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TRAINSPOTTER: Did Tshwane’s Solly Msimanga really break SA foreign policy?

Julius Malema’s favourite member of the Democratic Alliance, Tshwane Executive Mayor Solly Msimanga, recently pulled a Donald J. Trump and found himself cozying up with the Taiwanese. Did the VIP -slaying politician destroy decades of delicately wrought South African foreign policy when he visited Taipei over the course of the Christmas break? Or was this a political storm in a teacup, generated to undermine his shaky coalition? RICHARD POPLAK travelled to Centurion to find out.

I’m having a good time,” said Solly Msimanga, unconvincingly, as he occupied a loveseat in his spacious if unflash office in Tshwane’s Centurion Municipal Offices. “I’m getting to fix what is broken. It’s given me a sense of purpose.”

Well, Tshwane is certainly broken. And Msimanga, perhaps the nicest living human currently walking Earth, may be the man to fix it. That he may not be the man to fix it – or that he may not be allowed to be the man to fix it – was exemplified by a little trip he took over the Christmas break, but we’ll get to that in just a moment.

Solly Msimanga, or at least his public avatar, represents a rarity in South African politics: a regular dude, born and raised in a shack in Atteridgeville, who got so fed up with the disasters unfolding in his city that he decided to do something about it.

The reality is a little more nuanced: Msimanga, who earned a BComm in economics at Vista University, worked his way through both the Liberian and American embassies. He then took a position at the Project Liberty NGO. He hit the Democratic Alliance head-on after watching then-leader Tony Leon parachute into poor black communities and berate everyone for being, well, poor and black. He sent the party a letter with some piquant criticisms, and CEO Ryan Coetzee couldn’t help but take notice of this son of Pretoria with the dazzling CV and the impeccably conservative Christian bone fides.

Subsequently, Msimanga kicked off a second career running marketing, messaging and training for the official opposition. (He is not, however, to be blamed for Helen Zille’s social media “strategy”.) He moved quickly northward through the ranks, partly because he is very sharp, partly because he is deeply attached to Tshwane, but mostly because he is not bullshitting when he sprouts the DA line – he is a deliverologist, a technocrat, and devout social democrat who genuinely believes that business and government can work together in order to buoy an economy that is so far down the shitter that it barely earns the term “economy”.

He could not ask for a better Keynesian laboratory: During a press conference on Wednesday commemorating his first 100 days in office, the Executive Mayor took the opportunity to detail the rot he’d inherited.

Herman Mashaba in Johannesburg may have been mopping up following decades of idiocy, lassitude, and petty thievery, but Msimanga was dealing with corruption and maladministration on an astonishing scale. The city was burdened by a R2-billion deficit, which hasn’t been helped by the fact that Tshwane’s most recalcitrant debtors were various national and provincial departments. Apart from bringing desperately needed revenue into city coffers, he also needed to stop the bleeding: he killed blue light brigades, banned the official purchase of blinged-up supercars, killed the ubiquitous boozy banquets that were a feature of the good life under former mayor Sputla Ramokgopa, “opened the tender process to the public, ensuring transparency and accountability”, went after junkies and their enablers via the establishment of a Narcotics Unit in Metro police, inaugurated Africa’s first standalone Hijack Squad (the sitcom writes itself), which is to mention only a few of the measures that looked real good on a DA Twitter feed.

It’s too early to tell what these efforts will amount to in the long term. Tshwane could certainly be run even worse than it was under successive ANC mayors, but only by minuscule degrees. But Msimanga faces challenges that his predecessors never did, and I don’t mean the lack of banquet cuisine: he must hold together a coalition council; fend off ANC council members who have routinely brought violence and disruption into the chamber, and ensure that the EFF, a party with which he could not be more ideologically opposed, votes for his initiatives. (The EFF want to appropriate land without compensation; Solly wants to clear up the RDP housing backlog, and has issued 256 title deeds in Soshanguve, Mamelodi and Olievenhoutbosch alone. How this will work out is anyone’s guess.)

South Africa’s cities are so screwed up that caution isn’t really an option – fortune favours the blah blah blah. With this in mind, it was exceedingly odd to learn that Msimanga, a former assistant to charge d’affaires of all things, was willing to blow up South African diplomacy, and undermine his own city-building project, by visiting the vastly unloved Republic of China, a.k.a. Taiwan. That, at least, was the official narrative coming out of the the Department of International Relations and Co-operation (Dirco) and Luthuli House.

First, some context: insofar as the Zuma regime has a foreign policy, it’s restricted to diplomatically fellating members of the Chinese Communist Party, no matter how low ranking. Since 1998, when South Africa officially adopted the One China Policy, Taiwan ceased to exist. Nonetheless, South Africa and Taiwan maintain reciprocal liaison offices, and Taiwan does exist: it has 24-million people, a GDP of US$ 1.47-trillion, and often serves as an enormously beneficial (if possibly dangerous) foil for the pushy Chinese. So off Solly jetted to the earthquake-braced high-rises of Taipei, in order to bring back “investment” for Tshwane. Dirco led the outrage machine by totally flipping out, with Clayson Manyela describing the trip as “highly regrettable”.

(Hilariously, the ANC called on Dirco to “confiscate all official and diplomatic passports from officials who are found to be wilfully undermining our foreign policy”, as if that was constitutionally possible when municipalities bear the right to set their own development agendas. The ANC and the Constitution: not the best of relationships.)

So, was this the move of an idiot naif, with nuclear war as a possible outcome? Msimanga’s team called a presser at the Tshwane Municipal Buildings in Centurion on a balmy Wednesday afternoon in order to clear things up. Msimanga arrived wearing a sharp summer suit, and got right to business.

Yes, I’ve been to Taipei,” he said. “Yes, I enjoyed Taipei. And no, I don’t regret going to Taipei.”

Well then.

It was not political, and it should never have been turned into political football,” he continued. According to Msimanga, the trip came about following an invitation from the megacity’s mayor, and was undertaken in order to a) see how a world-class city was administered, and b) to bring back oodles of Taiwanese investment cash.

Msimanga claimed that he sent a letter informing Dirco of the visit, and according to him, Dirco didn’t so much as bleat. But, just as he was about to board the flight, his team received a call from Dirco’s spokesperson, promising Word War III if he took the trip. Msimanga correctly pointed out that he would not have been able to use his diplomatic passport – replete with a Taiwanese visa! – without permission from Dirco and other government agencies; nor would he have been cleared for the diplomatic areas at the airport without the proper protocols having been observed.

What’s more, the South African liaison – the cushiest ANC appointment currently on the books – was there to meet them when they arrived.

Later, in his office, Msimanga was frank about what was facing him:

It’s scary. It’s scary because I realise the magnitude of the task. The amount of work that needs to be done, the amount of education our people need on what local government can and should do.”

More than anything, said Msimanga, South African metros require revenue.

We have heard from [Finance Minister] Pravin Gordhan that metros will receive less grant money, because of the belief that we should generate more revenue ourselves. So I have to assist our people to get employed, and to become taxpayers.”

In other words, due to both inclination and circumstance, Msimanga must function as the ideal DA construct – the politician-businessman.

His strategy is twofold. First, here’s a guy who unabashedly quotes from former New York mayor (and current Trump towel boy) Rudy Giuliani, who’s infamous broken windows policy has informed much of Msimanga’s thinking:

Law and order goes a long way,” he said. “If we get things right, it addresses other social issues, like poverty. People ask, How does law and order address poverty? I say, Why would you invest in a city in which your investment is not safe, and it could be lost the very next day?”

Meanwhile, Msimanga has to hold the council chamber together. “So far, coalition has been holding,” he said, “because of my open-door policy. If there are failures, we’ll say what the failures are. The EFF will question things we do, because they remain the opposition – they vote with or against us on an issue-by-issue basis, and they’re true to that. We’re not pushing party agendas, we’re pushing government agendas.”

And then there’s the ANC, the dying giant, the exploding dwarf star.

I’ve always extended a hand to the ANC, although the first three council meetings were very rocky, marred by violence outside the chambers. I believe it’s emanating from the shock of losing the city, and sometimes you need to let people go through the stages of shock.”

But obstruction works – just ask the Republicans, who after attempting to shut down every aspect of Barack Obama’s presidency were rewarded in the last election with the White House, Congress, the Senate and the Supreme Court. But Msimanga thinks that strategy holds only to a point. He said that he’d spoken to both ANC Gauteng Chairman Paul Mashatile and Gauteng Premier David Makhura following their party’s disgraceful council chamber meltdowns. Mashatile, who saw on TV the ANC caucus behaving like lunatics, called Msimanga at 02:00 in order to commiserate. “I told him we cannot allow a situation where violence becomes the order of the day,” said Msimanga.

So, rounding back to Taiwan, is his own strategy an attempt to play the jealous Chinese off against the horny Taiwanese? He offered me a cheeky smile.

My biggest task is attracting investment for this city,” he said. “If you go to any corner of this city, you go to the old industrial sites, and they have become hotspots for crime, and eyesores. What has also motivated me is the fear that if we don’t bring in revenue, we’ll be a city that doesn’t grow. So whether it is playing one against the other, I’m telling you why I’m doing this.”

Will Msimanga’s Tshwane one day resemble Taipei? We’ll see. In the meantime, there’s a screwed-up city to run. “I’m enjoying all of this,” he insists, again.

Of course you are. DM

Photo: The Global Covenant of Mayors at the C40 Mayors Summit

Mayor Solly Msimanga of Tshwane

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