DM168

LOCAL GOVERNMENT: THE HOT SEAT

Joburg’s new mayor is in tune with the city – and you can take that as gospel

Jozi's new mayor, Dr Mpho Phalatse, is more careful measure than whimsy. (Photo by Gallo Images/Sharon Seretlo)

Jozi’s first citizen chats about why the DA is misunderstood, the gospel music she loves, and her very long to-do lists.

There were songs of victory playing in Dr Mpho Phalatse’s head when she woke up on 22 November. By the time the sun slipped from the horizon she had beaten her nearest rival by 23 votes for the mayoral chain. Even without a coalition agreement, all parties except Cope voted for the DA to govern in the key City of Johannesburg.

“I wake up with songs in my head and I focus on the lyrics. The words often speak to what’s happening around me or what’s going to happen,” says the city’s first woman mayor of her latest musical obsession, gospel jazz, and also of this uncanny prescience.

But Phalatse is more careful measure than whimsy. The Sefako Makgatho University and Medunsa medical doctor went on to focus on public health administration at Wits University. But since 2016 she’s been a full-time DA proportional representational councillor and was mayoral committee member for health. She’s no stranger to coalitions and the calculations that add up to the political game.

The DA has its blunders and cringeworthy missteps. In the city it was accused of allowing its previous coalition partner, the EFF, to “hijack the work of the city” and that the DA failed to hold the centre, resulting in returning the ANC to govern the country’s economic hub in 2019.

“The problem was not the EFF; the problem was the leadership style of the mayor at the time and that he didn’t have boundaries with the EFF,” she says of Herman Mashaba, then DA mayor and now head of ActionSA. It was Mashaba who placed her on suspension for what were regarded as pro-Israel remarks made in June 2018. She says the comments were “taken out of context” and she was standing up against anti-Semitism, not for the state of Israel. Phalatse was acquitted in party disciplinaries and says: “I stand behind the DA’s stance of a two-state solution.”

For her, boundaries matter. She says: “I have very high standards and expectations and I work at a fast pace, so I like to surround myself with people who are the same. My critics would probably say that I expect too much or I’m too strict.”

Settling down to a late-evening Zoom interview, Phalatse doesn’t go into specifics of the “how” in achieving her long manifesto list. It’s the likes of a 24-hour turnaround on fixing water leaks; bumping up the city’s road network budget to nearly 20 times where it currently stands at about R1.6-billion; establishing a dedicated municipal court to prosecute by-law infringements and cable theft; filling clinic vacancies; establishing drug treatment centres and shelters for the homeless; and implementing a food security plan.

To move these from being mere wishlists to achievable targets, she says: “We need to improve collection strategies by tackling a culture of non-payment; resolving billing queries and rooting out corruption.” She says smarter public-private partnerships will be key, including recovering some of the R36-billion in the city’s debtors book.

“Joburg represents opportunity. We need to run a city that is enabling and creates a stable environment so Joburg can be a gem,” she says.

Joburg pulses, that’s for sure. Phalatse, who grew up in what was then Bophuthatswana, says: “My community was very homogenous and everyone was a Tswana or Tswana-speaking.

“Joburg is energy and diversity; there’s a rich heritage here too that needs to be nurtured so people can start enjoying it. I also love the vibe of Alex and Maboneng,” she says, admitting that the inner city precinct is where she could hang out and also get her lashes and her hair done.

The 44-year-old single mom of two boys aged 18 and 11 and a daughter of five, is always strikingly well groomed. Being a woman in the public eye invites a certain skewed gender-based critique, and politics, after all, is also presentation.

Taking up the role as Jozi’s number-one citizen as a black woman is an opportunity for positive role modelling, and also – finally – some better PR for the DA, which drags along deadwood, blinkers and bubbles. The mayoral position is no doubt a political springboard, too.

“The DA is misunderstood. We know who we are; we are comfortable in our skin, but we haven’t managed the perception of what the DA stands for.

“More young black women need to be involved in leadership and in politics. If people can relate to you, you can address the trust deficit and when they trust you, you can govern better. Going forward I will challenge myself and look at more political roles, not just administrative ones.”

For Phalatse, looking to her “what’s next” comes naturally. It’s because her mother, Moserwa Phalatse, pushed her to never settle for less.  

“I’m an only child and my mom was strict and my toughest critic – she still is. She was also a very hard worker and a perfectionist; she instilled in me my work ethic. But my parents invested in building up my self-confidence, so you’ll find it difficult to break me down; I’ve developed a thick skin,” Phalatse says.

In singling out leaders who have shaped her, she cites her mother and Helen Suzman. The Progressive Party leader was a lone voice against the National Party. Inspiration is also her Christian faith and being “the best mommy” to her three children.

She also carves out alone time to write, to meditate, maybe to practise a routine from her competitive ballroom dancing days or to turn up the volume on virtually any music – so long as it’s not kwaito.

For the next five years, though, there are new tunes to dance to – new rhymes, new rhythms. And she knows she’ll have to be standing firm when the last notes fade out. DM168

Meet the Mayors

CITY OF CAPE TOWN

Geordin Hill-Lewis (DA)

Geordin Hill-Lewis was rebranded as “GHL” for his mayoral campaign as a way to compensate for his unwieldy name (“Geordin” is pronounced “Jordan”).

Hill-Lewis became the youngest-ever MP in democratic South Africa when he was elected to Parliament in 2011 at the age of 24. A married father-of-one, Hill-Lewis’s likeability conceals shrewd political acumen: despite maintaining close relationships with both Helen Zille and John Steenhuisen, he has avoided being tarnished by the party’s factional disputes in recent years. 

Hill-Lewis brings youth, energy and impressive economic smarts. What he lacks is any experience at the coalface of local government, prompting some unhappiness from more seasoned councillors. 

Hill-Lewis’s involvement in private property development means that his actions will be scrutinised closely for evidence that he is favouring the demands of business over Cape Town’s complex and growing social issues – particularly to do with a lack of affordable housing close to the inner city. 

The DA’s deployment of Hill-Lewis to run its flagship metro also means there will be big shoes to fill in the party’s parliamentary caucus, where he was a prominent figure.

NELSON MANDELA BAY

Eugené Johnson (ANC) 

Eugené Johnson’s background is in activism rather than politics, which may be a refreshing change for the weary residents of one of SA’s most politically unstable metros. Nelson Mandela Bay has been the playground of some of the ANC’s most troublesome characters, and Johnson’s election as only the second female mayor in the metro’s democratic history brings much-needed new blood. 

Johnson is well liked and generally respected, with an activist pedigree, and is known to be a straight talker. She has pledged to fire under-performers, and vowed to respect all the parties in a coalition that she says will last the five-year distance. But Johnson’s power was won by just one vote, which means she will have her work cut out to ensure her coalition does not go the way that has become routine for the metro. 

Johnson knows her stuff, having worked as a consultant on urban development and local government, but has already been criticised for appearing thin on detail as to how to turn around service delivery in the troubled metro. She has appealed to the media for “patience” on the grounds that all plans must be discussed with coalition partners, staking out a collaborative approach from the start.

BUFFALO CITY

Xola Pakati (ANC)

Xola Pakati will be the envy of most of his fellow mayors: his party, the ANC, won a straightforward majority in Buffalo City, meaning he shouldn’t have to deal with the baked-in instability that will muddy the path of mayors in hung metros. 

Pakati is no stranger to the position, having served as both mayor and deputy mayor. The fact that he cut his teeth in the unions has opened him up to criticism from the opposition in the past for not dealing decisively with labour-related issues such as unlawful strikes. But among ordinary Buffalo City residents, he enjoys reasonable popularity, perhaps helped along by crowd-pleasing projects like the construction of the Water World Fun Park. 

Pakati has, for the most part, avoided personal scandal, bar an incident in 2013 when his wife was accused of emailing pornographic material to colleagues. 

Despite Pakati’s incumbency, his return to the mayoral seat was by no means a sure thing. Regional ANC leader and MP Princess Faku was favoured by factions including the provincial ANC Youth League and topped the ANC’s list, but it appears that her lack of post-matric qualifications ultimately consigned her to the deputy mayor’s seat.

MANGAUNG

Mxolisi Siyonzana (ANC)

This is the beginning of Mxolisi Siyonzana’s first full term as Mangaung mayor, but he has been in the position since August after his predecessor Olly Mlameli was removed for her alleged involvement in the multimillion-rand Free State asbestos scandal alongside former Free State Premier and suspended ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule. 

It’s hard to escape Magashule’s tentacles in his former fiefdom, and Siyonzana, too, is reported to be a staunch Magashule ally. 

When he was first elected mayor, the DA described Siyonzana’s ascent as “contemptuous”, accusing him of playing a key role in protecting corruption in the embattled municipality during his tenure as metro Speaker. While Speaker, Siyonzana also managed to run into arrears of almost R100,000 on his personal municipal account, despite earning more than R1-million a year. 

Ramaphosa supporters in the Free State ANC were also conflicted about Siyonzana’s August election as mayor, with some fearing the choice could cost them the metro in the local polls. That didn’t happen, but there are concerns that Siyonzana’s tenure may amount to a continuation of Magashule’s patronage politics. He can expect a tense relationship with the opposition. 

ETHEKWINI 

Mxolisi Kaunda (ANC)

The ANC’s incumbent eThekwini mayor, Mxolisi Kaunda, would retain his chair – by a mere nine council votes – it was confirmed late on 25 November. Kaunda is the former KwaZulu-Natal Transport MEC who took over the mayoralty from graft-accused Zandile Gumede. Kaunda already faced accusations before the elections that he could not control the ANC caucus in the metro council, with the vacant deputy mayor post unable to be officially filled due to the council’s inability to obtain a quorum. 

Kaunda’s narrow re-election as mayor took place under typically chaotic circumstances, with the first attempt to hold the vote suspended because of an electricity cut and rowdy protests. 

eThekwini is in bad shape, held hostage by decaying municipal infrastructure, and hopes that Kaunda is the man to turn things around seem remote. The Ramaphosa faction in KZN had backed a different candidate for mayor; Kaunda has made no secret of his allegiances, posting “We are Msholozi. Msholozi is us. #Free Zuma” on his Facebook page ahead of the July insurrection. When the DA accused him of having stoked the flames of unrest, Kaunda doubled down on his support for Zuma.

CITY OF TSHWANE

Randall Williams (DA)

Born on the Cape Flats, Tshwane Executive Mayor Randall Williams is a lawyer by training. The most fascinating part of his background is that he spent six years in the French Foreign Legion in the 1980s – a decision, he has explained, that was motivated by his desire to seek military experience before joining the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto weSizwe. 

This methodical, self-improving approach to even radical activism sums up the measure of the man. But if the Foreign Legion stint also makes him sound like a born and bred fighter, that is misleading: party insiders say that Williams is extremely conflict-averse, a potentially unhelpful characteristic in the melee of a hung council. 

In interviews, he comes across as almost impossibly earnest. He once said that he focused on education and his career to turn himself into “an asset to the country” – and is “sincerely focused” on service delivery. 

This is not a mayor who is likely to go rogue and create problems for the DA leadership team, but the question is whether Williams is able and willing to get his hands dirty in the unavoidably murky waters of coalition politics to get things done for the residents of Tshwane. Rebecca Davis/DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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  • Very nice article, thank you. Dr. Phalatse certainly seems well qualified, and a credible selection. Unfortunately, the future of her success, or non success, is definitely not in her own hands, as the political opponents are very much present, including from her own party. But for the sake of JHB residents, I hope she can get as much support as possible.

    • Yes very GOOD LUCK Dr. Phalatse, we all wish you well and hope for a positive and effective contribution to Joburg and the well-being of its residents.

  • We wish the new mayoress the very best- stick to your principles and don’t let others bully you. You have a huge task ahead , but you seem to have its measure, helped of course by having been there before!

  • Good to know. I think she’s going to need a ton of luck, and then some. Curiously, Phalatse thinks, “More young black women need to be involved in leadership and in politics.” I agree, but all the best getting past the Madame.
    You also say that the problem with the previous DA regime was Mashaba. That may well be true, but throwing the previous guy – who holds a hefty number of mayoral-wielding seats, under the bus is rather hasty. Whilst I think the EFF is always going to be a spoiler in any coalition, having a little hana-hana with Mashaba is dangerous talk. Phalatse may well need Mashaba more than he needs her. Time will tell.

  • Dear Ufrieda Ho (or is it Fred Ho?): please can you clarify for myself and many readers, with specific reference to detailed examples of what or who you describe as ‘deadwood, blinkers and bubbles’ in and amongst the DA ( I presume you meant that party!) .
    As I have written elsewhere, it would be great, most welcome, if you provided your source(s) used to gather such information as would prompt such an inference in your style of writing. Of course you also might not have the courage to disclose sources, and in which case you observations are reduced to anti-DA obsession…for whatever reason that might be. Yes, I AM aware of the right of journo’s not to disclose their source(s) – and that is most certainly adroit! Take care dear Ufreida.

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