EXTRACT | The Accidental Mayor: Herman Mashaba and the Battle for Johannesburg

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The Accidental Mayor: Herman Mashaba and the Battle for Johannesburg by Michael Beaumont is published by Penguin Random House South Africa.
The Accidental Mayor: Herman Mashaba and the Battle for Johannesburg by Michael Beaumont is published by Penguin Random House South Africa.

Mashaba’s challenges with the DA were compounded by the fact that the party was going through an existential crisis. It had become deeply divided and those factional lines were drawn from the top all the way down to our caucus

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It was deeply ironic that the most difficult coalition partner, the one that did the most to bring about the downfall of our delicate arrangement, was the DA.

It was infuriating and disappointing that Mashaba was left to manage this nearly impossible coalition without the support of his own party.

There were of course good people in the DA who recognised the value Mashaba brought to the party and to Johannesburg. Party leader Mmusi Maimane, federal council chair James Selfe and CEO Paul Boughey all got behind Mashaba, as did Gauteng provincial leader John Moodey and chairperson Mike Moriarty.

These individuals understood the challenges Mashaba faced and recognised the work he was doing to deliver change to the city. They also understood his value as a non-career politician.

But they were largely alone in their efforts.

The challenge was the rank and file of the party’s public representatives – including councillors, and members of the national and provincial legislatures – many of whom were not ready, equipped or mature enough to wrap their minds around the complexities inherent in governing, much less in governing in coalition.

In the run-up to the 2016 local government elections, prominent ANC national executive committee member Barbara Creecy warned one of our senior leaders: ‘Be careful what you wish for.’

No doubt aware that the ANC could potentially lose Johannesburg, she said that being in opposition was easy compared to governing.

She was right.

It is important to remember that the DA was a 1.6 per cent party in 1994. Outside of the Western Cape, many of the DA’s prominent members have had little or no exposure to actual governing.

They have spent their entire political careers on the opposition benches, where they do not have to grapple with the complexities of government. They have never been responsible for addressing backlogs that vastly exceed the ability of a budget to remedy them.

They have not had to deal with the ridiculous legal framework under which local government has to achieve miracles against public expectation, which is, at times, patently unrealistic. Most have never had to understand the dynamics of a seven-way voting arrangement. In opposition, you are not faced with any of these issues.

Having now worked in both opposition and government, I can say without question that opposition is relatively easy. Your success in opposition lies in the speeches you make, the issues of public importance you identify and the means by which you drive them.

In opposition, you do not have to grapple with the complexity of an issue.

In fact, you have to actively simplify it in order to better critique the efforts of the incumbent government. Auditor-general reports are relished as opportunities to brand non-compliance as corruption and wasteful expenditure.

You don’t see the intricacies of a highly legislated supply chain process, which produces compliance challenges in an environment that politicians are strictly forbidden from entering.

Once we took over Johannesburg, we came to see that governing requires a vast level of maturity from the political party in power. The DA would have to come to terms with the challenges facing the city and understand the complexities of governing.

Beyond this, it would need to adjust and mature its policy suite.

Even with Helen Zille’s experience in Cape Town, her being party leader at the time made governing there quite different. She had the internal platform to communicate her challenges and successes.

As leader, she also had domain over decision-making when it came to coalition arrangements; when the coalitions succeeded, so did she. And let’s also be frank, people tend not to challenge the party leader about such things.

It did not take long for what Mashaba termed ‘the opposition mindset’ to reveal itself. For me, this term was best illustrated by the character Brooks Hatlen in Frank Darabont’s hit film The Shawshank Redemption.

On his release from prison, Hatlen couldn’t acclimate to life outside because he had become so accustomed to life inside the prison. In this way, the DA had become institutionalised into being in opposition.

The DA, like the residents of Johannesburg, expected to see change from day one. In those first few months our own party was asking us, ‘Why is Joburg not looking like Cape Town yet?’

They couldn’t understand why six months wasn’t enough time to undo two decades of ANC mismanagement while still operating under an ANC-approved budget, and raise Johannesburg to the level of Cape Town.

You would have to be living in an alternate universe.

In the beginning, councillors and those DA politicians from the national and provincial legislatures resident in Johannesburg would rant to Mashaba about power outages, water stoppages and potholes.

They lacked the ability to develop the basic conversational skills that a politician in a party of government requires when engaging residents suffering from service delivery failure.

Being in opposition, they could blame it all on the ANC and not actually have to take any responsibility. Their reaction was hugely detrimental to us, because, in government, a party requires public representatives at all levels to get behind the message.

In our case, we needed our public representatives to set service delivery failures against the massive infrastructure backlogs we were facing, and describe how we were tackling them and what progress was being made before committing to resolve them.

We did not need them to complain. In this way, I believe the DA lacked the maturity to govern.

Put differently, the measure of an opposition party around the world is whether they can govern more effectively if given the chance. It is not how loud they can shout or how witty their comebacks are in Parliament. When considered this way, our opposition space in South Africa is appalling.

When Mashaba decided he didn’t have the patience to deal with these complaints, the responsibility fell to me. When I tried to explain that the backlogs exceeded our entire capital budget, you could actually see their eyes glazing over.

As a mentor of mine in the party once put it, ‘No amount of training could put in what God left out of some of these folks.’

The opposition mindset was plain to see in the Section 79 oversight committees, where DA councillors would be the harshest critics of our government.

While it is important to perform legislative oversight over the executive, as enshrined in the separation of powers doctrine, there is a fine line between executing your responsibility and torpedoing the work of your own government.

To our immense frustration, this line was crossed on a regular basis. ANC councillors did not need to prepare for these meetings or read the reports; they just had to wait for one of our own to start hammering us and they would jump on the bandwagon.

When our first budget was approved in May 2017, Mashaba insisted that it be unpacked for the caucus, made up of all the DA councillors in Johannesburg, at a strategic breakaway that had been scheduled.

He believed it was imperative for his councillors, now part of a governing party, to understand the budget, what it would deliver and what it could not. After all, how could you serve residents if you did not have this understanding?

The caucus balked at the suggestion.

They had seen the breakaway as an opportunity to play team-building games rather than do any actual work. They insisted on voting on the proposal, but Mashaba, cool as ever, said to them, ‘You are welcome to vote, but I can assure you we will be going through the budget on that day.’ After that, there was no vote.

Some members of the caucus treated Mashaba appallingly, and we perceived a latent racism among a number of them.

Certain councillors would deliver stinging criticisms of Mashaba’s pro-poor agenda and suggested that we focus our efforts on the suburban areas and stop wasting our time in the informal settlements.

Their attitudes were informed by the needs of the middle- to upper-class suburbs - in other words, their base - without regard for those who had been denied services for so long.

Given the choice, I honestly believe they would have opted for more grass-cutting over the delivery of services to the destitute. I could see that this hurt Mashaba deeply.

He constantly pleaded with the party’s leadership to intervene with the caucus. It was obvious that factions within the DA were putting pressure on the caucus from the outside to challenge Mashaba’s every move.

Little support was forthcoming. This was profoundly disappointing because party leadership knew Mashaba, new to politics, was never going to be the rounded caucus leader.

I recall a meeting with a group of DA councillors to hear their concerns with the Nodal Review Policy, a policy to address spatial inequality in Johannesburg.

The meeting dragged on. I’d had enough experience by then to know when many trivial issues were being used to mask one real issue. And then it came.

‘Living in suburbs should be aspirational to those who live in poor communities,’ a councillor announced. ‘If they just move into the suburbs without earning this, the suburbs will lose their aspirational appeal.’

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Not one person challenged him. When I looked around, I realised we had the only black person in the room, MMC for development planning Reuben Masango, attempting to defend our policy to a group of white councillors incapable of empathising with those living on the periphery of the city.

It was emblematic of a groupthink that was not only going unchecked in the DA, but was also starting to gain prominence. It was the moment I lost all sense of attachment to the party to which I had dedicated my life for more than a decade.

The tragedy for me is that the vast majority of people who live in the suburbs do not think this way. They are good people who demonstrated their understanding when Mashaba addressed them about his pro-poor agenda. They applauded him, because most South Africans understand that we have to fix inequality in our country.

In my assessment, their greatest frustration is based on the missed opportunities of the ANC government to fix the legacy of apartheid, and not the need for such corrective measures.

Alarmingly, it seemed that many DA public representatives did not want the party to be in government outside of the comfort zone of the Western Cape and certainly not in coalition.

They preferred the simpler role in opposition, without having to deal with complex issues and the needs of communities. This came to a head in 2019 at a caucus getaway, a bosberaad that was meant to deal with matters of strategy and planning, but which dealt with none of these pressing issues.

In response to mounting tension, we had to call in expert facilitators and negotiators to guide a discussion towards a commitment to the work of delivering change in Johannesburg. After detecting the mood, one of the facilitators called for a snap poll requesting councillors to indicate if they wanted to be in government.

An astonishing 43 percent voted no. The wind was knocked out of us. How can a political party position itself as a party of government and then not want to govern? What is the relevance of a substantial political party if it is not to win elections, govern effectively and grow further from the value it has demonstrated?

Mashaba’s challenges with the DA were compounded by the fact that the party was going through an existential crisis. It had become deeply divided and those factional lines were drawn from the top all the way down to our caucus.

- This is an extract from The Accidental Mayor: Herman Mashaba and the Battle for Johannesburg by Michael Beaumont and is published by Penguin Random House South Africa.

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