New Internationalist

The New Mayor Of Ventersdorp

Issue 279

Meshack Mbambalala
The new mayor of Ventersdorp
He lives in a squatter shack. He is a communist. And he is obviously not white.
Yet Meshack Mbambalala is the new council leader of Ventersdorp, home of
South Africa’s neo-Nazis. Gideon Mendel of Network Photographers
captured his first few days in office.

Ventersdorp may be increasingly rundown but in the neighbouring township of Tshing, less than 150 of the 2,500 homes have electricity and running water. Meshack Mbambalala sounds rueful. ‘You know, I never really wanted this. I only ever dreamed of standing in front of a classroom with a piece of chalk in my hand.’

Still a part-time teacher in the black township of Tshing, where he lives in a corrugated-iron shack (above), 26-year-old Mbambalala is now coming to terms with his new role as mayor of Ventersdorp. Whereas the white town contains just 2,000 people, Tshing’s population is 15,000 . So when the two areas voted together in November 1995’s local elections a black mayor was inevitable, despite whites’ ‘guaranteed representation’ on the council.

Now the new civic order must bear the burden of his black constituents’ sky-high hopes for change. But he also has to deal with the abuse poured on his head by white residents nostalgic for apartheid and still dreaming of an Afrikaner volkstaat or homeland. He has already suffered death threats and despite being teetotal and law-abiding is routinely smeared in white homes and bars as a drunken thief.

Ventersdorp is, after all, no ordinary place. It is the home town and heartland of Eugene Terreblanche, hate-spitting leader of the neo-Nazi Afrikaner Weerstandsbe-weging (AWB). Extreme racist statements of a kind that would cause outrage in almost every other corner of the globe are here the stuff of polite conversation.

Mayor Mbambalala is not even tempted to respond in kind. ‘We have to move forward and leave the past. My goal is to make a new Ventersdorp, to turn the town of the AWB into the home of reconciliation in South Africa.’ As token of his commitment he has just named his first son Nhlanganiso, the Xhosa word for ‘reconciliation’.

[image, unknown] Ventersdorp is a small farming town in northern Transvaal – just one main street and a few shops, including this hairdressing salon (left), where black women serve white townsfolk as they have for generations. In the main square (below left) is a monument dedicated to the ‘martyrs’ of the neo-Nazi AWB, including those shot dead in Bophuthatswana just before the national elections of 1994. The new mayor has no plans to pull this down: the AWB are part of the town’s history, he says.

Meshack still lives here, with pictures of Bob Marley and his favourite Soweto soccer team on the walls of his home (top picture). [image, unknown] Local ANC members supported Meshack Mbambalala as mayor (right) because ‘he had the best political vision and, of all of us, he was the one most likely to stick to his guns’.
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GIDEON MENDEL WORKED ON THIS STORY WITH ROBERT BLOCK OF THE INDEPENDENT ON SUNDAY, TO WHOM WE ARE INDEBTED FOR THE QUOTES FROM MESHACK MBAMBALALA.

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