Opinionista Herman Mashaba 30 May 2016

Confessions of a reluctant politician

Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of the “fierce urgency of the now”. Recalling those words made me realise that I could not stand by and watch as Johannesburg fell apart at the seems.

As a young boy growing up the small village of GaRamotse in Hammanskraal, I was as far removed from the circles of power as it was possible to be. That I stand before you today as a politician is as much of a surprise to me as it probably was to you when my candidacy was announced.

So allow me to tell you why I have decided to run for Mayor of Johannesburg.

My relationship with the media extends back to my youth when I worked with the media, such as to expose worker exploitation in Babelegi in the late 70s. I regard the media as honourable men and women on the side of truth. The success of our new-found democracy is dependent on the media’s robust engagement with issues that affect our country.

I am 56 years old and I’ve lived under the worst of South Africa’s apartheid laws.

The divisive policies promoted by the National Party government from the late 40s to the late 80s determined every aspect of my life as a black man. The policies determined where I could live. Where my parents could work. How often I could see my mother. The education I was entitled to. The quality of life I could expect to live.

When I finished high school I went to university, determined to educate myself out of poverty. However, it wasn’t to be, and during my second year, I abandoned my studies after student protests.

At that time it would have been so easy to join my friends on a shebeen stool and drink my life away. But I’d been poor, poor enough to only have water to ease the hunger. I realised that hard work and opportunity was the only way I’d save myself from a lifetime of adversity.

Like millions of other black men and women I was forced to feed the apartheid economic machinery, working at jobs that paid menial salaries. Did I deserve a better salary? Of course I did. Were the employers exploiting me? Of course they were.

I fought back by exploiting the few opportunities that came my way.

I used each job as a stepping-stone to get a better job. Within 33 months I bought my own car – a blue Toyota Corolla that I drove off the showroom floor despite the fact that I’d never been behind the wheel of a car in my life!

I started my black hair care business with a R30,000 loan and I partnered with a white chemist who could create the formulas I needed.

Non-racialism and goodness was never an abstract idea for me. I saw it in action.

Policy at the time dictated that I couldn’t own a business in South Africa, so I opened my factory in the homeland of Bophuthatswana. By the time South Africa’s first democratic election was held in 1994, I was enjoying a successful business career – and political freedom had arrived at last for black South Africans.

I have always been animated by the belief that true freedom is the freedom for each person to be whatever he or she wants to be. It was this belief that drove me to succeed in business, and now drives me as I run for public office.

That’s why, in 2014, I publicly announced my membership of the DA. Then, in December 2015, when President Zuma fired Minister Nene, I realised that sitting comfortably on the sidelines with my membership card in my pocket was no use to anyone.

I was reminded of what Martin Luther King Jr. referred to as “the fierce urgency of now”. And so I immediately made myself available to stand for the DA in the Johannesburg mayoral bid.

And now I am a politician. I’ve been on the campaign trail for nearly four months, and experienced every nook of the city during this short time. I’ve seen a city that is falling apart at the seams, one that is constantly being re-stitched together by people who refuse to give up. It is these people that keep me going, people who despite having been given up on by the government, refuse to give up on themselves.

Make no mistake, during the golden age of Mr Mandela’s presidency, solid progress was made to deliver basic services, infrastructure and housing in the City of Johannesburg. That progress has now stalled mainly because jobs dried up. With jobs, people can buy their own homes, taking the pressure off the state to provide homes.

With jobs, we have more revenue to spend on the poor. With jobs, we can lay pipelines of opportunity. With jobs, we have the means to build infrastructure fit for a dynamic city.

Every day I speak to disadvantaged men and women who have no job, who have no access to the most basic of human rights. Likewise do I speak to advantaged men and women in the City who will help me to govern the city once the DA takes office.

It is as a result of all these interactions that I have developed my vision for the city of Johannesburg.

I am not ashamed to say that I am an entrepreneur at heart. And I believe that this will serve me well in public office. I want to see results, I want to understand the feasibility of projects, and I will not lie to my voters. When drawing up my vision for Johannesburg, uppermost in my mind were the following questions: Can I deliver? Am I being honest to voters?

I am not asking voters for a blank cheque. I am asking for five years. When I engage with residents, I am quite candid with them: if I don’t deliver on my vision for Johannesburg, vote me out.

But this campaign is bigger than Johannesburg itself. After all, Johannesburg contributes nearly 17% to the country’s GDP. The great South African story cannot be rewritten if Johannesburg is not transformed.

If Johannesburg works, South Africa works. That is my mantra in this campaign.

It is heartbreaking to witness joblessness on the scale that I see every day. Joblessness affects millions of South Africans – especially young black people who have never been employed and who feel that they never will work.

I know how business works. I’ve got a 30-year track record of creating thousands of jobs. I know that with jobs the DA can eradicate obstacles to opportunities and build the kind of city that everyone wants to call home. A properly managed, dynamic city is the bedrock of innovation and change.

Our vision is to create a city at work over the next five years, with an abundance of job opportunities. We will connect people to training and employment opportunities, and help them find jobs in these new businesses.

We will eradicate red tape and restrictions. I will review and amend by-laws that obstruct business within my first 100 days of office. I will work toward creating a business environment that attracts businesses to the city.

The City of Johannesburg owns many buildings that will be audited and identified to provide affordable commercial spaces for small businesses and shops to reverse the inner city’s decline and bring business back to the City.

I want the city to facilitate development of people and their ideas.

People who are earning are able to access capital and improve their lives. Smart local government is a strategic facilitator and we will connect aspirant entrepreneurs to microfinance and loans to facilitate home ownership and give the impoverished a pathway out of poverty.

You see, in the end, every part of my vision hinges upon creating jobs. It is the golden thread that connects it. With jobs we can expand the tax base. This means more services, more homes and less crime and social decay.

I’d like to thank you for being here. You have an enormous role to play in defending our democracy when our institutions are under threat. Perhaps your role has never been as critical as it is today.

I am confident that our bold vision for the City of Johannesburg is defined by what we stand for, not what we stand against. I am standing here.

But my heart is with those who are jobless on the dusty streets much the same as where I grew up.

They are the people we are fighting for in this campaign. DM

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