New mayor in johannesburg: optimists feel a breath of fresh air

The new mayor from the opposition inherited a huge debt budget. He wants to crack down harder on corruption.

Has many ideas: Herman Mashaba Photo: imago/Gallo Images

The opposition government in Johannesburg is not yet old. It has been about five months since the Democratic Alliance (DA) took over the affairs of South Africa’s largest city, sending the African National Congress (ANC) into opposition. This historic result in the August municipal elections came as a shock to the erstwhile liberation movement. In the meantime, the DA, with millionaire Herman Mashaba as mayor, has presented a 10-point plan.

Johannesburg’s potential, with its financial district full of skyscrapers, is high. "The city can be attractive to businessmen and still be pro-poor," said Mashaba, who calls himself an incorrigible capitalist. He wants to "overhaul" the corruption- and crime-ridden city.

The problem with the previous ANC mayor, Mashaba says: He stood for style more than substance. The ANC-led city government, he says, reinforced a culture of dependency. "It spent millions to create an artificial image of the city that not even its strongest supporters could believe," the mayor says.

He has now "inherited" a debt budget. There is a shortfall of 170 billion rand (12 billion euros) for infrastructure over the next decade, Mashaba said in a speech 100 days after taking office. He wants to get the private sector to pump 20 billion rand a year into the city and encourage small business. According to Mashaba, Johannesburg has 881,000 unemployed people – out of a population of nearly 5 million.

Making compromises

There is no doubt that Mashaba, who since 1985 has made his company "Black like Me" a financial success with hair products for blacks, has many ideas. However, his DA, originally the party of the white middle class, governs in Johannesburg together with the left-wing populist "freedom fighters" of the EFF, who militantly demand more nationalization. Thus, compromises must be made.

First, more social housing is to be built. A team of human rights lawyers has already been commissioned to reclaim apartment blocks in the inner city from notorious "slum lords." More than 115,000 people occupy buildings there and live illegally in poor conditions. The city also includes 180 informal shack settlements, often without any basic services. According to the DA, there is a shortage of 300,000 new houses, but the ANC has built a new, modern town hall for 340 million rand.

Optimists are now feeling a breath of fresh air: For the first time, according to the DA, there is a complete and transparent list of candidates for a house from the state. There are 79,000 names on it, some as far back as 1996. In 2013/14, not a single title deed had been issued in Johannesburg – in the first week in office, 2,000 deeds were issued by the DA.

"Without mercy" against illegal migrants

Mashaba intends to crack down hard and "without mercy" on illegal migrants, who are pouring into glitzy Johannesburg in large numbers from poor neighboring countries. Such remarks immediately earned him criticism. The Africa Diaspora Forum has protested loudly. "Not all migrants are criminals," says chairman Marc Gbaffou. "Violence has no nationality." Mashaba should show leadership instead of dividing the city’s residents, he said. After all, he said, Johannesburg was built as a mining town by migrants.

Last week, a special police unit was formed to hunt down drug dealers in Johannesburg. The street canyons look a little cleaner: Cleaning crews have doubled in size and are also putting in night shifts. In the city center, restaurants and stores have re-established themselves in some corners, enlivening streets in the asphalt jungle that remains largely empty in the evenings.

For Mashaba, whose mother was once part of the vast group of cheap domestic workers in South Africa, it’s clear: "The poor must be taken care of first. This is a matter of human rights."

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