28 August 2014

South Africa: At 22, Johannesburg Lawmaker Stands up for the Poor


Johannesburg — The chaotic streets of sprawling Alexandria township are Lyrics Mazibuko's stomping grounds. The slight young man is dressed snappily in a white shirt, navy pants and polished brown leather shoes.

He stops to chat with women selling fruit on littered sidewalk. And to police officers eating fried chicken in their squad car.

These are some of the people whose lives Mazibuko has promised to improve. He made history this year when he was elected to serve on the Johannesburg city council and, at 22, became its youngest lawmaker ever.

He's a member of the opposition Democratic Alliance, which recently wrested control of Alexandra township from the ruling African National Congress party. Now Mazibuko represents the people of Alex, as it's commonly known, in the city council chambers.

Familiar with poverty

Children play next to a filthy stream. Services are scarce. Sewers overflow; few people have electricity. The township is a maze of wood and tin shacks. Meant to house some 70,000 people, it is home to more than a half million.

It's poverty that Mazibuko knows only too well. As a child, he and eight siblings shared a single room in a village in Mpumalanga province. Their only income was their grandmother's paltry pension.

"Sometimes we'd go hungry," he recalls. "Sometimes, you know, we'd beg from the neighbors [for] something to eat."

Determined to escape poverty, Mazibuko studied hard. He became a top student, eventually winning a scholarship to study psychology at Johannesburg's Wits University.

Disenchanted with the ruling African National Congress party, on campus he joined the Democratic Alliance.

"The most perhaps common things about the ANC is corruption, it's the failure of delivery, and only the connected few do actually get to get on top ... whereas the vast majority of the people, they're marginalized," Mazibuko says.

Representing the marginalized

As a city councilor, he now helps people like Alex shack dweller Frida Lebelo.

It's a cold day, and the 82-year-old wears a dress made from an old tablecloth. She's surrounded by her only possessions: an ancient television, a bed and a shabby couch.

Lebelo shows Mazibuko a document to prove that she qualified for a government-sponsored house. However, she says, state contractors built only a single wall in 2006 before disappearing.

Cases like this upset Mazibuko.

"I'm availing myself to her so that she can explain the problems," he says. "Then I'll escalate the issue and debate the issue in the council chamber. ... Ultimately we will find means and ways to help her."

A voice for youth

Mazibuko says he's proud to represent the country's youth.

"Why? Because the vast majority of the young people in this country are unemployed. The vast majority of the young people are falling pregnant," he says.

"If indeed we are sympathetic to this analogy of saying 'young people are the future of this country,' I think young people should be given such prerogatives, such opportunities to engage in policies to actually decide on issues that affect the country."

Mazibuko clambers into a taxi to go to his next appointment. He gets a good salary as a city councilor and could easily afford a car.

But his priority, he says, is helping the people of Alex: "It doesn't make sense for me to drive a fancy car if I do not try to change the standard of living for my people and for the people of my township. ... An expensive car is not really important."

Mazibuko is a sensible young man - and ambitious.

"I really want to become the minister of education in this country, for many reasons," he says. "... I've experienced problems with my studies because there is no contingency plan in place to actually help us people who are marginalized."

Given the immense challenges he has already overcome, it's not hard to imagine Mazibuko one day achieving his dream.

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