.

Political and civic organizations in the black townships chose 50 people to join the 26 elected whites and 24 members from mixed-race colored and Indian authorities.

This newly constituted 100-member Transitional Local Council chose Mr. Faku as its chairman, effectively making him the mayor. He had spent 13 of his 38 years in prison, mostly on Robben Island, South Africa's Alcatraz for political dissidents, getting out in 1990.

Though his absence from his native city for most of his adult life made Mr. Faku a political unknown, he has quickly developed a reputation as a hard-working, full-time mayor who has gone out of his way to make his presence felt in both the black and white communities.

"Well, if you look at our motto, you'll see that Port Elizabeth is known as the friendly city," Mr. Faku said of the reason his town is leading the local government pack.

Rory Riordan is a white ANC council member who heads the committee that drew up the first "One City" budget, a financial statement that, for the first time, is not just for the white parts of Port Elizabeth, but also takes in the black townships and squatter camps.

ANC stronghold

Mr. Riordan has another view of why Port Elizabeth is ahead of the curve. It's based on the fact that the region around the city, the Eastern Cape, was a stronghold of the ANC during the days of its liberation struggle, a fact that caused the government security forces to respond with brutal measures.

"There were tough times. The two sides fought each other to a standstill," Mr. Riordan said. "Both sides began to realize that there was a better way, that we had bloody well learn to work together."

Also considered crucial was a 1992 foundation-financed trip that took Port Elizabeth leaders, black and white, on a tour of cities in the United States and Europe.

Though they were officially observing local government operations, all sides agree that the most important lessons were learned after the work day, over the dinner table, around the hotel bar. These people were getting to know each other, leaping over the barriers of apartheid, a difficult task in South Africa.

Old guard manager

But all involved point to the leadership of Paul Botha, who has been town clerk, a professional city manager, in Port Elizabeth for the past 18 years.

This man who essentially runs the city on a day-to-day basis is hardly a revolutionary. The trust he had built up with the white council members allowed him to pilot them through the stormy merger waters.

"The situation has changed entirely in South Africa," he said. "There is no place for ethnically fragmented local government.

"But my motivation was not a political one, it was based on an administrative point of view. It's an unnecessary duplication to have five [apartheid-era] government bodies within the same area.

"We can effect a considerable saving by integrating those five bodies into one, and, at the same time, we will be in a much better position to address the backlog in the black area."

That is exactly what Mr. Riordan's One City budget was designed to start doing. And it does it with an honesty that was missing from the ANC's first national budget, saying right out front that whites are going to pay more in taxes and get less in services as the municipality begins to redress the imbalances of the past.

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