The welcoming warmth of the office and her affable smile belie the real toughness of Ekurhuleni’s first female city manager, Imogen Maboikanyo Mashazi.
The 60-year-old epitomises the Sotho idiom that says: “Mosadi o tshoara thipa ka bohaleng [A woman holds the knife by the sharp end of the blade]” – meaning she would go to any lengths to fight for what she believes in.
She has tackled patriarchy and women empowerment since she began the demanding task of running the massive municipality four years ago.
August, being Women’s Month, sees the metro celebrate commendable success when it comes to the recruitment, placement and promotion of women under Mashazi’s watch. She is proud to whip out statistics and facts to support this.
“If you look at my previous position, my three divisional heads were women,” she told City Press in an interview this week at her office in Germiston.
“We have to ensure that women play a big role in the system, so, when I started as the city manager, I challenged myself to increase the number of women. The Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Police Department (EMPD), and the disaster and emergency management services were historically male-dominated, and that’s where I started.
“We started by recruiting women so that, by the time we promoted them, they were ready to move up the ranks. We have already promoted women to director level, as well as into deputy chief superintendent and inspector positions, and we are still within our targets. We have also recruited about 400 female EMPD officers,” she said.
Mashazi had a rather colourful upbringing, having lived in three different townships in Gauteng. She left Atteridgeville in Pretoria when she was still young and moved to Soweto, where she matriculated.
She was lured to Ekurhuleni by love she had found in Vosloorus, where she settled and got married to a man she calls “the most wonderful husband ever”.
After matriculating from Meadowlands High School, Mashazi trained as a nurse at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Diepkloof. She then enrolled for a course in clinical health assessment treatment. This was in the 1970s, which she recalls as a time of great rebellion that led to the Soweto uprising in 1976.
“During the 1976 protests, white doctors refused to come to Soweto, so they took qualified professional nurses and trained them as clinicians.
“We were allowed to register and to prescribe schedule 1 to schedule 4 medication.
“Afterwards, I went for my junior degree. Unfortunately, I had to leave Soweto and move to Vosloorus after I got married,” Mashazi says.
“After stints at Pholosong Hospital in Tsakane, Brakpan, and in casualty wards in Boksburg, I was head-hunted to train nurses in clinical health assessment treatment. Remember, after 1994, government introduced free primary healthcare and the system was not ready in terms of doctors and support staff.
“We also started what was called municipal health, which was responsible for immunisation and family planning,” she says proudly.
Mashazi was again head-hunted, this time to work at the Springs Town Council, where she was in charge of clinics. She said she had to report to two bosses who were not even health professionals – something that she will never forget.
“Around 2000, an idea came to form a metro, and a department called health and social development was formed, and I was appointed as the director. The department received a lot of trophies for increasing the cure rate of TB to more than 85%, which was above the national norm. Those are some of the milestones we achieved.
“We also did an HIV/Aids programme when there was still a big stigma around the disease. We needed to change the lives of the people we were working for,” she says.
After being appointed as chief operating officer of the metro by former Ekurhuleni mayor Mondli Gungubele, she was promoted to city manager in 2016. Since she came on board, the municipality has not recorded any wasteful or unauthorised expenditure.
“In fact, we have reduced our irregular expenditure by at least R5 million,” she says.
Although Ekurhuleni is one of the best performing metros in the country, Mashazi says they still face serious challenges, including low revenue generation caused by a culture of non-payment by residents.
“We understand that people are not employed. People from informal settlements and in the townships are trying to do illegal connections, but we are busy with credit control and are removing all illegal structures. Everyone who gets electricity must pay. If you cannot pay, you must prove to us that you are indigent. If you can pay Edgars and ignore your municipal account, we are going to cut you off.
“The SA Police Service and the SA National Defence Force are working with us. We have set aside R1.2 billion to repair substations and all the equipment that has been destroyed by illegal connections.”
Being a woman and a parent of three children, the city manager is concerned about the increasing level of gender-based violence that has gripped the country, and says government cannot fight this battle alone.
“Government is trying its best, but families, NGOs and ordinary citizens must join hands in this fight. Government has invested a lot of money to ensure that we have programmes [to end gender-based violence], and it is bullish in its quest.”