Meet Mister Joburg

2011-05-07 10:10

We meet at a park, Joburg’s mayor-to-be and I. “I’m Parks,” the youthful Pirates fan says, accompanied by just one bodyguard who looks more like a local university student.

Not Chief, His Excellency or even Comrade. Just plain Parks.

I almost fall on my back on a crisp autumn morning at Orlando West Park.

I had asked Parks Tau, the ANC’s ­unofficial mayoral candidate for Joburg to meet and be interviewed at a spot he would call a happy story of governance in the city.

Parks chooses a park.

I don’t know Tau well, but ­assumed I’d hear his arrival by convoy in dark cars bearing blue lights.

Not. For a journalist used to politicians who travel in convoy with pushy security men and a phalanx of spin doctors, advisers and other hangers-on, he almost had my vote just then.

He is wearing a suit that is best described as “professorial tweed” with an understated ANC golf-shirt beneath. It’s buttoned tight against the weather and a small ANC pin on his lapel provides ­insight into his personality. Tau is the quintessential party man – as I ­later find out.

His CV suggests he is a new generation of politician – the ­activist-turned-bureaucrat, the happy deployment story.

He says: “It’s easy to get to a point of being a classical politician where this is a career. It’s easier for me to see it as a cause.”

Tau has spent most of the past 17 years in city government and has held a number of leadership roles in the provincial ANC. He has been trained at various public-policy and business schools.

Without much charisma or show (it’s hard to get him to pose or to tell me something personal), and a Google search which turns up ­only reams on his role in the city’s billing crisis, Tau is facing a ­challenge from more showy ANC members who want this plum job.

And Joburg is plum: it’s the heartbeat and the showpiece of South ­Africa.

The State of the Cities report, published in April, shows that the city is responsible for 47% of gross-value add, a measure of ­cities’ contributions to national gross domestic product.

Succeeding here can make a young politician’s future, but the job is tough.

It’s a constant fight in Gauteng, where successive ­premiers have wanted to scrap city government in favour of ­turning the entire province into a ­global city region – like Singapore.

Now the DA is putting up a stiff fight, with its own poll-tracking numbers suggesting that it is ­running almost even with the ANC in the city.

Last week’s voter intentions poll showed 37% for the ANC versus 35% for the ­opposition, with 19% of the ­latter’s support from black voters.
“You had to deal apartheid a psychological blow,” says Tau, ­explaining his choice of venue.

The ANC’s campaign in Joburg is built on its Soweto success – it is a city now, and no longer the sad township of a thousand jazzmen’s keening trumpets and of a man carrying a broken child.

Orlando West Park is one of the many ingenious green lungs ­created by City Parks, the agency responsible for green and other public recreational spaces across the city.

According to Tau, in 1994 ­Soweto held one third of the city’s people in its fragile grasp.

“It had the highest per capita concentration of poverty,” says the former Sowetan, who is now a resident of neighbouring Winchester Hills.

But that’s no longer true.

Like many people who have left ekasi, it is clearly still home. Tau is a wealth of information and ­statistics. It’s a pity readers only know him for the billing crisis.

He is almost animated as he points around at what the view from Orlando Park reveals.

His no-nonsense spectacles darken in the sunlight and he points out the monumental Orlando Stadium; the Klip River meandering through the park, clean and free-flowing, later winding its way through other new parks downstream; Pennyville, the pretty housing development; the hostel; and an upgraded New ­Canada ­station.

“That river used to be highly polluted. We invested upstream and uprooted alien vegetation. Now church groups use the river for baptism,” he says.
I can understand why Tau is Luthuli House’s natural choice for Joburg mayor. On asking him what ­animates him and what will gird his term – should he be named mayor – and what his dreams for Joburg are, I expect great flashes and big dreams.

He says: “The national question – the historic subjugation of black people and the need to build a non-racial, prosperous society.”

His language is politics. He ­expands and takes me on a verbal romp through the city’s growth and development strategy.

Parks is a party man. He is no big personality mayor out to spin, like New York’s Rudy Giuliani, and not even like the street-smart Pat De Lille, Cape Town’s next likely mayor. He is a technocrat ­interested in detail and process.

Still, he feels he will be a solid pair of hands for my ­precious city, which had been run with some stability until the ­billing crisis struck late last year.

“We were the first to say, before legislation was passed, that councillors should not be involved in tender awards.

It was at odds with our oversight role. We are probably the only council where ­(tender) deviations are reported to council.”

Although this is what he says, there is evidence to suggest growing and worrying graft in Joburg.

The Mail & Guardian recently ­revealed irregularities and possible conflicts of interest with the awarding of the tender to administer the city’s billing.

And at the heart of the recent strike by ­Pikitup workers lie serious allegations of corruption and fraud.

Tau is a serious man interested in equality and change, so I feel embarrassed to ask him questions I’ve been rehearsing for months about my street;

the traffic lights outside our building at City Press that have been out for more than a year now, causing near crashes as we leave work; or about what a disaster the Joburg Connect call- centre is.

That line can ring for an hour and when it’s answered, you are always, but always, through to the wrong number and then you wait for another hour before giving up.

So I fudge the question into something less personal and more political. I can understand that the poor, marginalised and oppressed must come first.

But Joburg is a highly mobile society. Some of us are moving up classes in one ­generation rather than in three or four, as in other societies.

The middle classes fuel the tax base that allows redistribution – governance is a balancing act between different constituencies.

“It’s always a careful balancing act,” says Tau, adding that 314km of roads have been resurfaced in Soweto, soaking up much of the transport budget.

A mere R150?million is left for maintenance and potholes in the suburbs.

This suggests that his scales balance in one direction only.

I put it to Tau that the city must work for the middle classes and for businesses too, since this is the economic heartbeat of the country and the expanded city.

“It’s a cappuccino,” says Tau, “A bit of froth (white privilege) on top of a mass of coffee (the black under class) with a sprinkling of chocolate (the black middle class) on top.”

I can tell he’s not worried about the froth, the cinnamon, or its ­issues; which makes me wonder why the ANC is advertising at all the airports and at business gatherings – it is either a multiclass, nonracial organisation or not.

Joburg is the economic hub, but I get a sense that Tau is ­uninterested in the role of ­business in the city as partners and as a constituency.

He believes in state-led development and, ­under him, the experiments of the early 90s have been wound up – experiments such as running the city on business principles via ­autonomous

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