Newsmaker – Afzul Rehman: Number 1 mayor

2014-10-20 07:00

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Afzul Rehman believes local government must be run as a business, with ratepayers receiving the maximum return on their investment.

That’s why Newcastle’s young mayor – he’s only 40 – has stopped providing free lunches to councillors, laying out food at official functions and printing council agendas.

The resultant savings have been ploughed into capital expenditure, allowing Newcastle, in KwaZulu-Natal, to increase its capex budget fivefold without borrowing a cent.

The father of three, who was recently named KwaZulu-Natal’s top mayor for the third year in a row, even sounds more like a businessman than a politician, talking about “making systems more effective” and “taking hard decisions”.

But Rehman is unapologetic.

“We have had to take some hard decisions where it has been necessary,” he said this week. “It is something that’s had to be done. We can’t make promises to people and not keep them.”

Among the “hard decisions” he made was to stop providing free lunch to councillors and staff. The ruling saved around R500 000 a year. These days, Newcastle’s councillors and staff have to bring their own lunches or cough up R100 a day for food. They even have to pay for their own tea and coffee.

The cost cutting didn’t stop there.

A total ban on providing food at functions followed, along with a move to paperless council meetings. Gone are the 130-page, photocopied agendas.

Now Newcastle’s 40 civil servants and 61 councillors receive agendas and correspondence on the tablets they get as part of their perks package. This saved the municipality R8 million a year.

The streamlining allowed Rehman – an IFP ward councillor who defected to the ANC in 2009 – to increase Newcastle’s capital expenditure from R86?million in 2009 to R229 million in 2010, R407?million in 2013 and R492 million this year.

The surplus came without borrowing a cent, something Rehman is exceptionally proud of.

Rehman believes constantly “looking at changing the way things are done to make systems more effective” has been the key to the municipality’s success in rolling out infrastructure.

“By looking at ways of making sure we spend our infrastructure budget on projects that have real value for people – halls, clinics, parks, pools, roads, things that they can touch and feel – we are making sure we do deliver services.

“This is why we are not having service-delivery protests in Newcastle.” Rehman told City Press

this week.

“In the last financial year, we spent 95% of our capex budget. This is more than 20% above the national average. This is something I’m very proud of because this is what allows us to do things that really make people’s lives better.”

But watching the bottom line is not all Rehman – whose familiarity with figures comes from spending his teens and early twenties running the family building material business in Newcastle – is cognisant of. He is also very aware of keeping in touch with his customers.

An avid fan of fiction who reads to “escape”, Rehman circulates his mobile number at council and community meetings, engages residents via Twitter and Facebook (he manages his own accounts, he says), and responds to questions from ratepayers every week in the local newspaper.

Newcastle’s residents are very lucky ... especially since Rehman got into politics by default.

“My dad [Farouk, an IFP MPL from 1994 to 1999] wanted me to be a doctor,” Rehman laughs. “I was managing the family business and would have to help the people who came to him for assistance while he was in the legislature.

“My dad and mum were always very active about helping people in the community. I grew up wanting that as well, but I’d never thought of politics. It all led to me standing as a ward councillor and winning the ward. I was 21.”

His winning ways have continued during his meteoric political career. On his watch, the ANC has consolidated its position from 47% in 2009 to 72% in this year’s general election.

“I’m excited about the 2016 election. We’ve done our work. We’ve delivered. We talk to our people, so if we keep up the work, we’re on track.”

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