How one man gained and lost control of South Africa’s third oldest town before it burned.
Some very old Swellendam residents upon rare occasions recount ancestral tales in much subdued tones about a giant snake that sporadically crawls over the Langeberg to whisper hypnotic prophecies to a chosen few. That, they claim, explains the curious behaviour of some of their fellow citizens. Another folktale has it that the mist that occasionally drifts into town from the towering “Twaalfuurkop” (Noon-peak) is from the breath of a dragon, that likewise has some hypnotic, brain-neuron scrambling effect on those who inhale it.
But a fable that has greater following is that somewhere under “Die Groote-Kerk” (built in 1802) in Voortrek Street is a confluence of the most ley-lines in the Southern Hemisphere. And this is why Swellendam has so many creative people like potters, artists, musicians and writers. I’m still waiting for that magical effect to kick in!
So perhaps it is the ley-lines that have realigned the brain-cells of our local politicians. If it is, then we have proof that politics and creativity are a highly toxic mix. A creative politician is a far greater affliction to humankind than a creative accountant.
I have before me a pile of local and provincial newspapers going back more than a month to try and fathom the cause for the panic a few weeks ago that Swellendam had yielded to a “hostile takeover.” The alarm came from no less an authority than Anton Bredell, Western Cape Minister of Local Government. Not familiar with a hostile takeover in anything else but a company context, I, and I imagine many of my fellow residents, had visions of the town being overrun by alien hostiles charging down the southern slopes of the Langeberg, forcing us to flee across the Breede River and seek refuge in the vast desolate Karoo-like Ruens between here and Cape Agulhas.
But it soon became clear that there was only one alleged hostile – home boy Julian Matthysen. To explain this man of God’s Goliath-like status over a cowering Swellendam, I have to try and condense into a manageable sound-bite many episodes of the surreal serial in the local weeklies.
Last year’s elections left the Greater Swellendam local authority hopelessly hung between the ANC and DA. That deadlock was broken by the ACDP deciding to support the DA. Its one seat in the election went to Julian, who earlier seemed to have had his own little Damascus experience prompting him to defect from his ANC nest and to pursue a much holier cause in the ACDP. This, whether motivated by soul, heart or wallet, left him as kingmaker in the council – a true Gulliver in Lilliput.
But Julian forgot one thing: kingmakers cannot make themselves king, and his discomfort with being a mere Deputy Mayor soon prompted him to kiss and make up with the ANC opposition, and to make the council hopelessly hung again.
Important municipal decisions ground to a halt, including senior appointments such as that of Municipal Manager (town clerk to us oldies.) Bredell steps in from his august provincial halls to appoint an acting manager. And then Richard Baloyi steps in from his even loftier national offices of Cooperative Government and Traditional affairs to overrule Bredell. Bredell instructs his squabbling Swellendammers that no meeting should be held until after he had further talks with Baloyi. But Julian and his ANC followers hold a meeting on October the 8-th and appoint their own acting municipal manager.
The DA squeals to the high court in Cape Town, and the learned judge, perhaps not fully grasping that the urgency is much greater than a mere bladder call, “reserves judgment”. Then Julian and his reconciled ANC pals decide this is their moment and call for a meeting on the 15th for their own putsch.
But the week-end before the 15th, the DA again cried foul to the courts, obtaining an interim ruling that the proposed meeting was illegal. The ACDP fires Julian, but like true righteous crusaders Julian & Co persevere with the meeting, postponing it from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. By this time the interim ruling on its illegality is set aside by none other than Judge President John Hlophe. The meeting goes ahead and the sitting DA speaker, Matthys Koch adjourns it. After the DA councillors had left, Julian and his followers replace the entire hierarchy with Julian as Mayor.
So, depending which way you look at it, Swellendam for about a month until early November either had no leadership at all or it must have been the only town in history to have had two mayors, two speakers, two deputy mayors and two acting managers – but no finance manager and other senior managers crucial to its functions. On Tuesday the 13th, the court ruled in the DA’s favour demoting Julian to ordinary citizen, and with the new ACDP member having been sworn in as Deputy Mayor, the DA believed Julian had finally been defanged.
I had my doubts. If Julian Matthysen proved one thing it is that he is quite indomitable. Indeed, after the ACDP appointed their new councillor, Julian and a few friends gate-crashed his celebration at the town hall. Punches were thrown and a 73 year old lady was upended, swinging her crutches to keep her attackers at bay.
Then, on Wednesday the 14th all hell broke loose and, as most of you know, parts of the town burned. Now, I’m not for one minute implying that Julian was behind it. Word has it that even his allies are done with him. Perhaps they don’t need him because their problem of reconciling Swellendam unrest with rebellious farm labour, all of whom here had no idea that they were supposed to take up arms against minimum wage “slave drivers”, was solved when from the high offices of cabinet the grievance was miraculously converted into service delivery.
If the purpose was ungovernability it must have dawned on the promoters that minimum wages was a government matter, and they had unwittingly unleashed unrest against their own leaders.
So service delivery became the new refrain, but unfortunately one that does not quite fit Swellendam. The township of Railton resembles your average lower middle income suburb with tarred and paved roads, running water and electricity with subsidised tariffs. It also has some of the best views of the town and mountain. I could live there myself if someone guaranteed that I would not have Julian as a neighbour. True, it does have an informal settlement on the extreme South, but no Railtoner sees that as part of their suburb and it is populated mostly by “foreigners”.
A ministerial mantle of “heroism” for the farm protestors with guaranteed immunity from prosecution is too good an opportunity to miss. Inspired no doubt by Hitler’s perfection of the concept that if you lose at the polls and in courts, a few hundred thugs in the street will get you what you want, they looted and burned at will. If service delivery did not quite fit, there was always unemployment, alleged corruption, racism, xenophobia and of course, the vilified anti-corruption warrior and municipal manager Nico Nel.
And just in case the intoxicating effects of dragon breath wore off, there were the spoils of a looted and burnt bottle store to fortify the ferment and mete out vengeance on a populace that failed to give unambiguous power last year.
Perhaps not as violently as in Kwazulu-Natal, the slow town citizens of Swellendam have also learned that politics in South Africa has more sour grapes than a neglected De Doorns vineyard and certainly does not have the maturity to be governed at any level by a coalition.
And Julian? Perhaps he will return to meditate above the ley-lines at the Groote Kerk; or inhale deeply when next the mist drifts down from the Langeberg.