In these local government elections, one of the key battlegrounds is the City of Joburg. Apart from being a “World Class African City”, it is one of the places that matter. It is because of this that the DA has tapped Herman Mashaba on the shoulder and asked him to fly their blue flag. Julius Malema and those in red are also spending their time in the city, doing the door-to-door thing. On Friday The Gathering 2016 hosted the first Mayoral debate between the parties. And Parks Tau showed why the opposition parties have their work cut out for them. STEPHEN GROOTES was in the moderator's chair.
Many in the middle-class audience at Vodaworld on Friday (That’s “upper-middle” to you, Mr Grootes – Ed) were probably expecting to have their political prejudices confirmed. The DA is the party to vote for, the ANC is the party in power, cocking up traffic lights, creating potholes and basically fomenting a disaster, and the EFF, well, the EFF brings entertainment value. From the chair I was sitting in, it didn’t quite end like that, even if Mashaba and Floyd Shivambu are considered heavyweights within their own parties.
The reason of course is that Tau is indeed an impressive figure. It can be easy to forget, in these hurly-burly times, that the ANC is about much more than President Jacob Zuma, an organisation made up of many different types of people that can push and pull in different directions. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the relationship between the Gauteng ANC and Luthuli House. They are not friends. They may look like it, but they are not.
It’s hard to think of someone less like Zuma than Tau. In a formal debate setting, he is polished, professional and quick. But what really makes him stand out, where Mashaba and Shivambu were simply left standing, is in his knowledge of facts and figures. Of course, you might say you would expect that, a mayor should know everything about their city. But consider Joburg. It is complex, diverse, home to some of the most inequal geography on the planet. It has to provide services from Sandhurst to Thembelihle, from Sandton to Alexandra, and it has to find money to do it all. The administration has to get water from Rand Water and power from Eskom (neither of them the most reliable of suppliers) and distribute it, while making enough money to run itself. It is not easy.
From the evidence presented during the debate, Mashaba appears to have one big story to tell: “I’m a self-made man, I know what I’m doing, I can make an organisation work.” That’s fine, as far as it goes, but he really starts to fall down when it’s put to him, unfairly perhaps, that his pitch is like that of Donald Trump; “I’m a businessman, vote for me, I’ll make Joburg great again.” It’s a tough position to be in, but there is an answer, which is, “I’m not a bigot like Trump, but I have managerial experience, and I’ve never been declared a bankrupt.” And of course, there’s the famous dance the DA does so well, The Pivot. Which is to immediately attack the ANC’s shortcomings and then explain how he will do better.
But here Mashaba was really shown up. He started to claim, as he no doubt thought the audience would accept, that there is widespread corruption in the city’s administration. Unfortunately for him, there isn’t. He was asked, bluntly, to name an example. His failure to do so was one of the key moments of the debate. And he then failed to explain how business experience provides political success – the two fields are very very different.
Shivambu had a different problem. It’s hard, when you are representing a party with a national spread, to put someone up to debate on issues affecting a single city. Just the fact that the EFF put him up, rather than someone from their Joburg branch is revealing of the party’s major problem in a local election. The EFF may make good headlines, but it has a massive lack of depth. It is a young party, it’s to be expected. But tough, politics is not easy, especially in this country.
The EFF’s main platform appears to be a plan to turn people living in cities (that is, most of them) into people who are producers, rather than just consumers. It’s about making sure that people are working, manufacturing, and living the good life as a result. When I pressed him about how this was going to happen, considering the Chinese example that he brought up had relied, to a huge extent, on cheap workers for manufacturing, he suggested that people living in Joburg should buy goods made in Joburg. Right, said the moderator (That’s you – Ed), so instead of an iPhone, it will be a phone made in SA? And how, my dear Floyd, are you going to keep the iPhone out? It seemed at this point, unless the moderator was confused (Very likely – Ed), that Shivambu was seriously suggesting that the City of Joburg erect some sort of tariff barrier around it.
We may just as well rename the place “Little Venezuela”. Because that’s how that kind of economic policy is going to end.
It is here that the strength of the ANC really comes through. It is a national movement, it now has people with managerial experience who understand how places work, and how to improve them.
That said, Tau has been caught up in some of the biggest mistakes the city has made. A decade ago, the city’s billing system started to fall apart. He was the person in charge of the city’s finances at the time. And this problem has dogged him since then. For those in the middle class, a trip to Jorissen Street to try to sort out a bill was the closest one could come to suicide. People sold houses, abandoned properties, simply gave up, over this issue. And it seemed that no one was immune. Eventually, the national government intervened. And this is important for Tau. Because if he had lost the city for the ANC, this would have been the end of his career. But such has been the turnaround that he could now have a huge opportunity. Imagine being the person who was able to increase the ANC’s majority in the City, or at least keep it secure, despite the best efforts of the party’s Number One?
When the time came for the great Recall Reckoning, that history would stand him in very good stead.
And let’s be clear, it really does seem that he is very much against Zuma. It’s been reported in the past that Tau has suggested to his region that Zuma “should do the right thing” over Nkandla. From a purely objective political standpoint, should such a place exist, he would be someone with the most to lose because of Zuma’s behaviour. He has a political position of responsibility which he could lose, simply because of Number One, and the reaction of his electorate to president’s behaviour. Which would probably turn him into an opponent through simple self-interest.
But the fact is, those who know Tau know this. He is a thoroughly decent man. That makes him tough to attack. The arrogant economic attack from Shivambu is not going to be enough, the political naiveté of Mashaba will be brushed aside. The ANC is lucky to have him. They should make sure they allow him the space to do his job. And don’t let the figure from Nkandla stand in his way.
It is now up to Tau to deliver. Parks, this could be your moment. DM
Photo: Parks Tau and Herman Mashaba at the Johannesburg Debate, The Gathering 2016, 10 June 2016. (Greg Nicolson)
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