Floor-crossing councillors aloof to communities

Ward 58 in Johannesburg is a vast amalgamation of residential, industrial and commercial spaces. In the geographical nomenclature of the city, it is Mayfair, Fordsburg, Langlaagte and a clutch of suburbs besides. And it's here along streets with uniform square gaps, which were once manhole covers, that a curious mix of South Africans, refugees and immigrants are all trying to make a life and living in South Africa.

This is one of the most vibrant areas of Johannesburg. Strategically located close to the city centre, it is a nucleus of human movement in and around South Africa. And like many other spaces in Johannesburg, it bears testimony to the challenges that have mired progress in recent years. Hundreds of people live on the pavements beside piles of filth and human excrement, while others complain of the affront of it all to their own lives that is further addled by crime, bylaw infringements and the staccato public services.

And there does not seem to have been anyone listening, or responding to these experiences.

In May, this part of Johannesburg will be voting in another by-election, the second since the 2011 local elections.

The current councillor's seat was vacated last week when the ANC announced the latest batch of Democratic Alliance councillors to join the ruling party. Osman Cassiem, the DA councillor of ward 58, was one among them. Barely a year on the job as councillor, Cassiem has crossed the floor, leaving the ward without anyone to represent the people of this part of Johannesburg in the city council.

The local branch of the DA has released a statement assuring residents that the party is doing its best to ensure the ward is still running in the absence of a councillor.

And yet, to many residents in ward 58, there will be little difference noted in the councillor's defection.

When he was elected last year, Cassiem promised to be everything the ANC was not, but mostly he was supposed to be dedicated to his job, a departure to his predecessor who appeared to be torn between her home in Cape Town and her work representing Ward 58. Yet, Cassiem's time as councillor has passed without him contributing significantly to the lives of people here.

For many residents of Ward 58, Cassiem faded into anonymity soon after his election. Where exactly could you find him? And what exactly did he do anyway? Some residents praised the councillor's use of the BBM service to inform residents of planned power outages, but what about residents who were not on BBM?

But then he has also joined the ANC under a cloud.

For months now rumours have circulated of financial improprieties involving the councillor. The Fordsburg Independent, a community newspaper, says it has sworn affidavits from residents who claim Cassiem solicited cash from them with a promise of houses. This thread of speculation holds that Cassiem was under investigation by the DA and was about to be fired anyway.

Instead of change, Ward 58 has received more of the same.

When the DA won this ward in 2011, _City Press _editor Ferial Haffajee, who considers Mayfair and Fordsburg home, despite living in Parkhurst, noted that the ANC was no longer committed to addressing the lived experience of residents.

"There is little community organisation in Mayfair any longer, so I'm not surprised that the candidate Junaid Pahad (brother of Essop and Aziz) lost to the DA candidate. While he's a good neighbour, he hasn't called us to a single meeting in the past five years nor has the ANC responded as it did in the 1980s to all the very real local challenges," Haffajee wrote.

"My guess is this pattern of social distance and alienation has beset every one of the ANC's previous strongholds in coloured and Indian areas."

And yet now, two DA councillors in this ward have also proven to be similarly aloof to the people they are meant to serve.

When the ANC was lobbying for votes ahead of the by-election last year, ANC regional secretary, Dada Morero, said of Cassiem's predecessor, "The councillor resigned and decided to relocate, a clear indication that she and her party never had the interests of people of the ward at heart".

And yet now that the DA councillor that won the 2013 by-election has shifted his allegiances to the ANC, it is exactly this trumpeting of personal gain that leaves us questioning what exactly motivates local politicians anyway.

While the incidence of DA councillors resigning from their positions to join the ANC is interesting as a phenomenon, especially with some disgruntled rumblings of racial tensions deep within the party's structures, in one particular ward in Johannesburg, the political expediency of a DA-turned-ANC politician, may just be further proof that it is not a burning desire to serve the people that spurs politics.

Khadija Patel is a writing fellow at the University of Witwatersrand's Institute for Social and Economic Research (Wiser).