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How racial politics dogged a South African mayor

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — In the heart of one of South Africa's most impoverished communities — where Dumpster-sized shacks of wood scraps, metal and asbestos shingles are typical real estate — a young mother cradling her ill 2-year-old waited in line to meet the mayor. But he was running late.

In the air-conditioned top floor of Cape Town's civic center, the former mayor, Dan Plato, darted between morning meetings with a black briefcase and newspaper. The headlines screamed the latest national controversy: President Jacob Zuma's black spokesman was accused of making racist remarks against "coloreds," the name given to the country's mixed-race people.

The 50-year-old Plato, who's colored, and who served as Cape Town's mayor until May, paused to say goodbye to two aides headed for a courtroom, where political opponents were suing him for civil rights violations. They claim he knowingly installed seat-less toilets in a poor black community — feeding into the stereotype that his party, the Democratic Alliance, is anti-black.

Incidents like this dogged Plato throughout his five-year term, resulting in party leaders' decision not to select him to run for re-election.

In South Africa, race and politics remain deeply intertwined 17 years after Nelson Mandela became the country's first black president, ending decades of white-dominated apartheid rule.

Just as in the U.S., where increasing partisanship has gummed up the political system, politicians in South Africa bicker and point fingers. But here the debate between parties is linked unmistakably to ethnicity: Mandela's party, the ruling African National Congress, is overwhelmingly black, while the No. 2 party, the Democratic Alliance, is made up predominantly of white and mixed-race South Africans.

The Democratic Alliance has its roots in pro-apartheid parties, fueling widespread charges of racism against its members. Plato's party has had some success expanding its base to include coloreds, but it's failed to seriously challenge the ANC, which won nearly two-thirds of votes in the last national elections, in 2009.

The Western Cape, where Cape Town is located, is the only one of South Africa's nine provinces where Plato's party holds a majority — and a slim one at that, winning just 51 percent of the vote in the last election.

On a recent morning toward the end of his term, with two bodyguards at his side, Plato headed through the lobby past a statue of Nelson Mandela and waited for the elevator to take him to his driver. He was on his way to meet a group of constituents, including Whitney Langley, the 20-year-old mother with the sick daughter, who was waiting to speak with him about housing for the poor.

"What a morning," he said.

South Africa's black population — 79 percent of the country — remains deeply connected to the ANC, while whites — who are about 10 percent — comprise the base of the Democratic Alliance. The 9 percent who count themselves as colored have become the big political prize — the group that few political leaders would dare alienate.

"Race touches every issue in this country," said Justin Sylvester, a political analyst from the Institute for Democracy in Africa, an independent South African think tank. "Race gets used to mobilize support and then politicians turn around and tell South Africans they must move past race."

That is why the comments by presidential spokesman Jimmy Manyi caused such an uproar when they surfaced on YouTube in February. Manyi was quoted saying that mixed-race people were "over-concentrated" and "in oversupply" in the Western Cape, where about half the population is colored.

Under apartheid, blacks and colored fought side-by-side against white oppression. Like many South African politicians, Plato's journey into politics was rooted in rebellion against apartheid. Police shot at him, stoned him, even beat him, he said.

"The days of fighting in the trenches are over," he said. "It's time to roll up our sleeves for the new South Africa."

Plato pushed through the doors of a community center where Langley and about 30 others were waiting. He opened a notebook.

Langley told him she was homeless. Vandals tore down her shack. Now she and her daughter sleep on the streets, home to gangs, spiders and snakes.

"He must help us," she said. "It's getting to be winter."

They want housing and jobs. And they want answers about why they don't have either. Each time, Plato writes in his notebook, which he'll pass off to an aide. What action will be taken is never stated. Solutions remain elusive.

"Sometimes the only thing you can give them is hope," Plato said. "If people don't have hope, they don't have anything."

That Tuesday, Plato visited communities where coloreds are the majority. Later in the week, visiting three other colored townships, he'd launch his Clean Up Campaign — a program to educate people about the importance of keeping streets clean.

His aides said that he was chipping away at overwhelming economic circumstances. Nearly a quarter of South African workers are unemployed. In March, he created about 30 jobs for workers who cleaned the streets, recycled and picked up trash. The jobs lasted a month and paid $93.

"Dan Plato will promise all of these people, but he won't follow up. Their spirit gets broken," said Reinard Luddick, a veteran South African political journalist. "People don't have basic, basic, basic needs: jobs, service, water, bread on the table. You need to go into the community" and put in toilets with seats.

(Cirilli, a student at Penn State University, reported this story from Cape Town for a class in international journalism.)


See video reports from Penn State student journalists in South Africa.


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