Mayor of Tshwane Solly Msimanga participating in a road safety operation on the N1 highway.
You don’t know Solly Tshepiso Msimanga very well. That’s not entirely your fault. He is a quiet man who prefers to do his work as far as possible from the glare of cameras and social media.
Many moons ago, in December 2011, when South Africa was a much more innocent country, a younger version of your writer travelled to the desolate wastelands of Kempton Park to meet a new crop of Democratic Alliance leaders. This was DA 2.0 – a woker, more attuned DA. With Lindiwe Mazibuko becoming the leader in Parliament, the party had just chosen Mmusi Maimane as national spokesperson to replace her. Khume Ramulifho was announced as the chairperson of the party’s South Gauteng region and Msimanga as the chair of the north.
Maimane took up all of the spotlight that day. He, the business consultant with the manicured accent, the preacher with the trained gait and lilt of voice, was born for the limelight. Msimanga, not so much. I spoke to him briefly. He was somewhat put out by the attention.
You ought to know Msimanga, and inevitably you will hear far more of him in the future. He is the new mayor of the City of Tshwane after the DA took (with a generous helping hand from the Economic Freedom Fighters) the council from the ANC this year in the earth-shattering, gravity-bending, reality-twisting local government elections. Since then, he’s enjoyed a share of the national media spotlight that is alien to his track record before his elevation to City Hall.
All those things that happen on the national stage and rile you so badly? State capture? That’s happening in your local municipalities, too. This was Msimanga’s clever capture of a popular (or unpopular) meme at a press conference in October to highlight a problem he has been complaining about since August.
What his predecessor did in Tshwane amounted to state capture, he said. The number of staff had been inflated to epic proportions. It amounted to a R250-million drain on the fiscus in the form of unjustifiable salaries. “This speaks of the capture of the government in order to continue patronage networks,” he said.
Next to him, Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille played the part of the smug know-it-all. “I also want to say, my deepest sympathies. It’s a mess.”
Another overspending saga in Pretoria took on the character of a bad television comedy. Msimanga arrived to find that the city had wildly overspent, to the tune of R90-million, on upgrading the mayor’s residence. The job had been done in a slapdash manner and wasn’t finished (sound irritatingly familiar?)
The new mayor immediately wielded his sjambok, calling on two senior directors in the previous administration to avail themselves for a disciplinary hearing. He had announced this to the world by brandishing forensic reports that his forebears had ignored. Well, if there’s wrongdoing, go and tell the police, the ANC retorted. So he did. Cue audience laughter.
Oh, on top of that, the ANC administration had overspent on other projects by about R138-million. And the ANC’s mayor, Sputla Ramokgopa, apparently had a R30-million slush fund to do with as he pleased. You don’t need an Indian bank and a pliable Cabinet minister to capture a municipality, it seems.
Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba’s big gripe with his predecessor is the ridiculously slow pace of housing development. The city gave out only 3 500 houses a year, creating a backlog that would have taken it 100 years to clear. Somewhere a shackdweller, perhaps several, screams and screams into the cold night air.
In the Nelson Mandela Bay municipality, the city administration has apparently been able to present a healthy cash balance by cutting back on maintenance services.
You understand the DA’s strategy here, of course. Having raised the expectations of the people when it campaigned for Tshwane, it must now temper them with the reality that it cannot suddenly improve things. It must first work through whatever the previous administration left behind – none of it good, evidently – before it can start implementing its own plans properly.
In a country as dysfunctional as ours, getting the people on your side doesn’t just mean asking them to give you their vote. It also means asking them not to burn the municipality to the ground in frustration at the inevitable slow pace of change.
Msimanga’s travails in Tshwane are a snapshot, a teaser trailer, for the new politics of South Africa. Call it the post-2016 era. Call it the year in which knowing your municipal council members’ names became as important as knowing the names of MPs or members of the national Cabinet.
After 22 years of metapolitics, arms deals and collapsing state-owned entities, of grand state capture and an increasingly petty and bizarre foreign policy, the political scene is finally returning home.
Sorry, let me correct that. Local politics will finally receive the attention it deserves. The local election has always been heavily contested. Government failure has been felt most acutely at a local level. It is a somewhat difficult and abstract exercise to understand why it affects you personally when the president refurbishes his house at the taxpayer’s expense. It is immediately obvious how much it sucks when your local authority fails to clean the streets, or fix sewerage systems, or bill you correctly for your water and electricity usage. Ask the thousands upon thousands of people who have turned South Africa into the protest capital of the world. Ask Abahlali BaseMjondolo and the Unemployed People’s Movement and they will tell you just how fucked our country is.
Properly contextualised and understood, service delivery protests have been a desperate plea for the public to focus their attention in the correct place. The coalface of government work. The real scene of state capture, theft and looting. Now it has. The 2016 elections would have turned out quite differently otherwise.
Another reason to believe municipal politics will be lit? The recently unanointed, the deposed, the ANC, has started acting like the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) have been in the National Assembly. They attempted to disrupt the first council meeting in Tshwane. They attempted the same in the Nelson Mandela Bay council. At the end of October, they tried to co-ordinate disruptions in Johannesburg, Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay. It didn’t go terribly well. The EFF lost the tactical acumen that has served it so well in Parliament when it attempted a disruption in the City of Cape Town council in August.
Speaking in a radio interview to promote her new book, former DA leader Helen Zille said she wished the EFF had won a municipality, so that people could get a real taste of what its policies would lead to. (Spoiler alert: “total annihilation”.) They may have worked together to drive the ANC out of key municipalities, but this is not the harbinger of a new left-right coalition era. Far from it. Both parties were keen to reopen the space for new politics. An ANC-less politics. But a bitterly contested politics nonetheless.
The EFF has promised to push for its radical line items in each and every budget that comes before it. This will make an (ahem) radical difference in Johannesburg and Tshwane, provided the young party can hold it together. Rather than risk a contested budget and a hamstrung administration, it will be to the DA’s benefit to offer extremely pro-poor policies. What those concessions are, and how the different interests will react, will continue to be a matter of deep intrigue for years to come.
It remains to be seen how the ANC will react to this year’s election drubbing. So far the signs aren’t good. A party that is used to delivering instructions from its highest echelons down to the municipal leadership will struggle with the idea of allowing greater levity for innovation and agility at each municipal council, both where it still governs and where it now sits in the unfamiliar opposition benches. The same, tired response to every issue is not going to work. But it is not unaware of the fact that 2016 changed politics in a way that was unthinkable before. The idea that the party could start losing provinces in 2019 will not be lost on them. They need to react. At the moment, they don’t seem to know how.
South Africa changed in 2016 and the ANC did not keep up.