BOOK EXTRACT

The Accidental Mayor: Herman Mashaba and the Battle for Johannesburg

By Michael Beaumont 8 June 2020

What’s the real story behind the resignation of Herman Mashaba as mayor of Johannesburg and from the Democratic Alliance? Did he jump, or was he pushed? And what role — if any — was played by the Institute of Race Relations? Mashaba’s former chief of staff Michael Beaumont describes the events after that dramatic day in South African politics in this extract from his book, ‘The Accidental Mayor’, published by Penguin.

The day after his resignation, Mashaba woke up to a WhatsApp message from Helen Zille.

HZ: Dear Herman. I would genuinely and sincerely like to invite you onto my podcast Tea With Helen. I do not mind how rude you are about me. I can take it. I don’t get offended. I would just like to know what has changed in our relationship and why. It puzzles me. Kind regards. Helen.

HM: Hi Helen. Good luck with your future endeavors. Regards Herman.

HZ: What a nice surprise to hear from you. Please will you have tea with me on my podcast. I respect your forthrightness and will enjoy hearing you say these things to me. We will have a good, open chat. Please Herman. I will be decent, respectful and listen to your arguments, but I think we need to have this conversation face-to-face, I really do. I was sorry you did not reply to my message when I asked to chat to you before you announced your resignation. Kind regards

HM: Hi Helen. Our relationship is water under the bridge. Let’s both of us move on and accept that as a fact. Regards Herman

HZ: We have always had a very good relationship. In fact, I was one of the people who worked to recruit you to the DA. What happened? I do think we need to talk about that. When things happen that appear inexplicable to me, I like to understand what is going on. Kind regards.

HM: Hi Helen. I suggest you find all the answers in your heart. I can’t be part of that. Regards Herman.

Later that morning, Zille appeared on eNCA, where she said:

I have always been friends with Herman Mashaba and this morning we had a wonderful little chat on WhatsApp and I am not a vindictive person and I don’t know why he has come up with these arguments suddenly. There must be something else that lies behind his resignation and now he quickly uses this convenient card to give himself a justification. There is much more behind the scenes than meets the eye. So Herman Mashaba and I have always been friends and we have had a very nice little engagement on WhatsApp today so I feel good about that.

Clearly Zille was not playing an honest game. Her motive for trying to engage Mashaba appeared to be nothing more than an attempt to vindicate herself from the mounting criticism that her return was causing chaos in the DA.

Two days later, Mmusi Maimane resigned as leader of the DA. Federal chairperson Athol Trollip also stepped down. Zille stood awkwardly behind them during the press conference, looking like she had eaten an entire lemon tree.

In his speech, Maimane drew attention to a group within the DA who had been undercutting his leadership and attempting to destroy his reputation. Like Mashaba, he no longer believed the DA could deliver the dream of one South Africa for all.

Maimane intended to stay on as an MP and DA parliamentary leader until the end of the year, but the caucus wasted no time in telling him that was not going to happen. The very next day, he resigned as an MP and DA member.

To find out who was behind the move to topple Maimane and stage the coup that would change the direction of the DA, one must ask the question qui bono — who benefits? Because in the election of a new leadership, in the appointments that they make and in the companies they contract, you will find your answers. The DA went into damage-control mode. Except this time there was no united organisation to defend its position and reputation. The vast majority of the DA was silent, unwilling to dismiss Mashaba and Maimane’s allegations.

Instead, it was left to Zille and her supporters. They launched a series of attacks on social media, all with the aim of coaxing a response from Mashaba and providing the DA with the internal support to axe him before the end of his notice period on 27 November.

They once again dredged up Mashaba’s statements made prior to his entry to active politics in which he questioned the race-based policies of the ANC. They wanted to paint him as a hypocrite for later challenging the DA’s race denialism.

The EFF had avoided all the DA’s attempts to negotiate. This was clearly because the EFF had put all their stock in talks with the ANC. This was perhaps fortunate, because the DA’s federal executive had given their negotiating team nothing to work with, denying them a mandate to offer anything beyond the current arrangement.

One of the attacks focused on an allegation that, under his leadership, the Free Market Foundation had held a conference in Orania, the conservative, Afrikaner, all-white town in the Northern Cape. Zille challenged Mashaba on Twitter to explain. Within days, the Free Market Foundation released the following press statement:

The most interesting thing about Helen Zille’s allegation that Herman Mashaba was Free Market Foundation (FMF) President when the FMF held a Libertarian Seminar in Orania under his watch, is that none of it is true.

Mashaba was never FMF President, the FMF has never held a Libertarian Seminar (LibSem), and the FMF has never held an event in Orania.

We could leave it there, but for relevant elaboration.

LibSems have been held annually for 40 years, often in obscure places. Since Zille agreed to speak at LibSem four days ago, she should not castigate Mashaba for a LibSem association, even if he had one.

Although Mashaba was never FMF President — Dr Sam Motsuenyane has been for many years — he was Chairman from 15 May 2012 to 17 June 2014, ie before the Orania LibSem in 2015.

The FMF has always been, and remains, (a) politically agnostic and (b) willing to inform members of events that might interest them.

When asked to comment, Zille blamed her source and refused to accept any responsibility for her allegations — a significant departure from her tendency to castigate people in the media for failing to live up to her journalistic standards.

Throughout it all, Mashaba remained silent, refusing to be drawn into a political squabble. He did not engage Zille and her acolytes, and would not comment when asked to do so by a hungry press eager to fuel the fires.

The day Mashaba left office was deeply emotional for my team and me. We’d had to come to terms with walking away from a project into which we had invested so much of ourselves. I was at home that evening when I received a WhatsApp from Zille. “Hi Mike, I would like you please to level with me,” it read. “I am told that you wrote Herman Mashaba’s resignation speech in which he cited me as the reason for resigning. Is that true?”

I understood immediately what she was trying to do. If I distanced myself from Mashaba’s speech, she would use it to publicly suggest that he did not have the support of his own team. If I associated myself with the speech, she would use that to tarnish my reputation in the DA.

I responded: “Hi Helen. Having been a Premier and an Executive Mayor you would appreciate that political staff do not get to either claim ownership of, or disassociate from the speeches made by their principals. Regards Michael.”

Zille replied with “what does that mean?” It was clear to me that she wanted an outcome she could use. I had started to type, “Helen, it means I am staying in my lane” when my wife took the phone from my hands. Zille’s insensitivity and callousness left me incredulous. Surely she would have known what an emotional day it had been and that words of support, or at least a suggestion that there was solace to be found in our achievements, would have been more appropriate.

As further testimony of what I regard to be Zille’s dishonesty, on 11 November 2019 the DA’s selection panel had met to nominate a candidate for mayor of Johannesburg. They used this opportunity to rubbish Mashaba’s claim that they wanted to collapse the governance arrangements. Three of Mashaba’s MMCs had applied: Funzela Ngobeni, Mpho Phalatse and Leah Knott. As regional chairperson of the DA in Johannesburg, deputy caucus leader and the leader of executive business in the city — a de facto deputy to the mayor — Ngobeni was the logical choice. He served as the MMC of finance, and of development planning before that, and thus had a mastery of key portfolios. He had worked with Mashaba daily to manage the coalition and was the most skilled person for the job.

Zille and her supporters on the selection panel had other ideas. They wanted Knott and, from the account of those present, blatantly tried to skew the scoring system in her favour. Nevertheless, Ngobeni prevailed by four points (any rational assessment would have had him win by a landslide). Apparently, when the scores were tallied, Zille became enraged and accused members of the selection panel of colluding to engineer Ngobeni’s victory. Ironic, considering her own alleged actions.

Knott, the MMC of economic development, was one of the newer appointments. She had limited exposure to the core functions of the city, had a propensity to focus on extraneous detail at the expense of the big picture, had never come close to a coalition discussion and played no role in caucus or regional DA leadership. Given her objective unsuitability relative to Ngobeni for the position, why did she have Zille’s backing? We came to believe that Zille and her followers wanted a candidate that the coalition and the EFF could not possibly support. Zille and co. could thereby collapse the government without being seen doing so. When Knott failed to pass through council, they would claim she was rejected on the grounds of race, an idea they could sell to the traditional DA support base they were so fixated on regaining.

The election for the new mayor of Johannesburg was held on 4 December 2019. The DA’s Funzela Ngobeni was up against the ANC’s Geoff Makhubo and the EFF’s Musa Novela. In South Africa, the single transferable vote system is used in the election of mayor. Each elector initially votes for their most preferred candidate. After the first round of secret balloting, should no candidate have a majority, the candidate with the least votes is eliminated and further rounds of balloting take place until a candidate secures a majority.

The EFF had avoided all the DA’s attempts to negotiate. This was clearly because the EFF had put all their stock in talks with the ANC. This was perhaps fortunate, because the DA’s federal executive had given their negotiating team nothing to work with, denying them a mandate to offer anything beyond the current arrangement.

In the early hours of voting day, the EFF eventually reached out to the DA. Their talks with the ANC had obviously stalled, most probably around the EFF’s opposition to Makhubo as mayor. They were now willing to make a deal that would keep Johannesburg in the hands of the multiparty coalition. In return, they wanted the positions of speaker, chief whip and five committee chairpersons. It was a sweetheart deal — the DA would not have to give up any of its vital executive positions. The negotiators presented this offer to the party’s leadership, who rejected it out of hand. According to several members of the federal executive whom I spoke to, no effort was made to engage the federal executive whatsoever.

On the day of the vote, from what I saw, Johannesburg was in mourning over the potential return of looting and corruption. The sole communication from the DA’s newly elected federal leadership was a tweet from Zille, retweeting Hermann Pretorius, campaigns coordinator for the IRR, who said the following: “Huge & necessary. The DA in Cape Town showed coalitions can work. Only if the Cape Town experience can be repeated, should the party go into coalition or similar arrangements. The DA sold its soul to gain power. An unsustainable short-term win. Time to take a longer-term view.” I could not imagine anything more out of touch and yet more fitting than for Zille to be seen celebrating the collapse of Johannesburg through the IRR.

As it happened, between three and eight DA councillors broke rank and voted for the ANC’s Makhubo, who obtained a majority in the first round of balloting. A few coalition partners also did so, clearly unhappy with the DA that had emerged in recent times. In my view, the number of coalition partners who jumped ship was exaggerated. I had it on good authority that some of them initially remained loyal to the coalition and therefore I believe the number of DA councillors who broke rank was closer to eight. Councillors in the former coalition also told me that their parties felt completely under-engaged by the DA nationally in the run-up to this vote and that all efforts to seek engagement had been ignored.

Those disloyal DA councillors used the benefit of a secret ballot to sell out the residents of Johannesburg. The DA caucus met straight afterwards and resolved to subject all of its councillors to polygraph tests to find out who had defected. This never happened; somewhere further up the chain of command, the idea was shut down.

On the day of the vote, from what I saw, Johannesburg was in mourning over the potential return of looting and corruption. The sole communication from the DA’s newly elected federal leadership was a tweet from Zille, retweeting Hermann Pretorius, campaigns coordinator for the IRR, who said the following: “Huge & necessary. The DA in Cape Town showed coalitions can work. Only if the Cape Town experience can be repeated, should the party go into coalition or similar arrangements. The DA sold its soul to gain power. An unsustainable short-term win. Time to take a longer-term view.” I could not imagine anything more out of touch and yet more fitting than for Zille to be seen celebrating the collapse of Johannesburg through the IRR.

Earlier, after Zille’s election as federal council chair and Maimane’s subsequent resignation as leader, the DA had published a column written by Frans Cronjé, CEO of the IRR, on its website. Never before, in my memory at least, had the party published anything written by an outside source on its own website. Titled “Seven lies about change in the DA”, the opinion piece alleged that it was untrue “that there was an ‘exodus’ of black leaders from the DA”, “that black people would only vote for a black DA leader”, “that the DA wants to lead South Africa back to apartheid”, “that Maimane was very popular and that the DA made a huge mistake by letting him go”, “that the DA will now ‘give up’ Johannesburg and Pretoria to the ANC”, “that the DA does not want black leaders”, and “that the Institute of Race Relations… conducted a coup within the DA and took over the party”.

The fact that the IRR felt compelled to come to the defence of the new “true liberal” and colour-blind leadership structure of the DA only served to demonstrate, in my view, their unhealthy involvement in the party’s internal power struggle. The fact that the DA chose to publish this article on its own website all but proved that the IRR had been successful.

A well-known author who had interviewed a senior IRR representative later claimed that they had boasted about having been consulted on the DA’s election review, and commenting on it as well. The party maintained that the review was conducted internally among public representatives, staff and donors. I suspect that no other organisation was consulted.

In short time, a motion of no confidence was submitted against the DA speaker of council, with the ANC now certain of success. Nevertheless, their first attempt failed, and within days the MEC of cooperative governance and traditional affairs bypassed the speaker and instructed the city manager to call another meeting. This was apparently unlawful from even the most generous reading of the law. At a meeting where the DA was not present, a majority was obtained and the speaker was removed.

Weeks later I learnt that the DA’s caucus leadership team had made numerous efforts to get the DA to challenge this apparently illegal process. They found themselves up against a brick wall. In a final effort, the caucus leadership team held a meeting with Zille. After much debate, according to the councillors present, Zille snapped and said, “It is time that you all realise the DA is a 20 per cent party and we must focus on our traditional base.” The shift in the DA was now complete. It had no ambitions to unseat the ANC, govern and improve the lives of people outside the Western Cape. It was now going to be the party that we had fought so hard for it not to be: a small, suburban and largely minority representative party.

The coterie around Zille went into overdrive trying to blame Mashaba for the loss of Johannesburg. After being the greatest critics of Mashaba and his government, they were now suddenly lamenting the loss of this vital city. The simple truth is that Johannesburg has an ANC mayor today because DA councillors broke rank and voted to collapse the multiparty government. Their treachery cannot be seen outside of the context of the election review report and the new leadership of the party. Considering that Mashaba was due to face another ANC-led motion of no confidence in November 2019, what chance would he have stood anyway, with such councillors positioned behind his back?

In the months that followed, the DA continued to drift further away from ordinary South Africans. I was later shown messages by Funzi Ngobeni, the former DA caucus leader and Johannesburg regional chairperson, that had been sent by the interim federal leader of the DA, John Steenhuisen, on 27 February 2020. The message attempted to persuade the DA in council to vote against the policy to address spatial inequality in Johannesburg — the Nodal Review — which had now, embarrassingly, been brought by the ANC government. In his message, Steenhuisen said that supporting the Nodal Review would cause the DA “to take political pain, with no gain for us as the opposition in that Council”. Seemingly, the fact that it addressed the serious issue of spatial inequality was not a factor worthy of consideration. The fact that such policies had been sponsored in Cape Town and other DA-run municipalities in the past, and were now being challenged, proved how the DA had changed.

This particular engagement, after the long fight with members of the caucus when we were in government, in part led to Funzi Ngobeni resigning his membership of the party on 2 March 2020 and consequently his role as Johannesburg regional chairperson, caucus leader and likely candidate for the DA’s mayoral campaign in 2021. Another prominent black leader and a good democrat gone.

Tshwane followed on the heels of Johannesburg, and was eventually placed under administration in March 2020, following a series of collapsed council meetings. Zille and the “true liberals” had got what they wanted. As per the election review panel’s findings, the coalition arrangements were relegated to the rubbish heap as “mistakes”. The beauty of it all was that they got what they wanted without being seen as the aggressors in the collapse of these governments. I believe this will come back to haunt the DA in the next local government elections. The DA has effectively told South Africans that it cannot govern in coalition. Given that the party’s prospects of gaining outright majorities anywhere are slim, what do DA voters actually have to vote for in 2021? DM

Michael Beaumont is Herman Mashaba’s former chief of staff. The Accidental Mayor, billed as a “tell-all” book about the events behind Mashaba’s resignation as mayor of Johannesburg and from the DA, is published by Penguin.

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