Knysna’s Joy is DA’s despair

With her Sandton background and black suit and high heels, Joy Cole seems more like a typical Democratic Alliance local government election candidate than a DA hate object.

But the tide of DA election posters proclaiming ‘Take Back Knysna” is aimed at her. It is Cole who, after being elected to the Knysna council on a DA ticket, delivered it up to the African National Congress by going independent. She then became mayor and is now a member of the ruling party.

In fact, she may be the ANC’s mayoral candidate — but as the party’s national policy is not to name its mayoral candidates until after polling day, no one can be quite sure. This could prove a costly mistake in a seaside town divided between the filthy rich and the dirt-poor, where she has some appeal to both groups.

She clearly has support in Knysna’s black townships. ‘You know Joy Cole? She’s my mother,” said an elderly man in Khayalethu.

And her mayoral record, coupled with her 15-year vision to secure water supplies and upgrade infrastructure including roads and waterpipes, known as ‘Knysna 2020”, appears to have won her some support among whites.

Cole must persuade white residents, who comprise about half the registered voters, to endorse her political zig-zags. Conscious of the hostility of many white voters to the ANC as a national organisation, her campaign focuses on her record in local government and her plans for the town.

Her pitch is largely based on the message of Knysna first and vote with your heads, not your hearts. ‘If you have any serious reservation about national [ANC], forget about it. We are talking about your life. It’s about you here.”

Cole is contesting a DA-held ward stretching from the old money of Brenton across the lagoon to The Heads, where new money is invested in multimillion-rand homes.

She insists that joining the ANC was ‘a natural progression” after working with the party over the years. ‘I’ve never been a comfortable DA,” she says.

The former Sandton businesswoman and criminal justice academic and consultant was drafted to stand as DA councillor in a by-election after stopping to register as a voter during a shopping trip. She won, but just a few months later went independent, tilting the balance of power.

Three years ago Cole, now in her mid-50s, and her husband John built a house in Knysna after holidaying there for many years. When their Sandton home sold the day it came on the market, it was a sign.

She stopped her Spanish studies, and the criminal justice textbook she thought could still be co-authored also fell by the wayside.

While her husband continues to commute to Gauteng, Cole, who helped found empowerment company Kensani Consortium in April 2004, resigned as chairperson of Kensani Corrections Management, which runs prisons.

It has not been an easy transition. ‘It took me three years to come to the realisation that this has become home. I open the doors of my bedroom to the sea and think: ‘This is home!’”

Cole takes pride in having brought business principles to council administration. Monthly and quarterly financial reports are scrutinised. If she picks up spending discrepancies, she says, officials are called to account.

She adds that tough controls are a large part of why Knysna’s finances have won the approval not only of the auditor general, but also of the Development Bank.

‘We are just very, very good at collecting [rates and charges]. We archive 102% of collection of income … We have a very good audit committee,” she beams. ‘The executive mayor’s post is really like the CEO of any company. We have to make sure you know where the money is going.”

The town has also been a pilot site for Wi-Fi and Treasury municipal finance regulations. All households have refuse removal and access to clean water, 98% have electricity and 75% have flush or chemical toilets.

A lingering headache is the lack of housing in the northern areas, the township of wooden shacks which, ironically, shares wealthy residents’ multimillion-rand scenic view of Knysna lagoon and the ocean. The Integrated Development Plan concedes that development projects have been slow to kick off.

‘I need to make a difference in the lives of the people [in the northern areas]. Before I go anywhere, that must be a legacy.”

And if she doesn’t make it back? ‘I’m going to do a PhD in leadership,” she grins.

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Marianne Merten
Guest Author

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