Behind the Kimberley protests

Wynand Boshoff writes on the events leading to the recent violence in the municipality

Kimberley has dodged a bullet - until when?

Kimberley has been in the grip of protests and threats of protests which occasionally turned violent, since the beginning of June to the end of July. And now it is over, until 22 August. As a councillor only since 2016, I learned a lot about democracy in the beloved country. The first thing is if it happens far away from the big urban centres it hardly registers. While we were worked up because of violence, vandalism and looting, people in other parts of the country did not quite notice, unless it is their field of study. 

Maybe the lessons should be interrupted for a short narrative:

Shortly after the election of 2016 it was abundantly clear that the ANC caucus in the Sol Plaatje municipality was divided in two factions: The mayor, who was Ramaphosa-aligned, and the speaker, Zuma-aligned.  With the council meeting of 28 May 2018, the budget had to be tabled, but there was also a motion of no confidence against the speaker, lodged by the ANC, and one against the mayor, by the DA. As a matter of fact, according to standing rules none could be tabled yet, but the speaker did apparently not know that.

Therefore, she adjourned the meeting just after it was opened, blaming it on a dispute regarding the public gallery. Together with all the DA-members she marched out and they were greeted outside by blue t-shirts, yellow Zuma t-shirts and the provincial leader of the DA. The municipal manager invoked a ruling of the Western Cape High Court between the Premier of that province and the Overberg municipality, and called a meeting for the 31st of May. All councillors were duly instructed. 

On 31 May 2018 the council was met with striking absences from individual ANC-members. The speaker ruled that the meeting was irregular and left, with all of the DA. Whips of the ANC, EFF, COPE, the FF Plus and an independent councillor consulted with their respective legal advisors and agreed to request the municipal manager to call a meeting again, directly afterwards. He did so, an acting speaker was elected and the budget was tabled. To my surprise, we would only vote about it; an opportunity to discuss it would follow within a few days. The DA said the meeting was unlawful and they would go to court to have the budget declared illegal. 

It was a contentious budget, we all knew that. Sol Plaatje Municipality used to have no fixed levy for electricity. Fixed costs were factored into a price per unit which, according to urban legend, made Kimberley the South African city with the most expensive electricity. Those with which it was compared had a separate fixed levy, but that did not stop the legend. When the draft budget was first presented by the end of March, that "high" unit cost would rise by nearly 6%. However, NERSA instructed Sol Plaatje to get in line with other cities and to separate fixed costs from usage. A levy of R260 was therefore added to the budget, with a substantial reduction in the unit tariff. Indigent households would be exempted from the levy. The new price structure simply did not resonate with community members, many of whom still believe it is an additional charge. 

When the council met again (without the DA) to discuss the budget, the motion of no confidence against the speaker was accepted and the one against the mayor declared to have lapsed, as the person who proposed it was absent. My own plea to keep the motions until the next ordinary council meeting when all members would be present, was rejected and I could only abstain. In any case, initiative had not been in the hands of the council anymore. 

A "community meeting" was held, which promised to march to the municipal building if the R260 was not scrapped. After that march, a clearly shaken mayor Mangaliso Matika announced that it would be "stayed" - not scrapped. (Electricity units would still be sold at the discount price.) Protestors were furious and the next, violent march followed. The heads of the municipal manager and chief financial officer were added to the demands. The two of them went on voluntary leave, but it was not enough. If he could not act, the protestors said, they would also demand the mayor's head. 

Council met again. The two officials were put on "precautionary suspension" and COGHSTA would investigate the whole matter. Protestors responded that they wanted the individuals "fired", not suspended, and would shut the whole city down once more, if the mayor did not go. 

Over the weekend of 21 and 22 July the DA attempted to collect sufficient signatures to call a council meeting on the Monday in order to remove the mayor. There were technical problems, like some signatures appearing twice, which caused the acting speaker to reject the request. The request was then shifted to Wednesday, but with the same technical problems. On Wednesday 25 July, councillors of the DA, EFF, the independent member and ANC members supporting the previous speaker gathered in the chamber, without notice to other members.

I attended a whips meeting with all the other parties' whips, to discuss a possible council meeting. The acting speaker left his office "to consult" and did not return that day. I left to eat something and on my return learned that a council meeting was held at that moment. When I entered, I was just in time to learn that the members present declared themselves to be a council meeting (as more than half were present) and replaced the mayor, the acting speaker, the acting municipal mayor and the acting chief financial officer. 

The result was two court actions: One in which the DA wanted Matika ordered out of the mayor's office, and one in which Matika wanted his removal declared void. On 31 July a settlement was reached that the two cases would be heard as one on 22 August; that Matika would vacate his office; and that the mayoral committee would not be changed in the meantime. The next "shutdown" which would have happened the next day, was cancelled. 

But this is not peace, it is a ceasefire. It all began with a R260 levy, without which Sol Plaatje won't be able to meet its obligations, and which cannot be scrapped altogether. What if it is activated? What if we learn that the two officials did nothing wrong and cannot be fired? Will the court see any difference between a meeting in which a majority of councillors asked the municipal manager to call on minutes notice after the scheduled meeting failed to happen on the one hand, and an unannounced meeting which a majority of councillors called by themselves, after being frustrated by the acting speaker? What if the ANC act against their council members who defied party discipline? 

Back to the lessons: apparently any alliance can be formed if there is a common enemy and sufficient fear. In addition, a speaker should be selected for competence, not to appease a minority faction of the ruling party. Also, if one disagrees with violent protestors, one calls them "a mob', but if one agrees with them, one calls them "legitimately unsatisfied community members"; but if you let them dictate council decisions, that may never stop. 

Nobody should try to predict the outcome of a court action; but of one thing I am sure: When the judge makes a ruling on 22 August or shortly afterwards, some powerful groups will be dissatisfied. What happens then, will be a decisive test for South African democracy. 

Wynand Boshoff is provincial leader of the Freedom Front Plus in the Northern Cape.