Tuesday, February 28, 2006


Mbeki woos voters as polls loom.

President Mbeki is making an effort to present a friendly face to voters. This week's municipal elections in South Africa are being seen a test of whether the governing ANC has managed to live up to public expectations. BBC southern Africa correspondent Peter Biles went on the campaign trail with President Thabo Mbeki.

It is rare for ordinary South Africans to get a visit from their president. However, on the election campaign trail, Thabo Mbeki moves effortlessly from house to house through Soshanguve, a township half an hour's drive north of the capital, Pretoria. He wears a t-shirt emblazoned with the slogan "Vote ANC", and stops every few metres to greet, embrace and dance with the residents who have turned out to welcome him. There is no doubting both the warm reception here and the loyal support for the ANC, but there is also frustration and some anger about the government's record on "service delivery". Soshanguve is one township that has seen violent protests of late. Joyce Matjeke, 69, will definitely vote for the ANC in the local elections. "We are not going anywhere else", she insists. But she also wants President Mbeki to hear her concerns about increased rents and rates.

Can you afford the rent?

"I owe 3,000 rand ($500). Where am I going to find that money?" she asks. "The rent has been put up and up. We pay for this and that. Sometimes, I don't know what we're paying for. Please do us a favour. "Think about the rents. The children here don't work. The boys have got no jobs". Making his way down the street, President Mbeki stops to talk to Nathaniel Sibiya, 35. He wants the government to provide young people with more information about jobs and training opportunities. "We are willing to go and help our communities. But we don't know where to go, and who to consult," he tells the president. Mr Mbeki assures him that the government will work on setting up youth information centres. "And I'm going on pension next year, so you will need to take over," jokes the president.

Mr Sibiya says he is reassured by what Mr Mbeki has had to say. "As the president, he knows very well what the country needs at this moment. South Africa needs people who can take this country forward." The no-go area means it's difficult for the ANC to campaign there. But it's that much harder for opposition parties to campaign as well Ebrahim FakirCentre for Policy Studies. Mr Sibiya makes it clear that he too will be voting for the ANC in the municipal elections, and proudly displays the autograph signed on his t-shirt by Thabo Mbeki. During a short break between the house visits, I asked President Mbeki what lessons he has learnt from listening to the views of the people during this election campaign. "The principal thing is that we did not assist local government to get the capacity it needs, given the expectations that are put on the shoulders of local government. "This is where everything happens, whether it's water, electricity or roads. We said local government must deliver on these things, but when you look at the capacity of local councils to do this, many of them can't. "I am sure you will see from the election results that the ANC continues to enjoy the support it has in the past. But people expect 'more and faster'. "I am sure we can deliver 'more and faster', provided we attend to this matter of local government capacity," Mr Mbeki says.

The presidential visit to Soshanguve passed off without a hitch, but to the west of here, the township of Khutsong has become almost a no-go area for the ANC in the past few weeks. Loyalty to the ANC runs deep here, though many are dissatisfied with public servicesResidents have been protesting about government plans to change provincial boundaries - the protests have turned violent on several occasions. "This is proving quite a serious problem for the ANC," says Ebrahim Fakir of the Centre for Policy Studies, a political think-tank. "The ANC has had to send its national chairperson Mosiuoa Lekota to the area to calm things down, but it is still a very volatile situation. "The no-go area means it's difficult for the ANC to campaign there. But it's that much harder for opposition parties to campaign as well." Khutsong and other restive areas will be an important barometer. The ANC has promised much - clean water to all households by 2010 and electricity by 2012.

In a country as big as South Africa, that is why these local elections matter more than most.



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