Taking care of a nation is a serious assignment, and former Umkhonto weSizwe fighter Des van Rooyen, who was finance minister for four days, wants to focus on that. But he would like some respect in return, too.
“Wherever you are deployed, you must perfect [the job] without necessarily allowing other sideline issues to distract you.
“You must focus on the job at hand, more especially a serious assignment like taking care of the nation, because being a Cabinet minister is a very serious assignment. And I think it should, of course, be reciprocated accordingly,” he said on the sidelines of a visit to the Nelson Mandela Bay metro, where the ANC is to launch its election manifesto on Saturday.
The controversy surrounding his four-day stint as finance minister in December, followed by a move to the co-operative governance and traditional affairs portfolio, has seemingly not knocked him off course.
But the media scrutiny of his one-day trip to Dubai in December seems to have annoyed him. It was private and self-funded, he said, and he didn’t have the money to stay a week.
“As much as one appreciates that I’m a public figure, [does] that simply suggest all of a sudden my private life is something for public scrutiny?” he said, adding that the visit, which coincided with one by members of the Gupta family, was organised before he became minister.
On Monday, he set foot in Port Elizabeth to check up for the first time on his department’s intervention in the municipality, in terms of section 154 (1) of the Constitution.
He spoke as though it was he, and not his replacement Pravin Gordhan, who discovered the mess that provoked complaints about the city’s rubbish removal service and prompted government intervention.
“Already I have noticed that the city is looking cleaner,” he told a press conference earlier in the day, at which he heaped praise on mayor Danny Jordaan and his team for the metro’s turnaround.
Van Rooyen is no stranger to local government pains. As mayor of Khutsong, west of Johannesburg, his house was burned down by a mob angered by plans to move the small municipality out of Gauteng.
His tips for conflict-ridden municipalities? Public participation, he said: “Democracy can be expensive”, it involves travelling and accommodating 11 official languages in council plans and communications.
“I did my thesis for my first masters on issues of public participation in the IDP [municipal integrated development plan] and one thing that I have realised is we still need to invest a lot in public participation mechanisms in institutions.”
He said communities were mostly involved in the inception and report-back stages, but less so when it came to explaining budgets and processes.
A comprehensive public participation system “must be properly funded, because I know it is very expensive”, he said.
Most people understood that the government had limited resources and that the backlog went back to “many, many years of deprivation, of exclusion, of being denied exposure to such services”, he said.
From the interview Van Rooyen went on to a hall in the Helenvale Resource Centre, where he and Jordaan spoke to about 100 residents, many of them local activists and community development workers from one of Port Elizabeth’s mainly coloured neighbourhoods.
He apologised for his Afrikaans, in which he could barely greet.
“Unlike my friend [Jordaan] here, my Afrikaans is nie goed nie [my Afrikaans isn’t good]. Don’t be disturbed by my surname, Van Rooyen.
“My Afrikaans is not good. If you learn Afrikaans under difficult circumstances, when you’re in the bush fighting apartheid … I spent a lot of my youth days fighting apartheid in exile, so I didn’t have a chance to learn Afrikaans,” he said.
‘Be happy with us’
Van Rooyen told residents, who complained about broken street lights and the worsening gang problem (a policeman had been shot there by gangsters the day before), to “be happy with us, because your metro, unlike other metros, is named after a very powerful individual, Nelson Mandela”.
“Why can’t you be happy when hosted in such beautiful facilities?” he said, gesturing at the centre, built with the help of a German grant.
Van Rooyen reassured the people that his department was doing what it could to help the municipality, but he asked them to help, too.
“You have been denied better lives for more than 300 years. We can’t do it alone. We want you to come to the party, to be part of us as we strive to improve your lives.
“We are a government of the people, by the people. This is your facility; you must take care of this facility.
“Join Nelson Mandela metro under the leadership of Danny Jordaan to improve your lives. Do we have a deal?” he shouted. The residents replied with a resounding “Yes!”
There were one or two yellow ANC T-shirts seen in the audience, but only a plainclothes off-duty postman would declare who he’s voting for in the municipal elections on August??3: “DA, because the whole system, including the party, must change. I haven’t seen any change.”
By that time Van Rooyen and Jordaan had already left the building, in luxury vehicles.