Road to 2021 Local Elections
Analysis: ActionSA is poised for a decent first showing in elections, despite some questionable claims
Herman Mashaba is once again running for mayor of Johannesburg – this time at the helm of his own party, ActionSA, rather than through the DA.
Though Mashaba’s track record as mayor last time around was far from stellar, there is enough of a buzz around ActionSA to suggest that you would be foolish to count them out.
Launching the ActionSA manifesto on Wednesday, businessman-turned- politician Mashaba drew a racially diverse crowd to the Old Park Station in Newtown, Johannesburg, in keeping with the positioning of his political party.
“Black, white, Indian, coloured. All deserve to grow up in a country that is prosperous and inclusive,” the party’s Facebook account posted recently.
But at the launch, it wasn’t all Rainbow Nation-talk. More provocatively, one supporter yelled: “This here, today, officially marks the end of apartheid by black leaders on black people!”
It was a telling comment. As Stephen Grootes has previously suggested, Mashaba has been working hard at “decoupling racial identity from voting behaviour”: in other words, legitimising black opposition to the ANC.
Other fans at the launch indicated that part of the appeal of Mashaba’s party is its freshness. ActionSA lacks the messy historical baggage of other parties. As yet, there are no factional fights to distract its representatives and draw unwelcome headlines. And Mashaba himself, despite his stint in the DA, is seen essentially as a maverick.
“I joined ActionSA because I trust Mr Mashaba,” supporter Samu Nkosi said. “He is not a product of the country’s recycling of old and disgraced politicians whose only capability is to divide and steal.”
Of course, Mashaba is no spring chicken; at 62, but he has the vigour of a man decades younger. His tumultuous three-year term as Johannesburg mayor, from 2016 to 2019, has done little to dissuade his supporters.
“You do not want to tell me you do not know what Mr Mashaba did for Johannesburg!” another supporter, Khanyi Manganye exclaimed in disbelief to Daily Maverick.
When asked to expand on what she viewed as Mashaba’s mayoral successes, Manganye seemed to struggle to summon up details. But Mashaba’s campaign has been hard at work pumping out reminders for Johannesburg residents. The former mayor is credited by his new party with, to quote a recent tweet, “cleaning the streets, feeding the hungry, fixing infrastructure and developing the inner city”.
If that makes him sound ever so slightly messianic, his supporters don’t seem to mind.
“I like his saviour-like attitude and I feel it needs support if our country is to go forward,” supporter Nompilo Khumalo said on Wednesday.
In Mashaba’s manifesto launch speech, he listed further successes of his mayoral tenure. “When I served the people of Johannesburg, I established an anti-corruption unit and appointed a former Scorpion to run it. We recruited the best professionals as investigators, and they were given the mandate to do their work without political interference,” he told the crowd.
“The outcome of this process was more than 6,000 cases investigated, totalling R35-billion in transactions and over 700 arrests.”
Yet ActionSA’s claims as to Mashaba’s successes as mayor are, to say the least, contentious. Service delivery in Johannesburg actually worsened under his tenure according to most available metrics, while the portrait of Mashaba as a corruption-buster is undermined by his reported surrendering to the EFF in a number of key respects.
South Africans have notoriously short political memories, however; something which may stand Mashaba in good stead. He also enjoys pockets of support in certain industries: he is credited with insourcing thousands of security guards and remains a darling of many employees of the Johannesburg Metro Police Department (JMPD).
When it comes to the nuts and bolts of ActionSA’s manifesto, there is not much to set it aside from a party like the DA. ActionSA says it will fix local government by prioritising “a customer-centric government”, an “ethical and professional public service”, a “business-friendly environment”, “caring and inclusive governance” and “safety and security”.
But what separates ActionSA from the main political contenders is its “unapologetic” stance on foreigners. Mashaba says that the media constantly misrepresents him by painting him as xenophobic, when in reality all he wants is for immigrants to arrive in South Africa via legal means and obey the law while they are here.
Yet here, too, Mashaba’s rhetoric is questionable. He claims, for instance, that the influx of undocumented migrants is putting enormous strain on the services of local government, but does not provide any evidence that this is the case. What we know, in fact, is that even foreigners with immaculate paperwork struggle to access government services like healthcare due to rampant xenophobia within the system and the threat of being turned away or illegally extorted at every point. Mashaba’s campaigning in this regard will certainly not aid the situation.
The sad reality is that this aspect of his politics is likely to win him votes.
“His platform essentially advocates that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with South African society that cannot be solved by building higher walls,” wrote Christopher McMichael in a scathing piece on Mashaba for New Frame in November 2020.
This is, of course, an appealing thought. And Mashaba doesn’t just want metaphorical higher walls, in terms of our borders. He also wants “partnerships with private security companies and the private sector”, he announced on Wednesday, to produce “a massive network of CCTV cameras that expand the reach of our security efforts”.
In a crime-saturated and exhausted country, this too may be well received. But considered in totality, the portrait of a society Mashaba is set on building begins to look more and more Trumpian – and Mashaba has openly expressed his admiration of the former US president.
Still, ActionSA has credible figures within it beyond Mashaba; notably former ANC MP Makhosi Khoza, who resigned in opposition to former president Jacob Zuma. And though the party is clearly setting its sights on Gauteng – where it has shown a detailed awareness of issues affecting particular communities – it has seemed to succeed in establishing a national infrastructure within a remarkably short time.
It was revealing, too, that Mashaba’s party was alone alongside the DA and the ANC in having recorded donations above R100,000 for the last financial quarter.
In the run-up to the local government elections, South Africans will be hearing about more and more new parties – the IEC just registered another 32 – and new candidates. It is guaranteed, however, that none will be as slick a political machine as ActionSA. DM