By Nhlanhla Mbatha
Johannesburg- David Thebehali, the first and former mayor of Soweto during apartheid, died yesterday at the age of 82.
Thebehali was the first black administrator of the sprawling township south of Joburg after Soweto gained peri-city status during the turbulent years, in the mid- to late 1970s. He had been appointed by the then Transvaal Administration Board and the West Rand Administration Board.
Mayors at that time had very nominal powers. They were also hated by the communities within which they served. That time it was either one was on the side of the downtrodden or the side of the oppressor.
The apartheid government had set up the urban Bantu administrative structures as an extension of the oppressive system of discrimination.
The controversial Thebehali, who was seen as an apartheid tool, had numerous run-ins with both the then Soweto City Council, over which he presided, and the community of Soweto. He was reported to have been dictatorial and often made unilateral decisions. He was often attacked by the media and residents for ordering evictions of families who were behind with their rent payments.
Communities labelled him a stooge who was used by the apartheid white masters.
The council had offices at Urban Bantu Chambers, referred to as UBC in Jabulani, Soweto. Township residents contemptuously referred to UBC as Useless Boys Club.
Thebehali once escaped a hand-grenade attack – his house in Dube was petrol bombed by angry residents and his mayoral residence in Pimville attacked.
In 1979, Thebehali gave the then minister of co-operation and development, Piet Koornhof, the “Freedom of Soweto”.
Despite his moderate leanings, he made a significant achievement in the electrification of Soweto. He managed to fund-raise from various South African banks to finance the electrification project (then) worth R268 million.
Thebehali also sourced international loans for new sewage and water pipes and the construction and improvement of roads in Soweto. He was also instrumental in the establishment of the Soweto College of Education, the first and only college that churned out teachers in the township.
Thebehali, at the time of his death, was a religious man who headed a number of churches.