Solly Msimanga didn’t like what he saw during his travels to some African countries.
“I saw first-hand what liberation movements were turning Africa into. You see the likes of Mozambique with the Mozambique Liberation Front, Frelimo. You see Liberia and what Charles Taylor has done there, Angola and Zimbabwe just next door. Once you see first-hand what happens, you feel you need to do something.”
After one such trip about 10 years ago, Msimanga returned home knowing that he had to do something in South Africa. He didn’t have an appetite for a political party that represented only one group or one religion but the Democratic Alliance made some sense to him, Tshwane’s new mayor said this week.
In 2006, he attended one of the party’s events because he wanted to hear what it had to say. There was a moment when Tony Leon, then still leader of the party, walked in, gave a brief speech and walked out.
Msimanga didn’t like that. “It felt detached,” he says. “I wrote a letter to the party, not even expecting a response. I told them that they are going about it the wrong way. You can’t land in an area and just deliver a message, and then waltz out.”
A few weeks later, former DA chief executive Ryan Coetzee called him to a meeting in Brakpan. Coetzee was then part of the team putting together a plan for the DA to attract new voters.
Msimanga was soon offered a position in the party’s research unit, where he would have the space to implement his ideas.
“I spoke to my wife after being offered the job. I explained that if I don’t do something now, what kind of a country will I leave for my son, who was a baby at the time, one day?”
He took a “hefty pay cut” from his position at the time, started travelling a lot and had to contend with relatives who didn’t approve of his political shift. His family supported the ANC, for which Msimanga himself had previously voted.
“My uncle is an ANC struggle stalwart and the family believed I had sold out,” he says, adding that, since the DA’s victory in the country’s administrative capital and his election as Tshwane mayor, some relatives have come around to his way of thinking.
Call him Solly
Today, his new workplace is at the Centurion municipal offices, where he walks around with an air of authority. Wearing a grey three-piece suit, carrying a backpack and greeting everyone from the security guards to the receptionist, his personality as a people’s person shines through.
It seems he’d rather be called Solly than Mr Mayor.
Having grown up in the bleak streets of one of Pretoria’s oldest townships, the father of two knows all about hardship. “I was born and raised in Atteridgeville. I lived with my mother in a small shack that still stands to this day. I know what it’s like to live in a shack and not have services. I’ve been there and I have lived that life. We had to pay to rent for a bit of space to put up a shack to call home.”
Road to an epiphany
Msimanga did a BCom in economics at the University of Pretoria and later another degree in marketing. He worked with the nongovernmental organisation Project Literacy and held a job at the Liberian embassy at one stage. Later, he joined the United States embassy, which gave him the opportunity to travel around the continent.
His personal shift in political ideology happened after one such trip. “When I came back, I assessed my life. I’m working, have a comfortable job and live in a comfortable house, but I questioned whether it was enough. Would I be able to relax and raise my children in this kind of environment where I see things starting to take this negative turn? That’s when I decided to do something.”
After sifting through political ideologies and policies, he says, he opted to join a party he believed could make a difference.
Msimanga becomes less animated, and almost seems shy, when asked about some of the work he does outside politics. He buys school uniforms for children every year and clubs together with friends to buy groceries for the less fortunate over Christmas.
“I am from a poor background and I know what it feels like not to have,” he says.
‘No purge, no deployment’
Although his office is yet to be properly set up, Msimanga is well aware that politics is a complicated monster.
A lot of work needs to be done to build a city management team — including hiring a municipal manager because Jason Ngobeni has resigned.
“We will open up the call for applications and we will not be deploying anyone,” Msimanga says. This, he adds, means that the best person will get the job, whether they belong to the ANC, the Economic Freedom Fighters or someone not aligned to any party.
“I’m not in the business of purging; our current acting municipal manager was already working here as the deputy. It’s a show of goodwill, and I hope I will be proved right that people are here to do a good job and not to just do a job for a political party.”
Some coalitions at a glance
The August 3 election paved the way for big changes in local
government, with the major metros now being run by the Democratic Alliance and the ANC being rele-gated to smaller municipalities. Both parties have had to forge alliances, some of which look like this:
City of Johannesburg
Government: The DA as governing party has gone into coalitions with a host of smaller parties — the United Democratic Movement (UDM), the Freedom Front Plus (FF+), the Congress of the People (Cope), the African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP) and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP).
Mayor (DA): Herman Mashaba
Opposition: The ANC and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF)
Government: The ANC has entered into a coalition with the African Independent Congress (AIC) after turbulent negotiations to maintain power.
Mayor (ANC): Mzwandile Masina
Opposition: The EFF, DA, ACDP and Cope
City of Tshwane
Government: The DA is ruling in coalition with the UDM, the FF+, Cope, the ACDP and the IFP.
Mayor (DA): Solly Msimanga
Opposition: The ANC and EFF
AbaQulusi Local Municipality (KwaZulu-Natal)
Government: The IFP will be running a minority government.
Mayor (IFP): Martin Mtshali
Opposition: The ANC, DA and EFF
Nelson Mandela Bay
Government: The DA formed a coalition government with the UDM, Cope and ACDP.
Mayor (DA): Athol Trollip
Opposition: The Patriotic Alliance, EFF and ANC. — Compiled by Athandiwe Saba & Govan Whittles