South Africa: Interview with Soweto socialist councillor

Operation Khanyisa Movement banners at a march in Johannesburg, 2008.

April 5, 2012 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- The following interview appears in the South African left magazine Amandla!. The latest issue has just been released. Click here for the full contents. The new issue of Amandla! features analysis of the African National Congress' centenary.

Drawing on the ruling party's past achievements, current limitations and failures to address South Africa's growing inequality and social ills, Pallo Jordan (ANC), Mercia Andrews (Democratic Left Front), Jeremy Cronin (South African Communist Party) and anti-apartheid veteran John Saul each examine the past 100 years of the popular movement and what they signify for its future. Readers of Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal are urged to visit the Amandla! site and where possible, purchase a hard copy issue of the magazine.

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Zodwa Madiba was elected municipal councillor for Operation Khanyisa Movement (OKM) in August 2007 in Dube, Soweto. The Operation Khanyisa Movement is an electoral front of social movements fighting against privatisation of services and for free basic services for all. The vision of OKM is socialism. Zodwa is leading her community in a struggle to remove pre-paid water meters in the area. She is a feminist and socialist and a seasoned hardworking grassroots organiser. In 2007, she took the battle against pre-paid water meters and won. The OKM is proving that social movements can make a difference.

Amandla!: Before you were elected OKM councillor in August 2007, you were secretary of the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee (SECC). Can you tell us more about your path as an activist? How did you get involved in the first place?

Zodwa Madiba: I have always been an activist but I used to honour the struggle with and for the ANC. I was a branch secretary at the forefront of their fights, wanting Mandela’s freedom, etc. In 1987 Eskom [electricity utility] started cutting electricity, and in 2000, the SECC was formed. After multiple complaints to our representatives and municipal councillors, we realised that it was a lost battle and that they weren’t doing anything to change our situation. As a community, we started to form different groups and to strategise; we spoke out. We refused to sit in the dark.

No one could study in the shacks with the candles, and it wasn’t safe. That’s how we found out about the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee. I then left the ANC in 2000 and joined the SECC because I needed help and support, and no one in my community could afford to pay the electricity bills. They were too high, and neither the government nor ESKOM were responding to us. We marched to the mayor’s house and pledged to embark on a campaign of mass non-payment and we disconnected his water supply. We also went to a councillor’s home and disconnected his electricity and water. That’s how it all started. After Emergency Electricians in Soweto reconnected 3000 houses in six months, Eskom announced that it would not be cutting off those who could not pay. It was the result of direct action! The campaign obviously continues today with pre-paid water meters.

How do you mobilise and organise in your constituency?

We publish pamphlets all the time and go door to door, explaining to people why we are against high electricity prices, why the government is doing what it’s doing and how by running after profits they’re not doing anything for the poor. We talk to people about water, electricity, school fees, and then have public forums where we try to come up with solutions and ways to address these issues. We call a mass meeting every month in different areas. Our forum meeting is every Tuesday, while our various branches meet from Monday to Friday. We even have them on Sunday if working people cannot attend.

The campaign has never stopped. It’s ongoing. Now we talk to clinics and schools about fees and electricity. If people get evicted, we put them back into their houses. When the xenophobic attacks started a few years ago, we ran workshops to call on "all people of Africa" to come together and share our experiences as people of different countries. We went to some of the refugees and foreigners’ camps and we brought them clothes and food to give them comfort. We are all one, and we are all African. The government is just a talk show when they address issues of xenophobia – people are still dying and they die at the hands of our police

What was your experience of the May 2011 elections and your experience as an elected councillor? How do you ensure that you remain accountable to the people that elected you?

I have never changed the platform of the OKM or the SECC. As a councillor I remain true to my mandate; that is the only way to get things done. I’ve always spoken strongly on behalf of the poor. I run the same platform no matter where I speak and ask for the same basic services and delivery, jobs for all and a living wage. I have to tell my constituency what I will say when I represent them and come back with a full report of what was decided and discussed. We prepare everything together, and if they’re not happy about what happens at the council or my performance, they can act upon it. I give half of my salary to the organisation and this money is used to build the struggle. I am subject to recall, so I can be removed from my office at any time. The election this past May was quite the challenge because there were so many contesting parties, but the OKM did well, we kept our seat.

What are some of the challenges you face frequently as councillor and as a woman in your position?

As a woman I never get threatened by anybody! I am very strong. But the work is extremely challenging and difficult. You find that people expect you to solve their problems. I spend my time supporting working-class struggles, but you need to take people with you, to the council chamber, because they need to be heard. One difficulty is that people don’t know about the OKM or that they still believe in the ANC, but then they come crying to us because they cannot obtain anything from this government. We work very hard to educate people about the OKM. The aim is to link different struggles to one another by pointing out the common enemy and destiny of all workers, employed and unemployed, and irrespective of country of origin.

How do you support working-class struggles in Soweto? What are your views for improving service delivery?

I go to every meeting, organise people’s assembly and go to the city of Johannesburg. I support those struggling by making them aware of what the city does to their condition. The city must bring services to the people, they must stop privatising and that is the only way! They must stop pocketing the money: there is too much corruption that delays service delivery.

The living conditions in Dube are like many other places in South Africa, and that’s why the struggle is so hard. The people who attend our meetings are old people, pensioners, but they do understand and suffer from shortages of electricity and water. We try to get the unemployed youth as well. People respond positively to our campaigns because we speak truth to power. The OKM supports labour strikes and fights for the eradication of all forms of exploitation and oppression.