A mayor, not a magician

Tony Williams recalls a sign that hung in his mother’s beauty salon in Los Angeles when he was a boy. It read: “Remember ladies, you must have enough hair for the style you want. We are beauticians, not magicians.” 

His mother’s down-home philosophy guided Williams when he became mayor of Washington DC, America’s capital city, in 1999. He was criticised for spending too much money on the wealthy rather than directly on services for the poor, for instance by upgrading parks and giving incentives to companies to move to Washington. 

He responded by saying he had to spend money on such things to attract investment, which would grow the economy, which in turn brought in the taxes, which financed investment in services for the poor. 

“You must have enough economy for the things you want to do. Everyone can talk about redistribution, but if you’re just redistributing a declining pie, what good does that do anybody?” 

Notwithstanding the naysayers, the proof of his mother’s philosophy was in the results. Williams inherited a city on the brink of financial collapse from his predecessor, Marion Barry, who was a civil rights hero but a very poor administrator. 

By the time he left office in 2007, Williams had turned the city around, attracting large investments and leaving it with sizeable cash reserves, a good bond rating, a more accessible healthcare system, a new major-league baseball stadium, decreased crime rates and a growing population. 

Williams conveyed his philosophy to Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba and Tshwane mayor Solly Msimanga when he visited Gauteng recently to enhance dialogue between the US and South Africa on best practices in city management and urban revitalisation. Washington DC and Pretoria are sister cities. 

As it happened, Msimanga and Mashaba are running cities which the DA recently took over from the ANC. So, as he did, they are in a sense rebuilding their cities. 

Though reluctant to “preach”, Williams did say the most important lesson of his experience for any mayor was that rebuilding a city is about rebuilding a sense of community in all its different aspects. And the key to that, in turn, is rebuilding public trust. 

“Public trust is public accountability, it’s stewardship; it’s fiduciary responsibility for the assets of the city. Certainly the budget is a part of that. Accountability is about transparency. You should be able to know what public officials are doing with your money. It’s not their money. They’re not supposed to aggrandise themselves with your money.”

Fond of metaphors, Williams says being a mayor is like being a gardener, creating the right conditions for the economy to grow. A key part of that is public trust. Which includes being able to reassure investors that things at least won’t get worse. 

Public trust was the foundation on which he started to improve public safety and basic public services like keeping the streets clean. Even removing graffiti and fixing broken windows were important, he said. 

Making tough choices

This public trust, faith and respect were vital to enable his government to take the next big step, which was making hard choices, “without being run out of town”. 

“Because if you promise everything to everybody you end up not being able to do anything for anybody [ . . .] If you deliver on those basic things, then they’ll stay with you even with really hard decisions.” 

One of Williams’s toughest decisions was to close the city’s major general public hospital in 2001. Some locals believe he did so simply to cut costs to save the city from bankruptcy. 

He describes it differently, saying the District of Columbia General Hospital wasn’t really serving the best interests of the poor. Poor residents had no healthcare until they really got sick and then they had to go to the subsidised public hospital – “the poor persons’ hospital” – for emergency treatment. 

“That was your healthcare. I was saying, ‘Why is it that when you’re poor, you can only get care when you’re ready to die? That’s insane. Let’s change that and give everyone neighbourhood-based care, proper advanced treatment like everyone else should get, and if they need intensive care or surgery, they go to a choice of hospitals like everybody else in the universe.’” 

Many Washingtonians didn’t like his move. But they stuck with him “because they had confidence in me because I had restored trust”. 

“Now everyone thinks it was one of the greatest decisions ever in the city,” he adds. 


Williams was also criticised for “gentrification”, for subsidising the costs of some poorer people to live in richer areas. 

He rejects this criticism, saying that this mixed housing helped overcome deep socio-economic divides. Market forces prevented that from happening, so it was up to the government to do it. And it provided role models, he added, saying that on the bus to work, he could be sitting next to a poor mother scrabbling to get her two kids to school so she could look for a job or maintain her two jobs. 

“Now when the mother on that bus points to me and tells her two kids: ‘That weird guy with the bowtie used to be the mayor,’ that’s a role model for these kids.” (His bowtie is his trademark.) 

As an African-American, it was especially important for him to show that African-Americans could succeed, particularly after Barry’s failures. He is pleased that there has been a continuity of good governance of African-American mayors since his tenure. 

Lessons for SA

Williams has now visited SA five times and he sees many parallels between the histories of the big cities in both countries. In both the US and SA, the big cities rose to greatness after World War II and then later rapidly decayed. In the US that pivot was in the mid-1960s; it came later in SA. 

Though other causes were at play, Williams says “racial distancing” or “white flight” was a major one in both countries. American whites fled the cities after civil rights kicked in from 1964, and South African whites did the same, as apartheid began crumbling, in the 1980s, he says. 

US cities began clawing back in the 1980s and he is sure that South African cities will do the same. He is very impressed by urban renewal projects he saw in SA, like Arts on Main in the Maboneng precinct in downtown Johannesburg – a “spectacular urban success” which he believes could be replicated in the US and around the world.

Williams’s formula for reviving a city – making the city attractive for investors to come in, to grow the economy, to provide the taxes which finance services like affordable housing – is not enjoying much official blessing at the moment in SA where “radical socio-economic transformation” is the buzzword being touted heavily, at least by President Jacob Zuma’s faction of the ruling party. 

Williams is clearly not impressed by this and believes SA has “to get the train going again”, to grow the economy at over 5%, to really make an impact. “Then you start talking about the social benefits, the economic impacts, positive redistributive strategies.” 

Neither redistributing a declining pie, nor expropriation, is the answer, he says. Instead, it lies in fostering competition, which gives everyone an equal chance. 

To Zuma’s argument that redistribution through growth is not working he says: “The reason that it’s not working through economic growth is that the growth is not high enough.” 

And, recalling his dictum that the foundation for successful governance is public trust, he also quietly suggests, that in this country, “there could be improved accountability, from the national government down”. 

Peter Fabricius was foreign editor of Independent Newspapers for 20 years, writing on African and global issues. He has been writing weekly columns for the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) since 2013. 

This article originally appeared in the 30 March edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here. 

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