From petrol attendant to Cape Town's new City manager

2018-05-11 13:06
City of Cape Town city manager Lungelo Mbandazayo. (Jenni Evans/News24)

City of Cape Town city manager Lungelo Mbandazayo. (Jenni Evans/News24)

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The past week has been dramatic for Cape Town's new City manager Lungelo Mbandazayo, with the start of his tenure marked by the axing of Patricia de Lille as mayor. For 12 years, the 56-year-old lawyer, who was once a petrol attendant, has kept a relatively low profile as Director of Legal Services and as Executive Director of Corporate Services for the City.

Taking over from predecessor Achmat Ebrahim, who resigned in January amid allegations of misconduct, the City is not only dealing with governance issues but is also close to running out of water and is managing increasing protests over demands for better services, land and affordable housing. At the same time, it is managing the blow-back over proposed tariff hikes. Jenni Evans met the man behind the story.

New city manager Lungelo Mbandazayo had barely put his family portraits on his desk when, as then-acting city manager, scandal hit. He was accused of impropriety for signing off a bursary for a staffer, but was quickly cleared by the City.

On April 26, after an application, interview, background check and recommendation process, Mbandazayo was announced as the new city manager for a five-year term – a decision endorsed at a council meeting.

But who is the man who was prepared to step in during one of the most tumultuous times in the City's post-democratic history?

"Did you hear about the Kei Cuttings?" he asked News24 in the calm of his office, a day before drama involving the mayoral position of Patricia de Lille struck.

"I grew up in those valleys. I know it by foot – those bridges, those mountains."

With a wireless playing music softly in the background and lights switching off automatically in parts of the office where there was no movement, he showed no signs of the storm that the DA, the majority party in the council, was about to dump on his glass-covered desk.

Cape Town city manager Lungelo Mbandazayo
City of Cape Town city manager Lungelo Mbandazayo in his office. (Jenni Evans/News24)

Growing up during apartheid in the Manqulo Administrative Area, near Butterworth in the Eastern Cape, with his school teacher parents Enoch and Georgina, and six siblings, he never imagined he would end up in a black wingback chair talking about life as a city manager.

"I am very humbled. Looking at where I come from, I never, when I grew up, anticipated that I would be here," he said.

"That I would be the steward of the most prized asset in Africa."

He says the first time he wore shoes was when his parents sent him to boarding school at the Blytheswood Institution near Butterworth.

Interest in politics, social justice

Co-founded with money raised by Mfengu chiefs and the Church of Scotland, the Presbyterian boarding school he was packed off to was where much of life as he knew it changed.

Before that, he had walked great distances to primary school, sometimes wearing only a long shirt, and spent his free time exploring the Kei valleys.

He says his children laugh when he starts telling these stories, including the one about the first time he slept on a bed, when he went to boarding school.

It was also at that school, chosen by his deeply religious father, that his interest in politics and social justice was piqued.

Sitting under the trees, or kicking a ball around during free time, he and his school mates started talking about what was going on around them as the apartheid government tightened its grip against black people.

This included the Mbandazayos almost losing their home through an attempted land grab by the government.

At the time, the apartheid government was executing its "homeland" policy in the region to create the separate "states" of Ciskei and Transkei for black people. Their officials would go to the houses when the men were far away at work and start the removals process, he recalled.

The place he grew up in had once been filled with agricultural fields, but was fast becoming overgrown and forested as people were being forced out.

"It was really traumatic," he recalls.

His mother, who was a "quiet somebody, but very strong", had to wait for his father to get back from work late on Friday by bus from his far-flung teaching post, to tell him what was happening.

'Something wrong with the system'

His father resisted, even going to court, but their victory created resentment among some people who had already been moved.

The lone Mbandazayo house can still be seen from one of the Kei Cuttings' hairpin bends, and sometimes he returns there for the sound of the familiar birds and rivers of his childhood to "de-stress".

However, as the Blytheswood boarders debated life and politics, the police were taking notes. Pupils were frequently scooped up by police, even if they had nothing to do with politics, or "names were taken" to intimidate them. This only served to galvanise them against the regime, he said.

"You start to feel: there is something wrong with the system."

His late brother, the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) official Mahlubi Mbandazayo, and former PAC president Clarence Makwetu, were also "moving around" the Alice and Lovedale area a lot, and spending time with them also influenced his political views.

With no money for university after matric, Mbandazayo's first job was as a petrol attendant.

His parents had expected him to be independent immediately and he accepted that, but he hatched a plan around the bowsers.

He resigned and joined a large company, entering as a labourer, with his sights set on getting into office work as a means to improve his education.

He became a clerk to a man with a Grade 7 and worked at mastering the job. He got his big break when the company gave him a bursary to study medical technology in what was then known as Natal.

But on his way to his transport for the journey, the company told him he could not go anymore because the class was "full". He later discovered that he lost his place at the institution because of his political leanings.

'Look on the positive side'

Devastated, he went home to seek solace from his father.

"You know, he just laughed at me, literally laughed, and I was angry with him," said Mbandazayo.

"I couldn't understand. Why would he be so cruel?"

But his father said that sometimes a divine message is communicated "through evil" and in this case, the message was: perhaps he was not destined to be a medical technologist.

"Don't look on the negative side – that's what he was trying to tell me. Look on the positive side."

He was later made a site manager for the same company and saved hard to put himself through university.

In the meantime, he met retired advocate Dumisa Ntsebeza and Themba Sangoni, who later became a judge president of the Eastern Cape, and became inspired to study law.

He was accepted at the University of Fort Hare, and remembers the complicated travel plans the students had to make to avoid the "border posts" of the homelands in the area, as well as having to get permission from the government to go and study there in the first place.

There was another attempt by the security apparatus to prevent him from registering because of his political activities, but he graduated with a B Proc and went on to complete an LLB at university in Pietermaritzburg.

He completed his articles in East London and was finally admitted as an attorney.

Restoring Cape Town's 'lost ground'

Mbandazayo also helped found the Pan African Students Organisation, at a meeting in Roodepoort, west of Johannesburg.

As an attorney, he later provided legal services to PAC activists applying for amnesty at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, helping commissioners understand the motivations of members as they hoped for amnesty.

But in his job as city manager, politics do not matter, even though he and the embattled De Lille were once active in different structures of the same party.

His job now is to make sure the City works, putting in a minimum shift from 06:30 to 18:00.

Lungelo Mbandazayo and Ian Neilson
City of Cape Town city manager Lungelo Mbandazayo with acting mayor Ian Neilson. (Jenni Evans/News24)

He said that, when he took office, there were no "surprises" for him because by then, the dirty laundry had already been aired.

A plan with timelines has been put in place to deal with it, and the Auditor General's office has given its blessing so far for the plans.

"For me, I don't want delays with service delivery," says Mbandazayo, as the City deals with waves of protests.

"I understand it, if I put myself in their shoes. They are living in those environments, that is difficult."

But he does not accept that damage to property has a place in rectifying protesters' problems.

He says the current situation over the mayor and the corruption allegations is "not ideal", but it is not affecting the work of the municipality and he is determined to restore Cape Town's "lost ground" and credibility.

"I always remember my father's words. Whilst it is not good what happened, it is a wake-up call for us."


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