When Tshwane council speaker Katlego Mathebe left politics for the corporate world at the dawn of South Africa’s democracy, she had no idea that a few years down the line she would find herself playing an active role in the political realm again.
It was the activist in her that forced her to reconsider her decision soon after the ANC’s 2007 national conference in Polokwane, which elected Jacob Zuma as party president.
Now Mathebe, a Democratic Alliance councillor, has her sights set on becoming the first citizen of the country’s economic powerhouse province, should the DA win Gauteng in the 2019 national elections.
Last week, she was announced as one of nine DA members in Gauteng vying to become the party’s premier candidate ahead of next year’s poll. Of the nine hopefuls, five are women. The selection process is expected to be concluded this month when applicants will appear before the DA’s selection panel, made up of 20 leaders from the party’s federal and provincial executive structures.
A former United Democratic Front (UDF) activist, Mathebe already has big plans to turn things around in the Gauteng government. Her priorities would include overhauling the province’s education system and health services, improving the efficiency of the manufacturing industry and using agriculture as a way to absorb a large, unskilled labour force.
“We’re a very small province in land mass but we have pockets of land that are fertile and are not being leveraged properly. That is one sector that can be immediately revived,” Mathebe told the Mail & Guardian this week.
She added: “If a country as small as Israel can have 2% of its population producing 12% of its [agricultural] exports, then it means with Gauteng we can do much better. We can learn from Israel. And I’m not talking about the politics of Israel: I’m talking to the economics of the country.”
Before unpacking her history of political activism, Mathebe takes a seat on a large sofa in her minimally decorated Tshwane office and carefully places the pocket-sized constitutional handbook in front of her.
“It’s part of my handbag things,” she said of the small book she confesses to carrying everywhere, including to shopping malls, where citizens sometimes confront her about governance issues.
Her journey in political activism started at the age of 13 when she joined the Young Christian Students (YCS), a civil society organisation affiliated to the UDF.
“I come from a Christian background and I couldn’t understand why apartheid was being justified as being godly, and that’s the main reason I joined YCS,” Mathebe said.
After a career of student activism that included election to the student representative council of the Technikon Northern Transvaal (today part of the Tshwane University of Technology) in 1990, expulsion from the institution that same year and continued activism at the Port Elizabeth Technikon, Mathebe left politics behind in 1994 to focus on a professional career in the financial services sector.
“I believed I had done my part. We had a democratically elected government and I believed it was time to fight politics in the corporate environment,” Mathebe said.
“Then Polokwane happened and some of us with politics in our DNA realised that we can’t just sit back when the country is going in this direction, and that is when my political activism was ignited again.”
She joined the Congress of the People, the ANC splinter group made up of unhappy members who rejected Zuma’s rise to power.
Although Cope no longer holds the political pull it once did, Mathebe’s work with the party caught the DA’s interest, and she was recruited shortly before the 2016 municipal elections.
The DA’s victories in the municipal elections — such as winning the Tshwane, Johannesburg and Nelson Mandela Bay metros — prompted a renewed belief among party members that it would win Gauteng in 2019.
Since then, however, the ANC’s election of Cyril Ramaphosa as its president has cast uncertainty on whether the DA will achieve the resounding success it had hoped for among Gauteng’s urban population.
Earlier this year, the party admitted that it would have to rethink its strategy for the national poll and take into account the renewed optimism about the ANC that Ramaphosa’s election appeared to have created.
Aware of the DA’s weakness in fostering a connection with black voters, the ANC has used this flaw to dissuade voters from supporting the opposition party, including warning that voting for the DA will allow “the Boers to come back and control us”, as Ramaphosa once remarked.
Mathebe acknowledged that the DA would need to build relationships with voters who were still uncertain whether they could trust the party, but dispelled the notion that the DA was “a party for whites”.
“There is this narrative that the DA is a white party and I can tell you now there’s no such thing. The DA’s values and vision are in line with South Africa’s Constitution,” she said.
“If, indeed, people believe the DA is a party for white people, then the Constitution is a constitution for white people,” Mathebe added.