Analysis: The Irrepressible Gwen Ramokgopa
As we all reported, last weekend's ANC Gauteng elective conference produced a comprehensive victory for Paul Mashatile. But, as worrying that was to some, the ascent to the province's second-most powerful party position of a certain city mayor had us all gasping for breath.
Consider the following candidate for high office. At some stage of her career, she changed the name of a hospital against the wishes of the local community and tried to interfere in an independent inquiry. She’s been pulled out of her luxury government car and pushed into a taxi by angry protesters. Oh, and she’s also refused to follow due process with the renaming of the national capital. Her cavalcade was caught driving 140km/h in a 70km/h zone. And what was the other thing? Oh yes, she’s completely cocked up the running of the capital city, so badly, actually, that she was named the worst mayor in the country.
But despite all of that, she’s now the new deputy chairwoman of the Gauteng ANC. Step aside Nomvula Mokonyane, welcome Gwen Ramokgopa.
Gwendoline Malegwale Ramokgopa actually had a pretty good reputation before taking over as mayor of Pretoria. The main blot on her copy book had been her efforts to change the name of the Garankuwa Hospital to the Dr George Mukhuri Hospital, while she was Gauteng health MEC. It was back in 2003, and at the time it was completely unprecedented because, for the first time, black people were opposing a name change. It hadn’t happened before. The decision actually came from the promise made by Ramokgopa to the Mukhuri family when she spoke at his funeral. He was a good guy, a community doctor in the true sense of the word. But the local community quite liked the name as it was. It didn’t represent anything or anyone inherently evil, which made a nice change from names of other places at the time, and they wanted to keep it as it was.
The issue climaxed when she went to address a community meeting on the issue. As she stepped forth in full MEC regalia, out of her MEC car, she was met by people who didn’t quite have the same resources. They were furious, and forced her into a rickety old taxi, to make their point.
Otherwise, Ramokgopa seems to have done relatively well as health MEC in the province. A medical doctor, she was one of the class of ’94, those people who went into political office and actually had high ideals. She was studying for a Masters degree in public health at the time. Think about how difficult it was to keep out of the spotlight in government health sector at the time: Manto was at her height and Aids denialism was en vogue. Yet Ramakgopa managed to keep her head down.
And when she left that office, it was with her head held high. It seemed she might even one day take over from Mbhazima Shilowa as Gauteng premier.
But when she took control of Pretoria in 2006, things went south in a big way.
The first sign was her decision, unilaterally it appears, to change the name of the city she was given to run. (And she indeed was given it. She was “redeployed”, and her installation was a formality.) Once in, she started referring to the city as “Tshwane”. She had the council rubber stamp it and claimed that was enough – the capital would henceforth be named Tshwane. The national ANC, however, had other ideas. Then arts minister Pallo Jordan, whose decision it was supposed to be, went on the record day after day saying the name of the capital was still Pretoria. From her side, Ramokgopa refused to discuss it properly. The city signs were changed, and ads were placed in newspapers referring to it as Tshwane. And although the Advertising Standards Authority ruled against her, she continued, and then tried all sorts of tricks to keep the name in the papers.
Since then, she’s refused to accept the authority of the national government on the matter. It seems that the stubborness became a hallmark of her conduct.
Pretoria itself has suffered terribly under her tenure. Strike after strike has hit the council, particularly by refuse removal workers, with rubbish pilling up on the streets. But that’s nothing compared to the issue that usually trips up incompetent politicians. Money. Since she took over, the municipality has simply mismanaged its money. It owes Eskom billions and tried to hide the fact. It pushed through a once-off charge on residents, that saw most of them paying twice their usual council bill, for no good reason. And while it is the middle class which screamed the most, it’s the poor that suffered the most.
Things have now reached the point where Tshwane wants to grow, and gobble up Midrand in its desperate bid to increase its revenue.
The reports of corruption, factional battles and planned assassinations are the daily occurrence in the Ramakgopa-controlled city council.
And yet, the political reward for her catastrophically bad tenure is a promotion.
While it does boggle the mind, the roots of her successful campaign almost certainly lie in her relationship with Paul Mashatile, and the system of running on lists within the ANC. It’s become common practice for a candidate to run with several other candidates. You may remember how the current top six of the ANC all received roughly the same number of votes as Jacob Zuma. He grouped with them and they all ran as one list of candidates. Well, the same thing is happening at provincial conferences, and very clearly happened at last week’s Gauteng ANC conference. And that means people are supporting candidates based on who they’re running with. Which means the leaders of these lists, the people going for the top jobs, pick the most popular people they can to bolster their candidacy. Remember also that Ramokgopa would have been Gauteng health MEC when Mashatile was also an MEC. And they were both close to Shilowa, and those ties have clearly bound them together.
But none of this would have happened if the ANC were not the only party in town, if we were not a de facto one-party state. Because the decisions of its members dictate what happens to the entire country, and because people who are the most popular are likely to be populist, bad things are happening.
Think of it another way. At Polokwane, ANC members voted Tony Yengeni, Mathews Phosa, Siphiwe Nyanda and Nomaindia Mfeketo to its national working committee. All of them have had either serious corruption allegations swirl around them at some point or are demonstrably incompetent.
At the time the ANC simply said it’s democracy. Well, it is democracy gone wrong, democracy used by few. It’s a serious problem, and there’s no clear solution to it.
It’s a complete travesty, and tells you a lot about how people who are incompetent manage to reach the top of our particularly greasy pole. It also demonstrates something deeply concerning about the ANC: The country’s future is decided on the basis of political alliances and connections. Competence and ability to deliver simply do not matter.
By Stephen Grootes
(Grootes is an Eyewitness News reporter)
Photo: Lisa Skinner, Mail & Guardian