A black who works within South Africa's system

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

To hear David Modiba tell it, there was nothing in this tumbledown black township before he took over. ``I've tarred roads, put in electricity, built houses,'' Mr. Modiba says expansively, tooling around town in his chauffeur-driven Mercedes. ``And you know,'' he adds, waving to some passersby, ``the people love me for it.''

Meet a man who sees himself as a savior of black South Africa. Deputy mayor since 1983, the diminutive Modiba looms large around here. Like any other good politician, he's part self-promoter, part dedicated do-gooder - qualities that ought to get him reelected in Wednesday's muncipal election.

Not in the eyes of anti-apartheid activists, however. To them, Modiba is a puppet of the white government in Pretoria, a stooge, a sellout. Their credo of ``non-collaboration'' means pushing for change on the outside. Participating in polls, they say, confers legitimacy on an illegitimate system.

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And they say that's particularly true of this vote, which President Pieter Botha wants to use as a steppingstone to writing a new constitution. After elections, black councilors are supposed to meet in regional electoral colleges to pick representatives for a multiracial constitutional council. Mr. Botha reckons on working out a power-sharing system with the 28 million blacks here - who have no vote in national matters - without giving up full white power.

But the 39-year-old Modiba is one example of why 2,733 people would nonetheless risk the sometimes fatal wrath of radicals and run for office. Modiba figures he is beating the system: By getting in at the bottom, he betters black lives - but remains aloof from the Byzantine bargaining that's going on atop.

``I've never been used by the government,'' he vows, ``and I never will be.''

Politics, Modiba says, got him at an early age. It began with his grandfather's arrest here in this town west of Johannesburg. For resisting forced removals of blacks to government-created tribal ``homelands,'' the old man was banished to one himself. Five years old at the time, Modiba saw police pull his naked grandfather from the river where he was bathing.

It was ``a scene I'll never forget,'' Modiba recalls. ``That incident politicized me like nothing else. It made me hate whites.''

His activism didn't begin in earnest, however, until Fort Hare University Law School. There Modiba fell under the influence of black consciousness, an anti-apartheid movement that stressed black self-reliance. He became a buddy of Steve Biko, the movement's guru, and a member of Biko's Black People's Convention in 1971.

All that came to an end in 1977: the organization was outlawed along with other groups; Biko died in police detention. Modiba says he was left with little taste for politics - until Pretoria decided to grant limited franchise to blacks in 1983 by giving them their own councils.

For Modiba, the concept fitted nicely with his philosophy: ``Black consciousness emphasized `black man, you're on your own.' The councils were an opportunity for self-sufficiency.''

They also were accompanied by big bucks to spruce up townships. The funds were part of a counterinsurgency strategy put in place by Pretoria's military men after the 1984-86 uprising in black areas. Their idea: to ``neutralize'' political activists through detentions and bannings, then to win over black residents by improving their lives.

So streets here in Kagiso - and in some 200 other townships - have been paved, additional land allocated, hundreds of new houses built. But Modiba insists the changes resulted from pressure by councilors. None of this would have happened for the black man if we weren't in control of our towns, he says, gesturing out the window as he is driven to lunch.

His chauffeur stops at a restaurant in a nearby white suburban shopping mall. Modiba pauses to delight in the gurgling fountains and piped-in Muzak. His self-sufficiency strategy includes plans to build a $13 million mall in Kagiso, thereby assuring the town of a decent tax base.

(Pretoria required that the councils be self-sustaining when they were created. Since blacks weren't allowed to have businesses in townships until the early 1980s, the tax base was very low, revenues minuscule - and councils pretty hamstrung. Most still are.)

The waitress in the restaurant smiles politely at Modiba and leads him to a back table. ``This is an affront to them,'' he whispers, sweeping past a sea of hostile white faces. ``I love it.''

Modiba spends most of lunch railing against radical blacks. They accuse councilors of being corrupt, he sneers, and a lot of them are. But I blame black intellectuals. You can't create a leadership vacuum by refusing to participate and then point fingers when the slots are filled by illiterates.

``I'm committed to the politics of negotiation,'' he continues, waving a barbecued chicken wing for emphasis, ``because only through negotiation will you improve black lives. No one is going to deal with those who burn houses and organize boycotts.'' That doesn't mean, however, participating in Mr. Botha's constitutional program. Modiba says the plan ``stinks with arrogance ... Botha has decided how, when, and by whom.''

Later, driving back through the township, Modiba passes a clump of new houses. ``A man who has a home like that isn't going to burn down the town,'' he murmurs. Which is just the point of Pretoria's counterrevolutionary strategy. Officials contend blacks have no real political grievances, only material ones. Satisfy those and you'll have a quiet population.

All these co-option theories matter little to Modiba, however. He says he just cares about delivering the goods. That's something he seems to do pretty well, judging by the reception when he stops to visit his ward. Sydney Mandzi, an athletic-looking man who was standing on a street corner, rushes over to the car.

``Our black Napoleon,'' he gushes. ``This is the first black man to represent us, to give us roads, a swimming pool. He can do anything for the people.''

Mr. Mandzi thinks for a moment, then adds: ``And the best thing, he's promised me a job as a caretaker at the pool when it's finished.''

Fourth of a series on the key local elections. Previous articles ran Oct. 14, 20, and 21.

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