PARTIES SQUARE UP IN ‘BROKE’ PORT ELIZABETH: BUSINESS DAY

ANC faces a combined opposition challenge in this town in its heartland, writes Sam Mkokeli

THE contest for the Nelson Mandela metropolitan municipality is in full swing, and this time it is about more than just the control of the municipal coffers.

Port Elizabeth is an important part of the African National Congress’s (ANC’s) struggle against apartheid. The Eastern Cape was home to many of the party’s luminaries, including Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki .

Govan Mbeki, the former president’s father, is buried there. Oom Gov, a revered communist and Rivonia trialist, was laid to rest at a cemetery in Zwide township, alongside another ANC stalwart, Raymond Mhlaba.

Yet in the build-up to the May 18 local government elections, the ANC looks vulnerable in this city.

Businessman Mkhuseli Jack, a firebrand of the 1976 generation, says the ANC’s struggle history is at stake. In his youth, Mr Jack led a successful consumer boycott in Port Elizabeth, together with other youth leaders of his time.

While Mr Jack was one of the foremost leaders of the ANC before 1994, he later chose business over politics. He is now a member of the Congress of the People (COPE) and a staunch critic of the ANC. He says the ANC has lost its moral compass and corruption is its biggest problem. The party is out of touch with the people and is unable to meet their needs, he says.

But Mr Jack is not convinced the ANC will lose the city. Instead, the party may scrape through. COPE could also get more votes than many think, he says.

Political power aside, the municipality is no longer attractive, even for the most persistent tenderpreneuers. “I would not want to take it now. The city is broke. Whoever wins it will battle turning it around,” says Mr Jack.

The municipality is the smallest of SA’s six metros, with a budget of R7,6bn. It faces a cash crunch because of its ambitious infrastructure drive, building a Soccer World Cup stadium for R2,1bn.

When SA won the bid to host the World Cup in 2004, the city estimated the stadium would cost R250m. That ballooned to R1,1bn in 2006, and R2,1bn eventually.

Port Elizabeth hosted eight matches, including a third-place playoff. That tournament created memories for local people while many in the hospitality and retail businesses smiled all the way to the bank. Public infrastructure such as roads and hospitals was also spruced up.

But that is all a memory now as Port Elizabeth is left with a huge white elephant in its centre, with no sporting events or teams to use the stadium regularly.

One of the benefits of the World Cup was supposed to be better transport. The municipality bought 23 articulated buses from Brazil at a cost of R3,8m each. They stand idle because of an unresolved conflict with the taxi industry over how to integrate them into the city’s transport system.

But Nelson Mandela Bay mayor Zanoxolo Wayile is adamant that the city can be turned around. He blames the cash crunch on the global recession that cost many jobs, leaving the city unable to meet revenue targets. He says the Treasury cannot provide a lifeline, so the city has to suspend planned infrastructure programmes. Mr Wayile, a former trade unionist and a member of the South African Communist Party, is a favourite to return as mayor should the ANC win. He will face Smuts Ngonyama, COPE’s mayoral candidate.

“We will retain this municipality. The ANC is like a crocodile in the river. You cannot kill a crocodile in the river,” says Mr Wayile.

The Democratic Alliance’s Bobby Stevenson says the opposition has a chance of winning. But this would require some ANC voters to switch to the opposition, and many traditional ANC voters staying away from the polls.

Mr Stevenson says all this is possible, considering that the ANC could barely get half of the vote in Port Elizabeth in the 2009 general election. “In light of the drought here, the crocodile will not be able to live when there is no water in the river,” says Mr Stevenson.

mkokelis@bdfm.co.za