A mayor, not a magician
The DA’s Herman Mashaba and Solly Msimanga are currently trying to revitalise Johannesburg and Tshwane respectively. Tony Williams had a similar task at hand when he was appointed as mayor of Washington DC in 1999. During a recent visit to South Africa, h
tony Williams recalls a sign that hung in his mother’s beauty salon in Los Angeles when he was a boy. It read: “Remember ladies, you must have enough hair for the style you want. We are beauticians, not magicians.” His mother’s down-home philosophy guided Williams when he became mayor of Washington DC, America’s capital city, in 1999. He was criticised for spending too much money on the wealthy rather than directly on services for the poor, for instance by upgrading parks and giving incentives to companies to move to Washington.
He responded by saying he had to spend money on such things to attract investment, which would grow the economy, which in turn brought in the taxes, which financed investment in services for the poor.
“You must have enough economy for the things you want to do. Everyone can talk about redistribution, but if you’re just redistributing a declining pie, what good does that do anybody?”
Notwithstanding the naysayers, the proof of his mother’s philosophy was in the results. Williams inherited a city on the brink of financial collapse from his predecessor, Marion Barry, who was a civil rights hero but a very poor administrator.
By the time he left office in 2007, Williams had turned the city around, attracting large investments and leaving it with sizeable cash reserves, a good bond rating, a more accessible healthcare system, a new major-league baseball stadium, decreased crime rates and a growing population.
Williams conveyed his philosophy to Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba and Tshwane mayor Solly Msimanga when he visited Gauteng recently to enhance dialogue between the US and South Africa on best practices in city management and urban revitalisation. Washington DC and Pretoria are sister cities.
As it happened, Msimanga and Mashaba are running cities which the DA recently took over from the ANC. So, as he did, they are in a sense rebuilding their cities. Mayor of Washington DC from 1999 to 2007 Mayor of Tshwane Though reluctant to “preach”, Williams did say the most important lesson of his experience for any mayor was that rebuilding a city is about rebuilding a sense of community in all its different aspects. And the key to that, in turn, is rebuilding public trust. “Public trust is public accountability, it’s stewardship; it’s fiduciary responsibility for the assets of the city. Certainly the budget is a part of that. Accountability is about transparency. You should be able to know what public officials are doing with your money. It’s not their money. They’re not supposed to aggrandise themselves with your money.” Fond of metaphors, Williams says being a mayor is like being a gardener, creating the right conditions for the economy to grow. A key part of that is public trust. Which includes being able to reassure investors that things at least won’t get worse. Public trust was the foundation on which he started to improve public safety and basic public services like keeping the streets clean. Even removing graffiti and fixing broken windows were important, he said.
Making tough choices
This public trust, faith and respect were vital to enable his government to take the next big step, which was making hard choices, “without being run out of town”.
“Because if you promise everything to everybody you end up not being able to do anything for anybody [ . . .] If you deliver on those basic things, then they’ll stay with you even with really hard decisions.”
One of Williams’s toughest decisions was to close the city’s major general public hospital in 2001. Some locals believe he did so simply to cut costs to save the city from bankruptcy.
He describes it differently, saying the District of Columbia General Hospital wasn’t really serving the best interests of the poor. Poor residents had no healthcare until they really got sick and then they had to go to the subsidised public hospital – “the poor persons’ hospital” – for emergency treatment.
“That was your healthcare. I was saying, ‘Why is it that when you’re poor, you can only get care when
Herman Mashaba Mayor of Johannesburg