One of South Africa’s last black mayors with political credibility in his own community resigned Tuesday, dealing a severe blow to the controversial system of local self-government and to hopes that it would produce moderate black leaders.
The Rev. Sam Buti, mayor of Alexandra, a black township on the northern edge of Johannesburg, resigned along with the three remaining members of his town council, saying they could no longer withstand community pressure to quit a system that most blacks reject as helping to underpin apartheid.
“There is no point in going on,” Buti said. “The people do not understand our aims and objectives to build Alexandra into a model city. We don’t have their support any longer. To continue would divide our community in Alex even more deeply than it is now.
‘Cannot Risk Our Lives’
“I have also been harassed and attacked, my home was destroyed by a firebomb last year and my family has been threatened. We have consequently reached the decision--an agonizing decision for us--that we cannot risk our lives any more, with less and less hope of accomplishing anything worthwhile for the community.”
Rioting broke out in Alexandra late Tuesday as migrant workers living in hostels fought with militant youths enforcing a two-day-old boycott of white merchants--and of stores owned by Buti and other town council members--to support calls for the withdrawal of troops from the townships as well as other community demands.
As many as five people may have been killed in the fighting, according to residents, but police headquarters in the capital of Pretoria could not confirm this report. Gunshots echoed across the ghetto for more than an hour. Half a dozen houses were set on fire, burning to the ground, residents said. More than 30 cars were also burned.
Authorities Called In
Police and troops surrounded Alexandra to prevent the fighting from spreading to nearby white residential, commercial and industrial areas, and Red Cross workers entered the township to remove the injured. In February, at least 23 people were killed in six days of rioting there.
The resignations of Buti and the last three councilmen leave Alexandra without a mayor or town council, and many senior municipal employees and policemen are also quitting under mounting black pressure. White administrators will probably be installed to manage the impoverished ghetto of about 100,000.
Effective political power, however, has already flowed to the Alexandra Civic Assn. and to the township’s rapidly growing network of street committees.
Over the last year, about half of the country’s 600 black mayors and town council members have resigned under pressure from the black community, and at least five have been killed. Most of the 42 town councils no longer have sufficient numbers for a quorum, and many of the community councils in smaller townships have ceased to function entirely. However, the Soweto City Council, governing the sprawling black satellite township outside Johannesburg, remains.
Additional Powers Granted
The South African government announced plans last week to give local black authorities more powers and greater revenues, meeting criticism that, aside from managing trash collection and collecting rents and utility bills, they were powerless and penniless.
The central government is also proceeding with legislation establishing a national council, on which urban blacks would get substantial representation in proposed discussions of a new constitution for South Africa.
Buti’s resignation, however, is likely to lead many other black mayors and town council members to quit, thus frustrating Pretoria’s plans to build a new constitutional system based in part on black local governments. As one black political commentator remarked Tuesday, “If Buti could not make the council system work, then no one can.”
Buti, 51, a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church, was one of South Africa’s few black mayors able to claim popular support as a longtime anti-apartheid activist when he was elected three years ago.
He had led a long fight to save Alexandra from government bulldozers that would have removed a troublesome “black spot” from Johannesburg’s affluent suburbs and forced its residents’ resettlement. He also established himself as an uncompromising apartheid opponent as president of the South African Council of Churches.
‘Not a Collaborator’
“I was elected as a protest candidate, not as a collaborator of apartheid,” he said. “Anyone who knows me knows that I have not sold out my community.”
Nevertheless, his readiness to work within a system of black local governments gave Pretoria hope that moderate black leaders were emerging with whom it could negotiate a series of reform measures, including the limited sharing of political power. Such a system, the white government believed, might satisfy black demands while leaving the white minority in control.
Despite repeated calls on him over the last year and a half to resign, Buti had resisted, insisting that the black township government could be used to advantage and that it did not undermine the struggle to end apartheid. Buti was also one of the few black leaders who continued talking to Pretoria about its reform program.
He lost his remaining support in Alexandra during the six days of rioting there in February.