Volume 12 Number 5
Talk of the Town in South Africa
01 October 1999

What has made Middelburg and its neighbouring city Witbank the fastest growing towns in South Africa?

How did the 'conservative Afrikaner right-wing town' of Middelburg become the first non-racial municipality in South Africa?

And what has made Middelburg and its neighbouring city Witbank the fastest growing towns in South Africa--with a combined population of 700,000?

Their steel and coal industries drive that growth. But it did not happen overnight.

According to André Brandmuller, President of the Middelburg Chamber of Commerce, major problems--such as non-payment of rates and taxes due to an earlier black boycott--were being 'thrashed out' collaboratively through the Middelburg Forum, formed with people from all racial and religious backgrounds, as far back as 1988.

Then, in the run up to the 1994 elections which brought Nelson Mandela to power, explosive tensions forced the pace of change. 'We went through two-and-a-half years of chaos, negotiating whatever was needed,' says Fiona Martin, a white who helped set up an inter-racial peace committee. 'I was personally labelled a traitor, my phone tapped, rocks thrown on my roof, and a car followed me around.'

Working with her in these efforts were Sydney Choma and Ben Mokoena, who was also in Caux. Both had been exiles in the struggle against apartheid.

In the early days of the ANC government, a Local Government Transition Act was passed, providing a framework for integrating black and white councils. But amalgamation had to be negotiated, city by city. Because of 'the tensions we had calmed', says Choma, the new Council of the Greater Middelburg Area became the first proclaimed under the new law.

Mokoena was its first 'non-racial' Mayor, and Choma, Chair of the Executive Committee. Fiona Martin, then an independent councillor on the Witbank City Council, became the first non-racial Mayor of Witbank.

Their work has only just begun. 'Because we could do things quickly, we got funds out of the government,' says Choma. A national programme has been launched under the name 'Masakhane' (building the nation together). Middelburg secured its support to rehouse slum-dwellers--812 'start-up' homes have already been completed, using local contractors and labour. Another 1,500 homes are under construction. In return, the scheme ensures full payment of rates and taxes. Services have improved dramatically. For the last two years, Middelburg has won the national Masakhane award.

In 1995 Fiona Martin went with a political delegation to tour American cities, including Richmond, Virginia. Inspired by Hope in the Cities, on their return they launched a reconciliation initiative, called 'Opening the windows to change'. Targeting sectors most facing change--such as education, local government and the police--they have used workshops to introduce conflict-resolution skills, cultural diversity, change management. 'We realized that if there was to be stability, we had to deal with the tendency for revenge on the one hand and fear on the other,' says Mokoena.

A dispute-resolution centre is being created, and now a tourist facility. 'What makes them work is that we are doing it together,' says Martin.
Mike Brown