South Africa

The Right Stuff? Two presentations show whether Mkhize and Mashaba have the mettle to lead

By J Brooks Spector 24 October 2017

Running for office is like reading poetry. Governing is like reading the fine print in the Tax Code. Last week, J. BROOKS SPECTOR watched two leading political figures make themselves available for audiences interested in finding out what they hope to achieve – Dr Zweli Mkhize, the ANC’s Treasurer-General and Johannesburg Executive Mayor, Herman Mashaba. Both technocrats to be sure, but very different in their approaches, their ideas and perhaps their visions as well.

Late last week, I had the chance to watch both ANC Treasurer-General Zweli Mkhize and Johannesburg Mayor Herman Mashaba in action on the same day. Well, okay, they were not actually seated at their respective desks in Luthuli House or the Civic Centre in Johannesburg. Instead, they appeared before interested audiences where they made their respective pitches, and then answered audience questions that put their political talents and intellectual acumen on display.

These are politicians from very different backgrounds and political orientations, but both must cope with the demands of political realities even as they reach out to supporters – and potential supporters. Could they be fast on their feet, cogent in their thinking, and coherent in their thoughts? Let’s take a closer look. Maybe, just maybe this comparison even offers an insight or two into how the two parties will be in competition with each other for the future – and what battlegrounds they will choose when they square off in less than two years for the 2019 general election.

First up was ANC Treasurer-General Zweli Mkhize. Speaking to international journalists, his initial remarks were aimed at setting a sense of where his party’s direction was heading in the run-up to the looming elective party congress. Mkhize was strong on calls for party unity at all costs, and on efforts to build a capable state, a strong economy that fosters growth and more jobs, as well as supportive of that new stump speech stand-by, radical economic transformation. Nothing exceptional in any of that, was there? No shocks to the psyche, no.

The international correspondents were naturally eager to get Mkhize’s views on the state of the race for ANC party president – and his view of his own chances in that increasingly rowdy brawl, as well as the significance of the recent Cabinet reshuffle, and what he would do about the political assassinations that have taken place in KwaZulu-Natal. Like most reporters who cover elections, attention is increasingly on the local version of horse-race politics: Who is ahead in the ANC race, who’s behind, and, most important, who’s going to cross the finish line first at the end of it all?

In contrast to Mkhize’s two main rivals for the party presidency, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma and Cyril Ramaphosa, Mkhize, a medical doctor and veteran of KZN politics, is a lesser-known candidate for many – even among seasoned reporters. Dlamini Zuma has been in the public eye for several decades as a Cabinet member in various departments as well as her most recent job as AU commission chair, and, of course, her dissolved marriage with the incumbent president. Some like to point to her selfless service and her success in dialling back on tobacco’s impact on South Africa, although others would remind about her role in less salubrious events such as the Sarafina II and Virodene scandals.

Meanwhile, Cyril Ramaphosa’s circumstances have been extensively reported domestically and abroad for even longer – from his early days as a mining union and UDF leader, then on to his as co-midwife of the country’s Constitution (along with Roelf Meyer). Thereafter, there has been his career as a successful business figure (albeit including less than stellar moments while serving on the board of Lonmin or his public penchant for acquiring rather expensive bulls for breeding purposes). And then, of course, there is his current role as the country’s deputy president and his agonies to avoid the cross-hairs of Zuma loyalists who would like to have his head on a metaphorical pike if they could arrange it as an (ironic) exemplar of how to deal with the supposed spectre of “white monopoly capitalism”.

This discussion last week could have been a seminal, breakout moment for Mkhize to strut his stuff as an experienced, knowledgeable figure superbly positioned as the logical compromise candidate to lead his party (and, hopefully, his nation) after the growing chaos of the Zuma years. Curiously, just when he was asked to sketch out a personal profile and how he had been inspired to become a political figure and thus provide the nuances and shadings in his ideas, his party “Sherpa” seated to his left tried to cut off the questioners, saying Mkhize was there to brief journalists about the current status of the party leadership race, and that was it.

But this functionary has probably not had much experience with a crowd of reporters like this one. There was some quick pushback by journalists who clearly wanted more. Eventually, albeit a little reluctantly, Mkhize spun out a story of a young student swept up in struggle politics, exile, medical studies, and then into the governing issues confronting the ANC, post-1994. But this somehow missed the exuberance of most professional politicians worldwide who would probably take almost any opportunity to explain why they are uniquely suited for the times, the place and the challenges ahead. But maybe it was just a straitjacket of what being a disciplined cadre does to someone who hopes to buck the current conventional wisdom of what it all means to be an aspiring ANC party leader. Sadly it was something of a forgone opportunity to open up his heart, rather than the talking points of the briefing book.

Questioned on what his economic agenda would be if he were to be catapulted to the top post, expanding beyond the platitudes of saying growth, jobs, economic transformation, and an end to corruption, Mkhize stressed the need for stability in government policy processes and in leadership, and the creation of a truly capable state that is efficient, professional and based on merit that can “prevail” (his word choice) over the corporate and government sectors to execute projects.

He went on to argue that key emphases should be economic growth, job creation and economic transformation. In doing that, the government needs to build confidence in better government/corporate co-operation, and work harder to attract investment. Further, government must focus on these issues sector by sector to determine what policies are needed to attract investment and eliminate blockages to growth and investment. In an aside, Mkhize argued that while foreign direct investment is important, domestic direct investment is just as crucial – and that point circled back to the need to bolster confidence in government policy-making.

He stressed how he hoped to work on small business development, especially in the black townships and the country’s rural hinterland, but this would be something that would need more than just money. In an actual policy proposal, Mkhize said there needs to be a special fund to do those things, rather than simply continue funding of social welfare grants. Moreover, Mkhize argued that the country’s educational prospects need to focus more on improving technical and technological competence among young people, and that much more effort needs to be given to improving the capability of South Africa’s industrial sector to produce subcomponents for the car manufacturing sector, for example, than the more usual importing of such high-value items.

That was largely it, the Mkhize economic revitalisation plan for South Africa, once he became party (and then national) president. And so, in response to an effort to drill more deeply into what he saw as his international models for this new model South African economy, the Treasurer-General pointed to those now-familiar “Asian little dragons” or tigers (originally South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore, but now, more recently, often including Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam) and, implicitly, China as well.

Oh, and there was one more point. Mkhize argued that the nation’s State-owned Enterprises must come to this party as well. These SoEs must work harder to stimulate the nation’s economic growth, improve the skills of the working population, and partner with the private sector in order to accomplish all this.

Of course, as a disciplined, high-level member of his party, he really is in no position to strike out towards new policy frontiers. This must be especially the case since he is trying to portray himself as neither hobbled by the thought that he is simply a stalking horse of the current regime by another name, nor a kind of an ANC-lite, business friendly candidate like somebody else. But as a result, he is probably in something of a predicament – if he really delivered detailed specifics and innovative new ideas, these would inevitably have enemies. And that could ruffle the feathers of one constituency, thereby becoming fatal to his electoral chances, especially since the electors are only a few thousand delegates in a meeting in a month-and-a-half’s time.

By contrast, on that same day, Johannesburg Executive Mayor Herman Mashaba spoke to a gathering of representatives of international businesses operating in the city. This guy was all business, all nuts and bolts, rivets and screws, tool kits and blueprints. This was a close reading of the vicissitudes of budget making and the sometimes nasty business of fixing the little stuff so the big stuff can be dealt with effectively.

This is rather different from the visionary appeal he had tried to make while campaigning in 2016; the speeches about turning Johannesburg back into a motor for growth and innovative entrepreneurial enterprise. Coming out of an early background as a salesman who made his way in life selling any product he could from the boot of his car all across the landscape, he then went on to real success in building a tidy personal fortune with his popular black-oriented cosmetics and hair care company, Black Like Me.

He believed he could take some of what he had learned from the hard-edged, sharp-elbowed world of business and transfer it to the rebuilding of his city, turning the municipality once again into a place where fortunes could be made and millions might prosper. Accordingly, this meeting was a kind of report-back presentation to business leaders, especially an effort to tell foreign-operated enterprises, franchised businesses, and local subsidiaries that their efforts were enthusiastically welcomed in Johannesburg, not simply tolerated as if they were minor irritants. In recognition that the local government cannot do it all, Mashaba began his session to this roomful of businessmen and women with the challenge: “How do I get your dollars to invest in my city and my country?” Pass the hat please, dig deep, and contribute and spend generously.

In his prepared presentation, Mashaba set out the challenges his administration is facing. These included the fact that among the city’s youthful population, around a third of the city’s total inhabitants, some 40% of those are unemployed; the city has a housing backlog of more than 300,000 people; it receives a regular immigration of around 3,000 people a month; it suffers from sluggish economic growth; it has a massive infrastructure backlog, and continues to suffer from intolerable levels of corruption. And this is just for starters.

As a result, he said, his team has identified nine priorities designed to kick-start the economic circumstances of the city. These include the creation of pro-poor development, enhanced service delivery, improved service delivery, administrative transparency, financial sustainability, efficiency and innovation, a greater sense of responsiveness to citizen needs, and the preservation of the city’s resources for the future.

At the same time, however, the Mashaba administration now recognises that the city faces a massive infrastructure repair, maintenance and replacement overhang, and precious little in the way of resources to do it all – or even most of it – in the next few years. As a result, he and his team are now preaching the virtues of patience on the part of the city’s population, rather than the impatience that a change in political leadership generates instant success. There’s that reading of the tax code, rather than the poetry of campaigning yet again.

Throughout this presentation (and a slide show that irritatingly refused to load at first), Mashaba kept stressing efforts to benchmark deliverable benefits from things like new clinics and longer hours of service in city health facilities and libraries; better trash removal in informal settlement areas, and better management in cutting the grass on municipal land and fixing those axle-destroying potholes Johannesburg had become infamous for having on its roads. A major share of attention is now going to plans to deal with the city’s housing crisis through the recapture of hijacked buildings and offering incentives to businesses to convert such buildings into low-cost rentals for lower income residents. The mayor also detailed a whole list of ways civic administration will be improved, made more transparent, and more beholden to the priorities he had earlier outlined.

The challenge, of course, is that much of what ails a city like Johannesburg is not really in the power of municipalities to address, such as education, and, much more controversially, any efforts to rid the city of illegal, undocumented foreigners or regularise their status. In this sense, Mashaba and his administration must figure out how to deal with a national and provincial administration controlled by the ANC and the bureaucracy it leads, in immigration control, educational management, and the national police force, even as that party is now inwardly focused on its agonies over leadership succession. And the ANC’s attention is certainly not on making life easier for Mashaba, his administration, or their party. This will of course only get more complex once the 2019 general election campaign begins approximately one millisecond after the ANC picks its new leadership.

Thus, two very different ways of dealing with the art of setting out agendas and demonstrating the ability to lead.

In the case of Zweli Mkhize, he is neither the head of a party nor a political subdivision yet. Accordingly, he still treads carefully over how to gain such positions, but while remaining within the confines of his party’s larger policy outlines and then, presumably, slowly and carefully redirecting party policies to be more in keeping with the world around us.

In Herman Mashaba’s case, he has gone from that dramatic stance of what he will do once he has the levers of power in his control (and in effect bending his party to his own vision of what should be done), to a sobering recognition of just how steep a hill he must climb, and even how much of what he wants to achieve is substantially beyond his own control.

Asked if he was tired, Mashaba smiled and replied, “All the time!” But the hard tasks are just beginning to be addressed, even as some easy stuff has already been done. Ultimately it will be success or failure against the hard bits that will make or break his reputation as a leader with vision and the political sitzfleisch crucial to be effective. DM

Photo: Herman Mashaba (Greg Nicolson), Zweli Mkhize (Ihsaan Haffejee)

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