S. Africa’s Black Councils Face Doom

<i> Thami Mazwai is the news editor at the Sowetan, South Africa's largest black newspaper. </i>

When the South African government introduced a system of local black governments in 1971 to administer the townships, it maintained that this was a new deal for blacks who lived outside the homelands.

Before this proposal, the country’s black population had been granted political rights only in the homelands--the bleak rural tracts in which blacks are dumped far from white South Africa. Blacks outside the homelands live in townships adjacent to white cities. This latter group--the blacks who lived and worked in so-called white South Africa--were regarded as temporary sojourners who could not expect to be granted political rights in a country where they worked but were not citizens.

Thus, when the government said that it would allow blacks the right to manage their own affairs, many observers saw this as a welcome change. But over the years township residents have become disillusioned with the local government system and now regard its members as simply opportunistic oppressors of the same color. In 1984, when the local governments proposed drastic rent increases, it was the final straw and violent protests spread throughout the country. By March of this year more than 250 of the roughly 600 members of black town councils had resigned. Five were killed. During the past 10 days five more council members have announced their resignations, citing family or community pressures.


White liberal organizations here and commentators overseas were taken aback when blacks began pressuring council members to quit. They expected us to preserve these institutions in order to elect worthy leaders who would use the councils as a means to force more change from the white government. This did not happen for many reasons, but those that follow are the most important.

Since 1971 the scope of the black councils gradually increased, but they still were not “for the people” or “by the people.” Township residents had no say in their structure. The white government’s concept of black local government differed from the communities’ view. The councils, which oversee the provision of local services, have no real power. Even the members saw themselves as apolitical and elected merely to attend to civic matters. The members voiced opposition to apartheid while telling the people that they were going along with the system in an effort to make the best of a bad situation.

The black community rejected this approach because it believed that council members should be a part of the liberation movement. But, since the councils were imposed by Pretoria, how could they serve the interests of the community? The government certainly was not about to introduce a local black government that would be a threat.

Township residents believe that the councils should be based on the principle of one man, one vote in one municipal entity--not separate from the local white government.

The councils also failed because they were part of apartheid’s grand plan. These councils were created because the government wanted to streamline the administration of blacks throughout the country and make it part of the homelands policy. The councils also were an attempt to quell the growing freedom movement that was being fueled by the success of liberation struggles in Angola, Mozambique and Zimbabwe.

Thus the motives behind the so-called local authority by blacks clashed with the ideals of popular people’s organizations such as the African National Congress and the Pan Africanist Congress. In addition, leaders such as Bishop Desmond M. Tutu and Allan Boesak rejected the black councils.

The death knell for the council system came when the corrupt began to see it as an opportunity to line their pockets. As people of good conscience began to shun the councils, their seats often fell to candidates who won simply because they were unopposed. Once in office, many of them immediately approved lucrative business deals for themselves. Some of them even evicted widows and pensioners from publicly owned houses for the poor and sold the dwellings to friends and relatives. Since these incompetent and corrupt council members were not perceptive of the communities’ needs, they also announced rent increases with impunity.

Rent increases by unscrupulous politicians were just the spark that was needed to infuriate the masses. Thus, when the townships erupted, council members were the obvious targets. Many overseas observers were shocked when council members were murdered and their houses bombed. But how would these observers react if they and their leaders had been harassed, jailed, assaulted and killed by the system while some members of their community made a profit from such abuses by collaborating with the oppressor?

It is a lesson of history that collaborators and puppets usually are first in the firing line because they are the closest to the oppressed, and it takes time to get to the true oppressors. The black community wants its people to abandon the councils, thereby forcing the system’s collapse. The naive and corrupt must realize that while they cannot be forced to join the struggle they will not be allowed to hinder it.