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Q&A | Councils may work better if there’s no majority party – Malatji

Mangaung Ward 19 independent councillor Tshiamo Malatji believes political parties should not get more than 50 percent of the seats in municipal councils. He doesn’t want one party to be making all the decisions. Malatji believes coalitions tied to particular programmes could be more effective as political parties will be bound to work with others, including independent councillors, in order to implement important projects.  

What motivated you to stand as an independent?

If you look at what’s going on in our community, there are people who don’t have shelter, who can’t pay rent and others who don’t even have access to food. People are losing their jobs . . . all around people are suffering. That means local government has to step in and make sure that people who are suffering don’t suffer. It should make sure that people have their basic needs, particularly municipal services, and that local industries are supported. We didn’t see that when COVID-19 hit. Instead, we saw a government that looked after its own. I have worked with community organisations and activists. We are trying to keep the community up. I’m involved in a soup kitchen that that feeds homeless people every day. We have to fight evictions for people who can no longer afford rent. We have also seen that there are municipal resources that aren’t being used such as abandoned buildings and vacant land. These could help people like informal traders and homeless individuals. So, we feel that the community work we are doing . . . should be matched by local government and that’s why I’m contesting.

As a resident of Mangaung, when you saw these discrepancies, did you try to reach out to the municipality and what response did you get?  

We once tried to work with the councillor of Ward 19 a couple of years ago. There was no response. We also tried to apply for licences for informal traders. Sometimes you can’t even find people in the offices where you are supposed to submit the applications. You just have a municipality that you cannot find and cannot reach. More importantly, we shouldn’t even reach out to the municipality. They should be on the ground every day to see what issues people are experiencing and be proactive in solving them.   

How has it been for you to campaign as an independent candidate? Do you have adequate resources to get your message across?

We don’t have a lot of funding, secret donors or organisations funding us. What we have instead is a community. We go around asking members of the community to make small donations . . . and together we were able to pay for posters and other material. We also knock on doors and walk around the city, just talking to people. We are doing this heavy ground work to make sure we reach people as far and as wide as we can. We also have social media. But I think the most important thing is that we ask people to also share the word. That’s how the message is spreading.

And how do you compare with candidates coming from well-resourced organisations? Are people taking you seriously?

I don’t think the problem is that we spend less than any other party. It doesn’t mean we don’t have as much reach. Most of these political parties are well known. They have been contesting in elections for a while. They already have supporters who vote for them by default. There are still many people who might not even know that there are independent candidates running in this election. Some don’t even know independent candidates can run. So, what the big parties have is an existence for such a long time and they have already reached people. I don’t think the problem is . . . when you approach people, they will say you guys are too small, so we will vote for a bigger party. Voters care about their interests, their communities. We don’t even see them as voters, we see them as community members. As long as you talk about bread-and-butter issues with them, they will support you. So, it’s not really about how much resources we have, but about how much time we have. We had very little time to campaign . . . and reach the registered voters.

What are you promising people if voted into council?

Our message is: ‘a community for everyone’. We have already launched a food garden project and a soup kitchen to help address the issue of hunger. You look around and find abandoned buildings, you try and lobby to get them fixed so they can be used by informal traders and youth entrepreneurs so they can create their own market places. We want entrepreneurs to create their own markets. We also try and push for common resources. Let’s say we have a lot of young people who are all making clothes. We are all going to use stitching machines, for example. So, we can have one building where the stitching and other machines will be located so that all the young entrepreneurs can use these common resources and make clothes. Each person doesn’t have to invest in that themselves. That happens through cooperation. The same can be done with arts markets so that everyone benefits. So, it’s not about the promises we are making to people, it’s more about showing communities what we are already doing and say let’s increase the scale of this.

Most residents are complaining about service delivery in Mangaung. Do you see yourself having an impact in addressing this, given that you will be working as an independent councillor, if elected?

There are three key things: first, whenever there is a situation in your ward, most people don’t even know who to contact because they don’t know who the ward councillor is. A lot of issues go unreported, unaddressed and unresolved. So, you need a ward councillor that’s going to be in the community, working with the people, checking for issues and making sure they get reported. We have an underreporting of issues. Second, you have a ward councillor who doesn’t pressure the council to fix things like stormwater drains, ensure refuse is collected and get the street lights fixed. Third, some ward councillors don’t use the power they have in order to get things done for their community. You don’t have to belong to a political party and command a majority. One needs to think creatively sometimes. As an independent, you have the same power that all the other councillors have.

The outgoing councillors have often argued that some of the complaints reported by residents were hardly addressed on time and in some cases nothing was done, resulting in their community members thinking they are not doing their work. How will you manage that?

I worked in a ward committee for the past five years. I have seen what happens and you are right . . . there are particular service providers that have to address particular issues. It’s not only one person that has to address municipal problems. Like I said earlier, a lot of problems don’t get resolved simply because they are not reported. Some are reported but don’t get resolved. But I have seen some strengths of ward committees. If you really harmer Centlec, for example, you eventually get a get response . . . it’s all about being persistent and consistent. It’s about pushing. I think the most important thing to consider is that I’m not a show person. If a community comes together and says we have been fighting to get this road fixed or the street lights and nothing happened, will call the entire community and go to the Bram Fischer Building and demand that the council and particular unit address the people. I’ll be at the forefront. Right now, communities protest without the councillor. I will be joining them.

What gives you the conviction that you will get the support of the people?

Many of the issues that our communities face are not just about street lights and roads, it’s about bread and butter issues. People don’t have a place to stay, they don’t have food to eat, they don’t have jobs. There are many issues. But some of them can be solved by having just one person – a councillor who cares. We have seen how NGOs and other community organisations have been able to reduce homelessness, hunger and other serious issues that people face. These are simply people doing work that government should be doing. Now, imagine how much you can achieve if you commit to do the same while in council. Each ward should develop its own ward plan as part of the IDP (Integrated Development Plan). That process allocates funding for ward-based projects. So, a council cannot decide to ignore certain wards because there will non-compliance with legislation. Yes, I may be one person seeking to represent the people as an independent councillor, but there is legislation protecting that ward to make the interests of that community are represented. I’m just going to be a proxy for the entire community in council.

How worried are you about the bigger political parties in this election?

Actually, it’s good that I only have one seat. Political parties are constantly thinking about how they can have more seats in the next election. They are constantly thinking about how to grow and get more power. The independent candidate doesn’t think about becoming a mayor or more power. They can only get one seat.

What’s your plan for job creation given the high unemployment rate in the city?

The situation is quite disturbing. I’m seeing small businesses closing down everywhere, yet Ward 19 is one of the most resourced wards in the entire municipality. We have got government offices, the library, the stadium, Hoffman Square, big malls, the museum and more. It’s meant to be the ward that people go to find opportunities but it’s not happening. There are two reasons for this: first, government resources aren’t going towards helping people. Sometimes government resources are diverted for personal use or those in charge choose only their friends and not help the rest. Second, we have seen large businesses . . . are not creating jobs for people in the area. Their major interest is to make as much money for themselves as they can. McDonald’s in town now has the self-service stations. They are not hiring people. They have seen that they can make more money using machines than hiring people. Government should start investing in people who actually care about their communities such as local people with small businesses. The large multinationals are thriving but they are not investing in local people. If local businesses are supported, they have the potential to buy from each other and create a circular solidarity economy. That’s what kick-starts your economy.

Would consider going into a kind of coalition or partnership with any pollical party?

I believe a council is meant to be a coalition. It’s not meant to be an instance where one party decides everything. We’re meant to all work together. That’s why it’s important that no political party gets above 50 percent. I want more coalitions. I want more working together. If any political party wants to unlock abandoned buildings in order to house informal markets, I will support that. If they want to grow food or open up a youth centre, I’ll support that. Basically, I’m going to support any programme that is going to support anyone in the ward, regardless which party brings it up.

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