South Africa

2019 Elections, The Contenders

The DA’s Gauteng hope, Solly Msimanga on the campaign trail

The DA’s Gauteng hope, Solly Msimanga on the campaign trail
DA Gauteng premier candidate and former Tshwane mayor Solly Msimanga spoke at the party's 2019 manifesto launch in Johannesburg on 23 February 2019. Photo: Greg Nicolson

Solly Msimanga ran against his friend to win the DA’s nomination for Gauteng premier. He gave up his Tshwane mayorship. Soon he’ll find out whether it was worth it.

Solly Msimanga stood in the tunnel at Johannesburgs Rand Stadium and bowed his head.

Democratic Alliance provincial leader John Moodey had just told the thousands of supporters at the partys national manifesto launch, and voters watching across the country, that they could save South Africa by electing the party in Gauteng.

A staffer massaged Msimangas shoulders. He raised his head and walked onto the field.

The DA has long held ambitions to govern Gauteng. As the most populated province with the largest economy, politics here reverberate across the country. Power in Gauteng would give the DA the chance to stand toe-to-toe with the ANC as an equal in the national arena and graduate from its role as a noisy opposition party with its power concentrated in the Western Cape.

The dream became feasible in 2016 and party leader Mmusi Maimane started his speech at Saturdays manifesto launch with a message for the doubters.

We said we’d be in government in Johannesburg. They said we couldn’t do it. We said we’d be in government in Tshwane. They said we couldn’t do it.”

DA-led coalitions were elected in both cities after the 2016 local government elections.

We did it before, and we’ll do it again,” continued Maimane. The 8 May general elections are less than three months away.

Msimanga didn’t plan to run as the DA’s premier candidate in Gauteng. He led a “very bruising” 2016 campaign in Tshwane and as mayor was busy establishing the party’s first administration in the city.

Senior party members approached him in the week before nominations closed in 2018 and encouraged him to run. They said he was the best candidate due to his record as Tshwane mayor, his public profile and his polling numbers.

It was a case of, ‘do you do it, don’t you do it?’ And if you don’t do it, would you be able to live with yourself if the party doesn’t do well?” he said during an interview at the DA’s national office, which was moved from Cape Town to Johannesburg in 2018 – a reflection of the party’s ambitions.

Msimanga was expected to support his friend Makashule Gana’s campaign. The Gauteng MPL had announced his candidacy early and Msimanga said he wouldn’t stand against him. Gana was quoted as saying he felt betrayed when Msimanga entered the race.

I’m not going to lie, it was very difficult, but at the same time you have to ask: is this about personal issues or is this about what is for the greater good of the organisation that we both belong to?” said Msimanga.

At the DA manifesto launch, Gana said he’s willing to comment on the campaign but not the individuals involved. Msimanga said the pair still talk regularly and are working together.

Msimanga, 38, was born in Atteridgeville and worked at the Liberian and American embassies and the NGO Project Literacy before joining the DA. He worked in the party’s marketing and messaging department, served as a councillor in Tshwane and was elected to the Gauteng Provincial Legislature (GPL) in 2014.

He shot to prominence as the DA’s mayoral candidate in Tshwane during the 2016 campaign. He was young, confident and ambitious, genial but with a directness that implied capability. The local ANC was in a shambles and the DA took 43% of the vote to the ANC’s 41%.

He became mayor with the support of the DA’s smaller coalition partners and the EFF, which won 11% of the vote. The DA’s Herman Mashaba followed the same path in Johannesburg, but while the EFF asked the DA to replace Mashaba, prone to gaffes and conservative economics, party leader Julius Malema said Msimanga was a “genuine human being” who “chose the wrong party”. The praise didn’t last.

Msimanga is quick to turn any critical conversation back to his achievements as Tshwane mayor. The talking points: the DA-led government turned a R2-billion deficit into a surplus, uncovered R1.5-billion wasted by the ANC, removed 900 political appointees from the mayor’s office, sold the mayoral mansion, reformed the expanded public works programme to reduce political patronage and attracted R3.8-billion in investments.

There are different things that I would look for in terms of the appointments that I made. There are different things that I would look for in terms of the coalition arrangements. There are different things that I would actually look for in terms of the co-operation between the local, provincial and national government,” he reflected.

He resigned as Tshwane mayor in January after almost two-and-a-half years in the job. Msimanga denied he was forced by the DA to resign to avoid his troubles in Tshwane spilling over to his campaign for premier.

Whether Solly Msimanga was pushed or not? Not. Solly Msimanga was not pushed,” he said.

The regional ANC was making it difficult for him to campaign as premier while fulfilling his mayoral duties, he said. The DA’s Western Cape Premier, Helen Zille, was able to balance government and campaign duties in the past because the party had an outright majority in her administrations, he argues.

Do I continue these half-baked campaigns where I’m drawn back every time [to Tshwane] or do you focus on going with the campaign?” he asked himself. He thought he could best serve Tshwane citizens if the DA ran the province.

But party leaders had reason to worry. Msimanga’s administration was embarrassed after it was revealed his chief of staff, Marietta Aucamp, and executive head in the mayor’s private office, Stefan de Villiers, both lacked the required qualifications for their posts.

Both were trusted DA staffers and both are white, reigniting criticism that the party privileges white people, even when they aren’t qualified.

I’ll take full responsibility for the appointment of Ms Aucamp. I should have played a much bigger oversight role,” said Msimanga. He claimed he was only involved in two appointments and should have verified Aucamp’s qualifications.

The second appointment had a much greater impact. When Msimanga appointed Moeketsi Mosola as city manager in 2017, he called him “fresh, new and dynamic thinking” and defended him from ANC criticism.

At the point where I actually sat and interviewed Mr Mosola, he came across as somebody brilliant, somebody who shared the passion that I had, somebody who wanted to see the change that I wanted to see and I was sold to that idea.”

Things started going wrong, he said, when Mosola wasn’t available when needed. Then there was GladAfrica. Tshwane had R10-billion worth of projects on its books from 2015/16 that were in various states of non-completion or disarray.

Mosola recommended appointing a range of project management companies to resolve outstanding projects.

At no point was a name of a company mentioned. Remember, you’re adopting a panel. You’re not adopting a singular company,” said Msimanga, denying he had any knowledge of what had happened next.

Mosola appointed a single company – GladAfrica – and the City of Tshwane was embroiled in a R12-billion corruption scandal (Msimanga said the figure was invented by the ANC). His public feud with Mosola tainted his mayorship until he resigned.

A forensic investigation and the Auditor General found the contract was irregular but Msimanga’s efforts to act against Mosola were repeatedly blocked in council by the ANC and EFF. They teamed up to try to remove Msimanga through multiple attempts at no-confidence motions.

New Tshwane mayor Stevens Mokgalapa on Monday announced that the GladAfrica contract would be cancelled after Mosola finally conceded it was irregular. The company has reportedly been paid around R317-million.

While the scandals hung over his administration, Msimanga denied that the appointments of Mosola and Aucamp showed poor judgement. He said he confronted the issues head-on and that the DA is held to a higher standard than other parties.

I have a saying: The DA is judged against perfection. The EFF is judged against chaos. The ANC is judged against how corrupt or less corrupt the next department is.”

Mpho Vilikazi, 30, doesn’t know Msimanga but has already judged him. The former mayor arrived in a BMW X5 at Park Station last Friday and posed for photos with a dozen party activists ready to campaign in Johannesburg.

DA Gauteng premier candidate and former Tshwane mayor Solly Msimanga campaigned in Johannesburg on 22 February 2019. Photo: Greg Nicolson

They walked towards Bree Street taxi rank, handing out flyers with an illustration of President Cyril Ramaphosa and Malema – drawn with horns, a tail and pitchfork – whispering in the president’s ear. “We cannot handle more corruption,” the flyer announced.

Standing near the snaking queue outside the Harrison Street Home Affairs office, Vilikazi didn’t want to hear Msimanga’s pitch. She called him “a white man in a black person’s body” and said the party would remove him and Maimane after they had served their purpose in the elections.

Her friend, Vathiswa Blaai, also 30, nodded but said she would support any party that confronts corruption and fraud and allows the disadvantaged access to opportunities. Msimanga had moved on, going to question the manager at Home Affairs about the long queue and allegations of corruption.

What Mmusi (Maimane) has said and continues to say is we’re not a party for whites, we’re not a party for blacks, Indians or coloureds. We’re a party for South Africans. Whether you’re a Christian, whether you’re a Muslim or whatever,” said Msimanga on Saturday at Rand Stadium.

He had been in back-to-back interviews and his “body man”, a sort of personal assistant, was rushing around with his clothes to enable Msimanga to change from his DA aviator jumpsuit into the formal gear he’d wear on stage.

I’m tired of these interviews,” he told his communications manager before we began.

The DA will hold a provincial manifesto launch on 9 March and, if elected, it plans to launch a Gauteng State Capture inquiry and challenge e-tolls in court if an ANC national government won’t act. But Msimanga is light on his specific plans for Gauteng.

Asked for details on how he would tackle youth unemployment, he cited the DA’s general election pitch of professionalising the SAPS, promoting upward economic mobility, regulating immigration, improving co-ordination between different spheres of government, and tackling the trend of jobs being offered for bribes or sexual favours (you can read the full manifesto here).

Government’s job is not to create jobs. The government’s job is to create an environment for jobs to be created,” he added.

Inside the stadium, the manifesto launch was unfolding according to the DA’s minute-by-minute planning, free of the chaos of South African politics. The chaps from Soweto’s Finest dance crew had “made love” to the stage. DA leaders robotically read their speeches from TVs.

It all leads to 8 May and Maimane was right, the critics do doubt the DA’s ambitions. The party spent much of 2018 embroiled in a leadership row with former Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille while the ANC steadied under Ramaphosa, albeit facing damaging testimony at the State Capture Inquiry and terminal factionalism.

The DA won 30.8% of the vote in Gauteng in 2014 compared to the ANC’s 53.6% and the EFF’s 10.3%. In the 2016 municipal elections, not the best indicator of general election results, the DA took 37%, the ANC 46% and EFF 11% in the province. The latest provincial polls put the ANC ahead but below 50%.

Msimanga’s campaign is a gamble. In 2018 he ran for DA federal chairperson but lost to Trollip. Then he had to step down as Tshwane mayor, his most difficult decision during his leadership.

I’d put systems – a lot of systems – in place, a lot of good people in place that we got and I think we were beginning to earn the trust of even those that were sceptical of us when we started taking over that administration,” he said of his time as mayor.

It was bitter-sweet for me to walk away from things that are beginning to shake up – and I can see the results beginning to trickle in – and now walking away from it.”

In less than three months, he may have neither the mayorship or premiership. He said he’s not worried and plans to sit on the Gauteng Provincial Legislature’s opposition benches if he doesn’t become premier.

It has never been about securing myself and wanting to stubbornly stay in a position. Its always been about how do we then better South Africa going forward and that is what is actually driving me.”

He doesnt plan to do it again soon. “It will be my last campaign for a while… This is very taxing.”

But on Saturday and probably every day until the election, he had another speech to give.

Msimanga walked onto the Rand Stadium pitch, his fist raised, and delivered the message he hopes will make him premier.

The DA is the only party that can and will unseat the ANC here in Gauteng to bring the change that the people of Gauteng have long asked for.” DM

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