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26 September 2017 07:46 (South Africa)
Opinionista Stephen Grootes

Mashaba, Still, and the idiosyncratic nature of ‘corporatised’ Joburg

  • Stephen Grootes
    Grootes for DM.jpg
    Stephen Grootes

    Grootes is the host of the Midday Report on 702 and Cape Talk, and the Senior Political Correspondent for Eyewitness News. He's been part of the political hack pack since before the Polokwane Tsunami, and covers politics in a slightly obsessive manner. Those who love him have recommended help for his politics addiction. He quotes Amy Winehouse.

In the City of Joburg this week the executive mayor, Herman Mashaba, announced that he was firing Anthony Still as the Member of the Mayoral Committee for Environment and Infrastructure Services. Still has gone public with his version – that he was removed from the post because he refused to suspend the CEO of City Power, Sicelo Xulu. This is not the kind of story to garner national headlines. But, because of the personalities and the structures involved, it provides us with an opportunity to examine the dynamics of what happens to parastatal-type entities when power changes hands. In other words, what is happening in Joburg now could show us what will happen in state-owned entities if power changes hands in national government one day.

When the proud residents of Joburg tell you that their city is “different” and unique, they are absolutely correct, in a very special way. The city has a sort of “corporatised” structure. It has a whole series of “municipally owned entities” that provide services, in exchange for fees. So, when you pay your water and lights bill in Joburg, the money gets passed on to City Power for electricity, and Joburg Water for water, and Pikitup for rubbish removal. Life is a little simpler in the other metros. In so many ways.

But this means that each of these entities is really a company, and complies with the Companies Act. As a result, they each have a board, and that board appoints a CEO and executive team, and then the company carries on from there (even the Joburg Zoo had a board at one point, until it was merged with City Parks). It is because of this structure that we constantly have strikes, led by the SA Municipal Workers Union, that are aimed at certain CEOs in Joburg (a cynic might suggest that the real aim of the strike is to replace that CEO with someone more amenable to the unions). So in many ways, the way the city runs itself is quite similar to the way national government runs parastatals. You have a Cabinet minister who represents the “shareholder”, and that minister, with the concurrence of Cabinet, appoints a board to Eskom, or SAA, or Denel, or whatever. In Joburg, you have a Member of the Mayoral Council (or MMC) that is the “shareholder” and who then deals with the board of that entity.

In the case of the dispute between Still and Mashaba, the issue is City Power. Its CEO, Sicelo Xulu, has, again, been accused of misconduct. To listen to his critics, the case is strong. But here’s the thing. Time and time again these same people, sometimes in the unions, sometimes elsewhere, have brought similar claims. There has been a series of separate independent investigations. And he’s been cleared every time. Which means that someone may have an agenda, rather than a real reason to get him out. Still, an experienced hand in local government (he helped to create Joburg Water), appears to understand all of this. Mashaba, the first DA mayor of Joburg who campaigned on an anti-corruption ticket, wants Xulu suspended now.

But, standing in the way of this is the City Power board. On Still’s version, which is almost certainly correct, only the board can suspend Xulu. And it doesn’t want to. At this point, the context matters. The board was appointed by the former ANC administration in the city. It would, obviously, defend its appointments, made during the time of the previous mayor. And, so the DA version would run, it would be obvious that they’re just protecting their mates.

Except for one major point. The chairman of City Power is Frank Chikane. The reverend Frank Chikane. He may have been too close to Thabo Mbeki in the past (and defended the suspension of Advocate Vusi Pikoli), but he is surely not a person who will defend corruption. It would be impossible to make that claim against him. Just the fact that he is the chair of City Power, and won’t suspend Xulu, is surely a reason to pause for thought.

The person in the middle then, between Mashaba and Chikane, has been squeezed. And out he’s popped.

To take a proper, neutral and legal view, the change in administration in government in the city shouldn’t affect all of the city. If people were appointed to positions in “companies” run by the city, they shouldn’t be fired just because the ANC lost an election. As Dr Ivor Sarakinsky from the Wits School of Governance pointed out on the Midday Report on Wednesday, if proper people are appointed to these entities, then they should just stay on. And there is a case here to say that Chikane, and Xulu, are indeed proper people.

But in fact, politically, it is really just not possible to expect Mashaba to accept this, certainly in the longer term. This is not the fault of Chikane or Xulu. It is the fault of the ANC and its policies which have poisoned the well.

One of the dominant arguments of the Mbeki-era, in those innocent days when Waterkloof was an air force base and not a scandal, was over what the ANC calls “cadre deployment”. It is a practice now so common that we have just got used to it. In essence, the party puts who it wants to put in positions in parastatals. There has often been a recognition that skills and experience matter, and in many cases experts are still appointed to these boards. But then there is Dudu Myeni at SAA, or whatever you would like to label the last board of the SABC. It goes even further; the ANC has a publicly announced deployment committee that decides on these appointments.

The logic underlying this is that if government is going to rely on parastatals to achieve government’s objectives, and government’s objectives are those of the governing party, then the governing party should make sure the people in these positions have the same objectives. It is a point often missed by critics of this practice. But, the example of Myeni shows some of its inherent flaws. People are appointed for specific reasons, sometimes it seems, specifically to engage in corruption. Often people are given positions on these boards for other political reasons, and not because they will add any value.

In this context then, it is easy to understand why someone like Mashaba would be so keen to just get as many of the ANC-deployed cadres out of City Power so quickly. Who could blame him, considering the track record of so many of these entities, and how quickly corruption cases have mounted up.

And the same would surely hold for any party that gains power at the expense of the ANC in the future. Why would they want to keep people appointed by the ANC in these positions? Particularly if you stop to consider the amount of sabotage they could cause. Imagine the number of international trips Myeni could go on in the weeks after an election. But at the same time, you would not want to simply throw out every board and every appointment. That would be a recipe for disaster.

There is no easy way for an incoming party to manage this. You would want to change boards and deployments, and not cause chaos at the same time. Or, as President Jacob Zuma once put it, you want to have “continuity and change”. In the end, you cannot have both. You have to pick and choose. But hopefully, if that time does come when a new party takes over, it will be led by people with cool heads. Who will know someone of integrity when they see them. And not throw their own people overboard in their rash rush to act. DM

  • Stephen Grootes
    Grootes for DM.jpg
    Stephen Grootes

    Grootes is the host of the Midday Report on 702 and Cape Talk, and the Senior Political Correspondent for Eyewitness News. He's been part of the political hack pack since before the Polokwane Tsunami, and covers politics in a slightly obsessive manner. Those who love him have recommended help for his politics addiction. He quotes Amy Winehouse.

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