Turning A `Culture Of Protest'...Into Black Led Local Democracy

Chris Ngcobo first fanned civil disobedience as a 13-year-old, handing out banned antiapartheid pamphlets in the angry black township of Soweto. As a teenager, he saw his family's three-room house torn apart by white police looking for weapons and lost two older brothers to South African army raids on their African National Congress guerrilla units. By his 20s, Ngcobo had been expelled from the University of Fort Hare and, in 1986, sentenced to prison for leading municipal rent boycotts in the mass action campaign that became the ANC's unstoppable weapon against white minority rule. "We created a situation of ungovernability," he says. "We did not know that at some time we would have to fight this ourselves."

Now, the 33-year-old Ngcobo leads a high-profile drive to reverse the "culture of protest," to convince the black majority that with Nelson Mandela as President, they should pay their electric bills, return to school, and work with the government. The campaign is called Masakhane, a Nguni word meaning "Let us build each other." It's creating a partnership between residents and the municipal governments long despised as the corrupt source of squalid housing, schools without textbooks, and bucket outhouses.

FRONT LINE. While coaxing people to pay up is crucial to the Masakhane mission--1994 rent arrears in black areas totaled $230 million, a devastating drag on development plans--so is rebuilding local administrations so disorganized that 55% of township residents weren't even getting bills, let alone services worth paying for.

Masakhane, given an $8.4 million 1995 budget, started in February with a massive advertising campaign in South Africa's 11 official languages. "With freedom come responsibilities," reminds Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu in one ad. Ngcobo's organizers are opening bottlenecks that keep people from paying--such as collection stations that don't open before work--and struggling to spread the First World services formerly reserved for all-white neighborhoods.

On the front line are the four Masakhane road shows that roam the country making 32 stops a week in places such as Sharpeville, a coal-smoke-gray township where a 1960 police massacre of black protesters left 69 dead. Today, only about 5% of Sharpeville rents are paid. From atop a truck, in neighborhood slang, the Masakhane troupe delivers its message with a mix of exhortation, dance competitions, and T-shirt prizes. "The challenge starts now," chants Tumelo Moloko, an oft-arrested former student activist. Emily Mogatla, who works as a maid and shares a shack with her four children, is willing to pay if her neighbors do, too. "But it will take more than this show to get people to pay," she says. "There are still a lot of things that need to be fixed."

So far, the Masakhane campaign relies mostly on persuasion. The electric utility Eskom started cutting service for unpaid bills in Soweto after undertaking a widely praised program to upgrade power supplies, but there have been no evictions or water shutoffs. In the infamously violent Johannesburg township of Tembisa, payments for local services increased from 32% in February to 51% in April. A survey showed three-quarters of black adults know about Masakhane, and there's no political opposition.

On Nov. 1, South Africans will vote for mayors and councils, the final phase of the legitimization of the government that started with the first all-race national elections in April, 1994. Political bickering may delay the ballot in some areas, but about 1,000 separate white and black towns created by apartheid have been combined into new municipalities in preparation for the vote, and virtually all will be black-led afterwards.

"This is very important for real change," says Mohammed Valli Moosa, deputy minister for provincial affairs. With the credential of democratic selection, the new governments will make tough decisions about redistributing municipal resources, some of which are going to have to come from the white suburbs. Black voters are expecting paved roads and trash collection. Masakhane, says Moosa, who shared a prison block with Ngcobo, "is about what it means to have your own government." And about paying for it.

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