Mayor Herman Mashaba dreams big for Joburg
Herman Mashaba never thought “in my wildest dreams” that he would become a politician, least of all the DA mayor of Johannesburg, “doing the last job in the world that I want”.
Perhaps that is why he is not overly restrained in speech or in action by political conventions, and why he doesn’t feel compelled to camouflage what he says in the finery of sophistry as many in the political world may do, all the better not to burn their bridges before double-crossing them. So, for example, where the politician might dwell on the historical and political factors that converged to make Jacob Zuma president, Mashaba just allows himself a hearty chuckle — and goes for the jugular.
“I really used my common sense to know my country is in big trouble,” he says at the start of our interview at the mayoral offices on the hill in Braamfontein as he explains his transition from businessman and freemarket crusader to politician.
“Because how on earth would anyone think of a guy like this, who is in financial trouble, someone who was charged for rape, someone with so many wives, and you put him as president of a country in a democratic environment? I realised we are in trouble, we’re in trouble, we’re in trouble.
“Jacob Zuma is a criminal if I have to define it in simple terms. Criminality and him are the same thing . . . so how do you put someone like that as a leader of a country, someone who was broke, you put him in charge of the national purse? . . . We’re in trouble. All these ANC people who voted and pushed got Jacob Zuma, and they can’t tell me they didn’t know who he was.”
Disillusionment with the ANC
Mashaba says this apropos of his own political journey, and how his disillusionment with the ANC after the Mandela years drove him into opposition, and into bed with the DA. In some obvious ways it was a political journey that mirrors the coming of age of a black middle class which, in the last local government election at least, did the previously unthinkable, and voted for the DA with a modernising black leader in Mmusi Maimane at its head. It is no coincidence that one of the DA’s dominant local election themes was the “betrayal” of Nelson Mandela’s legacy. So much so that Mashaba refers to the 1994 election, and the apprehensiveness before it, by saying: “Fortunately enough, Mandela brought about this magic.
“Thabo Mbeki came out with the African Renaissance, which I immediately embraced and promoted openly. I was excited with this concept of the African Renaissance, talking about accountable government, about democracy. Then, during his tenure, Zimbabwe started collapsing, actually not collapsing, Mugabe started his evil policies and I was totally shocked when Thabo Mbeki was one of the people that supported him. I thought: ‘What the hell is going on?’ Making matters worse was for the ANC to remove Thabo Mbeki from power before his time and electing Jacob Zuma. That’s when I realised my country is in big trouble.”
And it’s that “big trouble” that’s shackled Mashaba with the mayoral chains of Johannesburg, where he rules courtesy of an arrangement with the EFF and smaller parties, making the city government the jewel in the DA’s local government crown, even if the crown is slightly tarnished by having to be shared with the EFF. So far, at least, the EFF has played ball with Mashaba, despite the reverberations from the fallout at the DA-dominated Nelson Mandela Bay metro.
With his being new to the game of politics, Mashaba’s critics, especially in the ANC,
Jacob Zuma is a criminal, if I have to define it in simple terms The ANC belief is that the only way they can control people is to keep them ignorant
have attempted to paint him as a political novice, another businessman-turnedpolitician who doesn’t understand the trade-offs and nuances (and pettinesses) of politics, and who’ll soon abandon a brief and unproductive sojourn in public life for a return to the simple certainties of the business world.
Some have even attempted to make comparisons between Mashaba and US President Donald Trump, although a penchant for straight talk and the passing similarity in wealth (Mashaba was estimated by Forbes magazine in 2015 to be worth a net $100-million) may be the end of the likeness. For one thing, Mashaba was brought up in borderline poverty, and he writes in his autobiography, Black Like You, about “celebrating” the arrival at home of a bag of Ace maize meal, which his mother, a live-in domestic servant to rich whites, had managed to buy for the month. Trump can hardly make the same claim. Skimming through Mashaba’s account of his early life in his autobiography, one can’t help but be struck by the similarities with EFF leader Julius Malema’s own childhood, and with whom he is now in a partnership to keep out the ANC from the city government. Which is possibly why he can manage only a dry chuckle before addressing the matter of his critics daring to call him anti-poor.
Although Mashaba doesn’t appear to be one to wear his bitternesses (if any) on his sleeve, he cuts the profile of the energised Africanist leader, a man not so preoccupied with appeasing whites and white opinion (in a South African context) that he forgets his “own people”. He is scathing beyond the merely political about what he believes the ANC has done, and which he has made it his mission to roll back, in Johannesburg at least. “The ANC has over the past 20 years taken that God-given gift of black people because they’ve made them think that without government, without the ANC, they are not capable of doing anything for themselves. And on April 27 1994 one of my excitements was that we were going to see an explosion of black entrepreneurship. But on all fronts we have failed. Our education system is even worse than the apartheid system we hated.
“It’s deliberate, because the ANC belief is that the only way they can control people is to keep them ignorant. So this is not a mistake. That is why Jacob Zuma has made clear his hatred for what he calls clever blacks, his deep hatred for clever blacks. Why do you think an ANC government would hate clever blacks when any country in the world wants clever people? When people are educated they are able to decide for themselves and that’s what the ANC would not want.
“For the first time in the City of Johannesburg we have passed a pro-poor budget, 60% of our capex is going into poor communities. They tried to use this against me in the elections, but the job I’m doing today is because of poor South Africans, because I’m from that background and the only way you can get poor people out of poverty is to give them opportunities. It’s not to give them fish. If you want to destroy a nation, give them fish and that’s what the ANC is doing and that’s what I’m fighting.
“When I took over, all of Joburg’s section 56 managers were ANC cadres, because the ANC appoints in senior positions purely 200% on cadre deployment. It’s got nothing to do with effectiveness, so imagine these are the people you have to operate with.
“You had to be naive to think that these people would overnight be prepared to work with me. They were more working for Luthuli House than working for my government. I don’t know if you know the process of firing senior people in government?” Mashaba asks. He outlines a long and complex process, the essence of which requires council representatives from the parties to agree to take disciplinary action after proof of corruption is found.
“This is why, if you look at ANC municipalities, all of them, people will be on suspension or they move them somewhere else instead of dealing with that challenge.
“I’ve managed to get rid of seven and in the next few months I’ll be getting rid of 14.”
Mashaba says he called all the senior managers together when he took over, and asked them whether they recognised the changing political dynamics that had toppled the ANC from power in Johannesburg.
“I said I’m committing the next five years, if I survive, to establishing a public service. I said to the senior managers: ‘Are you guys prepared to work with me? You’re not working for the DA, you’re working for the residents of the city of Joburg. Your role is to serve any government as long as that government is legitimately elected.’ Unfortunately some of them have refused and some are still refusing, and that’s the reason why I’m getting rid of them. I’ve already fired seven people and, I think, 300 others below. Today, by chance, I’m firing another 21 senior people. The thing is if I don’t do that I am going to allow the government to be sabotaged.”
Mashaba is cleaning up in the city centre, too. His move on the notoriously lawless city centre and its hijacked buildings was dealt a setback recently when cable thieves plunged the city into darkness, and he had to find emergency funding just to have the lights switched back on.
“Just before you came, I was speaking to [local government minister] Des van Rooyen, because I need an emergency meeting for them to assist me with this treason. There are people stealing our infrastructure. If you look at the 22 people arrested [over the cable theft], out of the 22 only one said he is South African. The rest are here illegally.
“This is something I don’t understand. When I report this, am I being xenophobic? When I arrest 22 people who’ve caused massive damage, R50-million in direct damage plus the disruption to the economy, and I report I’ve arrested people, foreigners, is that being xenophobic or must I say they are our friends?
“Here in the city of Joburg I have young girls, eight or nine, being turned into prostitutes, being given drugs by drug syndicates, young children being brought up in these unhygienic buildings.
“The city of Joburg over the last 136 years was built around migrants, and no country in the world can ever make it without migrants. But you cannot grow an economy in a chaotic environment.
City is hijacked
“I’ve declared the inner city a huge opportunity for us to kick-start our city to address this massive housing backlog that I’m sitting with. And now the city is hijacked by criminal elements so I’ve got to get them out of the city. It’s going to proceed in a week or so’s time. After the next council meeting we are going to be issuing proposals to the private sector. We’ve already identified 84 or 85 buildings that I’d like to offer to the private sector to develop low-cost housing for our people.”
As the raids are stepped up, says Mashaba, those displaced will be offered temporary and alternative accommodation. “However, I will only provide accommodation to South Africans. If you’re not South African, it cannot be my responsibility. You can’t expect to go to America, to go to Zimbabwe, and expect the Zimbabwean government to find accommodation for you.
“I’ve got South Africans on a long waiting list who’ve been on the waiting list since 1995-96. Am I going to allow a foreigner to come here and jump the queue? It’s not going to happen under my watch. No court of law is going to force me to do that because then I want that court to explain to South Africans why they expect me to allow a criminal to jump the queue. If you go into a country without going through the normal channels, if you don’t have documents, you’re a criminal.
“Don’t just tell me I must build houses for people. I’ve never seen houses being built from fresh air.”
Later, as our interview concludes, Mashaba seems irked by comparisons with the DA-led city government of Cape Town, and how much more Joburg is being asked to achieve in more difficult circumstances. He says he looks forward to the city centre becoming a “construction site” over the next 18 months. He also says he is holding off on renaming streets for a while, “unless they’re really offensive, like Verwoerd. I must spend money changing street names when so many of our people have never even had streets?" No ways, he says.
Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba surveys the city skyline from the roof of his offices in Braamfontein.