Through the labyrinthine passages of Johannesburg’s municipal headquarters, Executive Mayor Herman Mashaba sits on a couch in his office, eyes bloodshot. He has been in a meeting with different factions of the SA Municipal Workers Union (Samwu) and his team is preparing a press statement after over 500,000 municipal bills, including the mayor’s, were not issued or issued incorrectly.
“These are the stories of my life,” he says.
The DA-led administration has been in office for nine months after the ANC governed the city for over 20 years and the mayor says he’s still dealing with the hangover of the previous administration. Samwu is aligned to the ANC and has been resistant to change. Gravely, Mashaba suspects the billing failure might have been deliberately caused by disgruntled employees. Slowly, however, the new administration is starting to assert itself.
When Finance MMC Rabelani Dagada delivered the Johannesburg budget speech this week, the new government took a step out of the ANC’s shadow, putting financial commitments to the goals of its broad coalition. “I had to operate with that budget that people said they didn’t want,” says Mashaba. He hasn’t been able to make wholesale changes in government, working with a budget he inherited from the ANC. When his budget comes into effect on 1 July, he’ll have a greater chance to prove his leadership, and have to be more responsible for the city’s failures.
Few predicted Mashaba would become mayor. We spoke the day after the DA announced he would be its candidate to run the city and he refused to countenance the possibility of losing. During his campaign, however, he was criticised for his inexperience in government and his neoliberal economics. He made multiple gaffes as ANC mayor Parks Tau asserted himself as the dominant candidate. The ANC beat the DA in the polls, but through a coalition with opposition parties and support from the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), Mashaba was lifted aloft on shoulders in August when he became the city’s first democratically elected non-ANC mayor.
“Do I regret that decision?” he asks on deciding to run for mayor. “Absolutely not. I’m so grateful at this great opportunity, this privilege to serve my country in the manner in which I’m serving it and I’ll do everything as long as I’m alive to ensure that we save this country from being captured by criminals.”
The former businessman says he’s learnt that local government is full of complexities. “In the 35 years of my business life I thought I was a hard-working individual. I can assure you if I look at the hard work I put towards my business success and look at the work I’ve been doing the last nine months, the 35 years of my business career I was on holiday.”
Mashaba’s administration relies on tenuous support from parties with competing interests. The DA is officially in coalition with the United Democratic Movement, Inkatha Freedom Party, Freedom Front Plus, African Christian Democratic Party, Al Jama-ah and the Congress of the People, but Mashaba’s election depended on the EFF’s support. His government depends on balancing the various interests.
“You can imagine – I come in with no ultimate authority. I come in in a coalition arrangement, including the EFF, you can imagine the dynamic,” he says. Mashaba admits his greatest fear was that the EFF would make unreasonable demands, but he believes the complex arrangement was the best outcome for the city, rather than the DA being elected outright.
“Definitely not,” he says on whether a DA majority would have been the best option. “My administration’s survival is dependent on negotiations and engagement. I don’t have the latitude to do what one political party demands. You can imagine the beauty of this – accountability. This is what this country requires.”
Professor Susan Booysen from the Wits School of Governance said such “pact governments” could be a vision for the future. Recent elections and the by-elections in Nquthu this week have shown that the ANC has lost an “immense amount of trust” and in principle, said Booysen, coalitions could lead to more accountability in government and be an attractive alternative for voters to the dominance the ANC has enjoyed.
The mayor said negotiations around the budget were “intense” but his coalition partners and the EFF negotiated in good faith. He recently told the EFF National Chairperson it was “unbelievable” how well the EFF understood the limitations of what can be done. Maintaining the difficult balance requires good faith, honesty and robust engagement. “When you deal with me you’ll never one day catch me that I misled you.” The EFF’s influence has contributed to the city’s plans to upgrade informal settlements and insource security services, while scuppering some plans around privatisation.
What Mashaba calls honesty, some see as dangerous populism. Speaking on his first 100 days in office in December, he blamed illegal immigrants for causing crime in the city and questioned the legitimacy of human rights lawyers fighting inner-city evictions. Marking Africa Day on Thursday, Amnesty International condemned xenophobic attacks and noted “reckless leaders who use migrants and refugees as scapegoats”. It then described Mashaba’s comments. A wave of attacks against foreigners broke out in February.
Marc Gbaffou, chairperson of the Africa Diaspora Forum, which has condemned the mayor’s stance, on Thursday said Mashaba doesn’t understand migration’s role in the history of Johannesburg and is using foreigners to divert attention from service delivery challenges. “Herman Mashaba has no interest in Johannesburg. Herman Mashaba doesn’t want to understand his own city.”
The mayor leans in and says he does not regret his comments. “How can I regret saying, ‘Please, I need help?’” He never blamed undocumented migrants exclusively for crime, he clarifies, but he maintains they are a “serious threat”. He blames the national ANC government for saying it would work with him on a crackdown on migrants then refusing to meet him and later blaming him for his inflammatory comments. In the past, home affairs officials accused Mashaba of deflecting attention from his comments onto national government.
“I’m not appointed to this position to put my head in the sand on national matters that affect our residents. As the first resident of this city I have the responsibility to protect our residents at whatever cost.”
Booysen said there are many “nasty constituencies” where Mashaba’s comments will be accepted as a reflection of their values. “There are many people who really don’t mind those kind of sentiments he’s expressing.”
Mashaba has been criticised for forcing through decisions and ignoring proper procedure. When he wanted to suspend two City Power officials due to allegations of corruption, Infrastructure Services MMC Anthony Still and the City Power board said there wasn’t enough evidence and due process needed to be followed. Mashaba then fired Still and didn’t renew the contracts of the entire City Power board. City ombudsman S’duduzo Gumede, who was suspended recently on allegations he was linked to a city tender, this week accused Mashaba of abusing his powers. He is challenging his suspension in court.
The ANC and EFF this week slammed Mashaba’s appointments and dismissals after his chief of staff, Michael Beaumont, received a R500,000 salary increase. The parties compared Mashaba’s handling of staff issues to what has happened at the SABC and other parastatals in crisis. The mayor’s office has dismissed the criticism and said the increase was because Beaumont’s position was regraded.
“I work and operate within the legal framework,” said the mayor. “I’m not going to protect you on a buddy-buddy relationship. If you want that protection, then do your job. That’s all I’m asking you to do.” Most city employees “are good human beings”, but he claimed some were appointed due to ANC patronage. “I think it’s high time that I start dealing with [them], flush out those that are not prepared to embrace this new dispensation.”
He’s adamant that anyone who stands in the way of achieving what he describes as a pro-poor, pro-growth agenda won’t be tolerated. Mashaba’s state of the city address and Dagada’s speech were dedicated to “Joburg’s forgotten people”, the most marginalised.
Asked which aspects of the budget, which was adopted on Thursday afternoon, he was most proud of, Mashaba paused. “Is there anything to be proud about? I’d be lying,” he said. “I think it’s the best outcome. I’m facing a R170-billion infrastructure backlog. One in three of our residents are unemployed. I’m sitting with more than 181 informal settlements. More than half of them have got no basic services whatsoever, no electricity, no toilets…. I’m saying it’s the best one can really do to come up with these intervention measures to assist.”
Opposition parties raised their concerns during the budget debate on Thursday. The ANC’s Parks Tau said the numbers don’t reflect the pro-poor rhetoric. Yearly expenditure was raised by about R1-billion on the ANC’s last budget, but there was a corresponding drop in the planned three-year spending on capital expenditure. Tau said there was a lack of focus on the youth and Mashaba should look at his own problems before blaming others. The EFF, despite voting for the budget, noted tariff increases that will hit low-income earners and a lack of solutions to the unemployment crisis. The African Independent Congress said the budget focused on the rich and the poor, but neglected the middle-class.
Municipal IQ’s Kevin Allen said the DA is increasingly understanding the difficulties of running metro municipalities. He noted this week’s billing debacle in Johannesburg and said opposition members are probably smiling. “The bottom line is that running a South African metro is not easy,” he said. “There’s a big difference between running a political campaign that either you can’t deliver on or is difficult to deliver on.” Allen wasn’t saying the DA can’t deliver, but it’s realising it must temper expectations.
Johannesburg is the country’s most populous city and a burning issue, literally, is housing. Protests flared across the South recently, demanding access to housing. The city budget includes plans to build 2,000 rental accommodation units and 3,750 mixed housing development units in the next year. In the medium term that expands to 9,500 and 17,200. Considering the city has a housing backlog of 300,000 units, the numbers are minuscule.
Mashaba starts flicking through a document to explain. He calls in a staffer to clarify the issue. Johannesburg’s human settlements development grant (HSDG), which it receives from the provincial government, dropped from R411-million last year under the ANC to R145-million this year. That’s just one example, he claims, of why there are cuts in capital expenditure in this year’s budget. The mayor says he’s still waiting for an explanation.
“I made it clear during that meeting that the days of politicians lying to our people are over,” says Mashaba, recalling a public meeting with Human Settlements Minister Lindiwe Sisulu and Gauteng MEC Paul Mashatile in response to the protests in places like Ennerdale and Eldorado Park. He claims his counterparts in provincial and national government wanted to make promises on housing but wouldn’t commit to the necessary finances. The ANC’s Tau has said Johannesburg’s DA government has a reduced housing grant because it didn’t match spending requirements, which Mashaba flatly denied.
The mayor said the housing challenge is why inner-city rejuvenation is his first priority. He is targeting the kingpins of hijacked buildings, which he says will soon lead to arrests, and plans to use Johannesburg Metro Police, who are looking to employ 1,500 new officers, to clean up the city. Once he deals with hijacked buildings and targets crime in the city, Mashaba hopes downtown will become a hub of housing development, claiming private investors are ready to spend R20-billion.
Claims that his plans will lead to gentrification, where developers take over and impose rents forcing city residents to move, are misguided, he says. Civil society organisations working in the sector have already raised concerns. “In fact, it’s the opposite.” Mashaba claims private developers can provide better quality housing than the city at more affordable costs.
“You’ve got evidence of private developers in the city that are charging even less than us as Joshco [Johannesburg Social Housing Company] and look at the quality of product that they offer, and they use their own balance sheet; they use their own expertise.” His plans will be challenged, probably in the courts.
After inheriting the city from the ANC, with his tenuous coalition in charge, Mashaba faces an uphill battle, although it’s still difficult to tell where the administration is heading.
“The success of this government is going to depend on communication and doing instead of talking,” he says. “I think the challenge over the next few years is that I manage the expectations of our people.”
Those expectations are immense. Mashaba promised change. Now, he’ll have to deliver. DM
Photo: Johannesburg Executive Mayor Herman Mashaba in his office. (Greg Nicolson)
"We are surrounded by story." ~ Alice McDermott