South Africa

South Africa, Politics

TRAINSPOTTER: How the DA’s Solly Msimanga hopes to turn Battleground Tshwane into a better version of Sweden

Meet the Democratic Alliance’s candidate for the imploding municipality of Tshwane. In the nation’s other capital, opposition parties benefit from the fact that it couldn’t possibly do a worse job than the African National Congress. But how much better is not worse? And can Msimanga, a political unknown in national circles, deliver the goods in so volatile and high profile a city? By RICHARD POPLAK.

The Ikageng Old Age Centre, located in the middle of a middle-middle-class ‘hood in Mamelodi East, is by all accounts an extraordinary institution. A spotless crèche-cum-frail care combo, it is an exceedingly rare (and perhaps metaphysical) instance of a Benjamin Button-like life-loop – diapers to diapers, dust to dust. On a blustery, overcast Mandela Day, both the young and the wrinkled were being helped into helplessness, first by a vast roadworks crew tasked with pushing mounds of dirt around the facility’s entrance, courtesy of the maligned mayor Kgosientso ‘Sputla’ Ramokgopa and the ANC’s increasingly desperate election machinery; and second by the DA, who had brought sanitary products and governance wisdom, the latter in the person of the anti-Sputla mayoral hopeful Solly Msimanga, and a powerhouse posse of DA operatives, including Chief Whip John Steenhuisen.

You cannot say that the DA encounters great enthusiasm here in Battleground Tshwane, but nor can you say the DA encounters great enthusiasm anywhere. The Blue Army is, by accident and by design, the party of Unenthusiasm. Their sui generis political product offers an exact replica of the ruling party’s platform, minus (they insist) the dysfunction and corruption. Their political gift is the ANC’s entrenched yakuza, who easily bat away sclerotic, toothless intra-party enemies dumb enough to tangle with them. Double blessed – both with another party’s platform and with that party’s inability to realise the platform – the unloved DA have pulled off a near miracle: they’re ahead 39.24% to the ANC’s 25.26% in Tshwane, according to a recent poll, and are in a position to pull a Cape Town 2006 coalition-type thing here in the nation’s creaky executive capital.

(An ontological question: is the DA winning, or is the ANC losing? Regardless of the answer, most lousy political parties in failing countries only have one capital to lose. Trust the ANC to lose more, and better.)

But back to the Ikageng Old Age Centre. “This place is Ubuntu in action,” said Natasha Mazzone, the DA’s shadow minister of public enterprises, as we stood alongside the oldsters taking their lunch in an immaculately kept mess hall.

I watched to see if “Ubuntu” would function as a trigger word, sending the ancients into paroxysms of stroke-inducing laughter. (It didn’t, which I attributed to deafness.)

Mazzone had a point: Ikageng does make for good copy. The facility is maintained by a combination of charitable donors and cash from the government, but it’s really a local project that becomes a photo-op dwarf star during election time. Observing a campaign event in a frail care facility is to watch retail politics in its rawest manifestation: politicians sell wishes to the desperately vulnerable, all of whom have heard every possible version of their bullshit, but no longer have the wherewithal to load, aim and shoot a high-calibre handgun. It was a grim thing to behold, all these twisted bodies coaxed into ANC T-shirts in preparation for the DA’s visit, to say nothing of the force-feeding of mash and mielies and social democracy-lite. But give the DA this much: they were offering bromides in unfriendly territory. The first thing the visitor sees above reception area is a painting of Madiba alongside Zuma, one of the very few artistic depictions of the current president that doesn’t prominently feature his flaccid cock.

The ANC and the old folks were, according to both the polls and the DA, falling out of love. The DA’s councillor-in-waiting, Anna Manyambye, told me that the people of Ward 15 were really frigging unhappy. “In this ward,” she said, “the complaints are about corruption. The councillor” – a boilerplate cadre named Joel Masilela – “he just wants money. The Somalis here with the spaza shops, they have to pay what they call a ‘black tax’ to him. I want to tell everyone, we will bring the change in Ward 15.”

* * *

And who will manage this change, you ask?

Meet Solly Msimanga, and tell me he wasn’t forged in a DA mad scientist bunker maintained by Dr Zillenstein. Msimanga is an excessively personable man who, on this Mandela Day, wears a DA ballcap, a DA windbreaker, denims and bright orange Pumas.

He was born and raised in a shack in Atteridgville, earned a BComm in economics at what was then Vista University, married his “one wife” (ha ha), and with her raised two boys in a staunch, devout Christian environment. He has worked his whole life, but officially kicked off his career as an assistant to charge d’affaires in the Liberian embassy, moving swiftly to the American embassy, and then to the Project Literacy NGO, eventually becoming a director.

Working at embassies, Msimanga had an opportunity to travel. He observed other African dictators, and it became apparent to him that our leaders were going the same way.

“I could sit back,” he told me, as we chatted on chairs behind a brick walkway, “or I could get involved. There was a number of things I looked for. One, a party that could literally take power. Two, a party that spoke to me. That was the DA.”

But there was a problem. Msimanga didn’t like the way then-leader Tony Leon would fly into black communities, start berating the people, and then fly out. At some point in 2007, he wrote a letter expressing his reservations, and received a response from party CEO Ryan Coetzee. Following a whirlwind romance, he eventually ended up running marketing and messaging and training for the official opposition.

Msimanga wanted black people to become ambassadors for the party, and he started shuttling between Cape Town and Pretoria in order to make that happen. An operational wonk, both Tony Leon and Helen Zille urged him to go mainstream, which he eventually did by getting elected to the provincial legislature in 2014.

So here’s a genuine Holy Shit moment: an actual accomplished experienced political operative coming up through the ranks of the DA, rather than a Herman Mashaba-type parachuted in on account of his ready-made celebrity?

Have another bale of magic rainbow hay, pet unicorn!

And Msimanga is not pretending when he pushes the party line: he believes this stuff. He is a hardcore business-first, trickle-down theorist with a fundamental belief in the intrinsic benefits of clean government and Scandinavian social democracy. The government is everything, but it is nothing without the private sector, which in turn provides jobs for “The People”, who in turn fund government. He believes the government has more than enough money, but it is being badly used. And Tshwane, with all its corruption and blight, is Ground Zero for his grand DA-endorsed experiment.

Take housing. The RDP housing backlog amounts to 120,000 units in the City of Tshwane alone, he reminded me. But the whole province can only build 30,000 units a year. Msimanga wanted the shack fires to stop, the electrical shocks to stop, the misery to end. But he wasn’t promising more free houses.

“Let us identify land where we can put the bulk infrastructure” – streets, bridges, electricity, water – “develop that land first, and then give the stands away. And then give the people a title deed.” This deed would allow Tshwanians to borrow on collateral, which would allow them to build.

How would locals service their brand new debt, I wondered.

“Pretoria has ability,” he reminded me. “There are dormant industrial sites everywhere. Many are partly owned by government. It’s all falling apart. I want to renovate those sites, and declare then special tax zones.”

He would give young small business owners proper subsidised space to continue their hustling in the formal sector. This would in turn feed into his drug-busting programme.

“Tshwane is infested with the usage of nyaope,” he said of the dreaded street drug. “There is only one rehab centre, which is not even working the way it’s supposed to.” Some of the land on the industrial sites would be handed over to seven professional learning centres for rehabbing junkies, who would subsequently be fed into the job market.

The DA has a bad habit of running on its record in Cape Town, which has a drug problem so vast that it would embarrass El Chapo. What makes Msimanga believe he can do better?

“Admitting the problem,” he said. The wards in Hammanskraal had the highest rate of reported drug-related crime in the country, and yet there were enough cops to deploy 10 metro police per ward per shift.

“But the metro police now are just hanging around doing fundraising,” he deadpanned. He wanted a dedicated narcotics unit, with at least four cops per ward dealing with drug issues. “People know where these drug houses are. The problem is not necessarily the users, but the peddlers. Identify them, identify the hotspots. Then get rid of them.”

As for the “rogue elements” in the police, he wanted to introduce a ghost squad – the watchmen who watched the watchmen. “Studies show Tshwane has the most corrupt police,” he said. He would top up the cops with funds from the massively corrupt Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP), that old patronage system workhorse. The problem wasn’t the EPWP, he told me, but the people who ran the EPWP. The violence that so recently reduced Tshwane to a prospective set for a dystopian alien revenge movie? It wasn’t because residents were angry with the the ANC’s fly-in candidate, Thoko Didiza, said Solly.

“It was those people given contracts to fix pavements in the townships fearing for their jobs. Something that was noble has been turned into a patronage fund. It’s robbed a lot of people of opportunities.”

* * *

I wasn’t hearing the promise of handouts in this impressively uptight, top down governance pitch – and frankly, that saddened me. Chewing away not only at the ANC’s numbers, but at the DA’s as well, was the surging Economic Freedom Fighters, who had clawed out 13% of the popular vote, according to the most recent poll. Msimanga reserved his saddest head shakes and most mirthless chuckles for Malema and his legions.

No love for those old-school radical ideas occupying the political space? “My response has always been, and then what?” said Solly. “I caution politicians on selling people dreams they can’t deliver on. I don’t think that nationalisation is the way to go. Look at the country across the way from us. Look at Venezuela. I don’t understand why anybody wants to follow that.” The mining sector was tanking in the wake of the end of the commodities super-cycle, so good luck nationalising that shit, said Solly in not so many words.

“From the mining companies you now need to inherit this huge salary bill, and you’re producing much less. Let’s talk about those salaries before we talk about giving people big houses.”

SAA? Eskom? Prasa?

“Privatise state-owned enterprises! I don’t see why we can’t do that!” exclaimed the prospective mayor. “Save the money, use it towards service delivery. Some of the things the EFF say are populist things that aren’t practical. They say I must pay my domestic R4,500, but I can’t afford that.” Should the uptick in pay become law, adios domestic worker, lamented Msimanga. “Let’s not say, ‘Let’s grab this or that, or grab land’. It’s the easiest thing to do. Ask Mugabe. It’s not workable. There’s lots of land that’s government owned already. Our model would be to do a proper land audit, identify what the land can be used for, and in terms of redress pay into a dividend fund that helps the local community.”

You get the picture: Solly is egter, suiwer DA, as the core constituency might say. Grow business, grow the economy, fix the country. Like the aged in the Ikageng, the ideas stretched back into the dimness of time. Some had already died and were being kept animated with unguents and defibrillators. Some others could still sit upright in a wheelchair. And others still were mobile on their own accord.

But Msiminga was not going to have Tshwane to himself. “I can tell you what I’m not going to do, and that’s jump into a coalition by compromising our value propositions,” he said. “We’re not going to damage our name brand. We’re not going to have a bloated system. The people of Tshwane have to take centre stage. With ANC, we would be shooting ourselves in the foot. We would never do it. Still, I’m hoping to get 50 plus one.”

Not going to happen. But we are entering a new age in South Africa – the age of the coalition. But everything new is old, is it not? As I left the swept grounds of Ikageng, a group of relative youngsters sang “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” while the old folks looked on, dead unimpressed.

They’d seen it and heard it all about a billion times. Several were using their ANC shirts as napkins. I figured they’d do the same with DA shirts, had they been given any. DM

Photo: Solly Msimanga (DA)

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