From the outside in: community activists in local government

From the outside in: community activists in local government

Date: January 1, 1970
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Councillor Bertha Mohulatsi decided to run for office in South Africa’s 2006 local elections after several years of fighting from the other side of the fence as a community activist because she saw that “the councillors didn’t take note of the people on the ground.À

After her husband died during apartheid era the council tried to take her home away because they said that she couldn’t afford to pay for it. She joined the Kimberley civic association and initiated several negotiations with them about the problems in the community. 
In 1991, she worked with the council to raise money for making an old aged home safe and liveable. The house had no security; frequent rapes occurred on the premises and outdoor toilets were used for abortions. After negotiations with Dutch donors, the council put up toilets and lights in the house; security and a fence. “We also consulted with the council to get doctors and nurses and now there are plans to have a kitchen and a laundry.” 
After 1994, she was involved in the change of ownership of houses and the reallocation of land.  In 2006, she decided to become a councillor because the previous male councillor “did nothing for the community. I decided that because I had experience with local government I would stand to become a councillor so that I could help people where I can.”  Being a councillor gives her leverage to be able to do her community work more effectively.
Mohulatsi was one 946 councillors, experts, officials, and civil society representatives in Namibia, Lesotho, South Africa and Mauritius interviewed for At the coalface: Gender and Local Government in Southern Africa, published by Gender Links, a Southern African non-governmental organisation specialising in gender, governance and the media.  
The research found that women are making a difference at a practical level in local government (which suffers from many structural weaknesses in all countries) by helping to cut through red tape and providing access to housing, electricity and basic needs. The practical nature of this level of government is perhaps why some community activist find that a place in local government gives them greater access to mechanisms to get the job done.
Like Bertha Mohulatsi, Rozy Khedoo in Mauritius believes being a councillor is just an extension of the work that she is most passionate about.  “When you see misery around you, how can you be apathetic? Child trafficking is something that is unheard of in Mauritius and yet this is very much a Mauritian reality.
“Women go into sex work to feed their families, young boys and girls are now trying to commit suicide because they cannot bear the violence in the house, young children are being raped. The list is very long.”
Khedoo lives in Tombeau Bay, where HIV and AIDS, drugs and prostitution are daily realities. A Girl Guide in her youth and social worker for 48 years, she went into local government in 1991 not because she was close to a political party but because she is close to the people.
She formed her own political group called “Groupe Unitaire de Baie du Tombeau” (United Group of Tombeau Bay). All 12 members of this group, which included two women, were elected. Khedoo became the first Mauritian woman to hold the office of Vice-President of a District Council, that of Pamplemousses/Riviere du Rempart. She was also the only woman among the 35 male councillors.
She had the courage of her convictions and was respected for that. “But it was very difficult for me especially when I asked for better infrastructure for my village. Priorities were given to the regions where the main political parties were present.”
In 2005, the Majority Party asked her to stand as candidate in the general elections. She accepted. “From the onset I knew I was fighting a lost battle in a party that was formed on the eve of the elections by a woman, asking women to vote only for women.” Like a good warrior, Khedoo went on the battlefield. She lost the battle but won the war when she was elected in the Village Council Election of December 2005. She is now a councillor on the District Council of Pamplemousses/ Riviere du Rempart.
Throughout Khedoo has had a focus on helping women. “My constituents come to see me on a daily basis. My doors are always opened. Even when I cannot help them personally I know where to send them. The main problems of these women are poverty and unemployment. The NGO Trust Fund for the Integration of the Vulnerable and private sectors have helped quite a few of them. They are now heading their own small enterprises or are working for other small industries.”
Many councillors come from backgrounds of social and community work. These backgrounds may not necessarily come with high-level educational skills or previous political experience, but as Mohulatsi and Khedoo show, they are empowering and grounding backgrounds for work in local government. 
Politics is not only about institutions of power and who occupies them. It is also about how power is exercised and with what effect. Studies show that women’s virtual non-participation in decision-making not only renders them non-citizens, but that the outcomes of policies reinforce their inferior status.
The signs of this include the feminisation of poverty, development programmes that do not change women’s status, abuse and violence against women and the high prevalence of HIV among women. Women, like men, who are concerned about issues that affect the community, can use spaces in local government to make a difference. Since so many women are active in caring for the community, this is yet another reason to ensure their place in local government.
Colleen Lowe Morna is the Executive Director of Gender Links and Loga Virahsawmy is the President of Media Watch Organisation in Mauritius. This article, an excerpt from ‘At the coalface: Gender and local government in Southern Africa,” is part of a special series for the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service that provides fresh views on everyday news.

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