Is the DA more than a one metro wonder?

With all the drama around the recent Cabinet shuffle and the imminent no-confidence debate on President Zuma in the National Assembly it is easy to forget about other levels of government.

Local government is very much the neglected child of South African politics. Most people don’t regard it as important as national or even provincial government. Being a local counsellor is not seen as a very prestigious job and certainly not as glamourous as being an MP or MPL. It is rather seen as a stepping stone for getting to national or provincial legislatures.

Yet, when local government services are lacking or existing ones break down it is immediately and acutely felt by the citizens, more so than most national or provincial services. Without refuse removal, or water or electricity, the quality and productivity of all our lives is significantly reduced.

Local government is most probably the level where government has failed most over the last 22 years. Despite the government’s explicit commitment to strengthen local government in order to provide basic services for everyone, the reality today is that many municipalities and even metros are near collapse.

Recently  I was part of a small dinner for business people with Solly Msimanga, the DA mayor of Tshwane. Msimanga is of course a bit of rock star in local politics. He is fairly young for someone in his position, good looking, charismatic and let’s not forget how he banned the blue lights (with the exception of the president) in Tshwane. Maybe the politicians hated it, but the rest of the country cheered when he said: “The only VIPs in the city will be the residents of the city.”

Originally from Atteridgeville, he fell into politics almost accidentally. With a degree in commerce and a diploma in marketing he apparently wrote a letter to the DA after seeing Tony Leon in action in the townships in 2006.

Wisely, the DA did not just dismiss his criticism of their campaign approach, instead they recruited him. He quickly rose through the ranks. After a stint as a DA councillor in Tshwane, he was elected to the Gauteng provincial parliament and also became DA provincial chairperson. With a DA-EFF working agreement secured after the local government elections last year, he was handed the mayorship of Tshwane – something of a poisoned chalice.

At the dinner I listened to him for almost three hours answering questions from the business sector. It was quickly very clear how dire the situation in our administrative capital has become.

The third biggest metro in the world (after Hong Kong and New York) is close to collapse. Msimanga’s description of corruption running into billions of rands, illegal contracts, lack of maintenance of existing and aging infrastructure, lack of service culture, inflated and incompetent bureaucracy and decreasing revenue painted a shocking and depressing picture.

If what he says is correct (and I have no reason to doubt him), it is truly a serious indictment on the ANC. Listening to Msimanga, I shuddered at the possibility of similar damage being done at the national treasury.

Yet, interestingly Msimanga was not into ANC bashing. Although of course making it clear that these were problems he inherited, he raised them more as a matter of fact and challenges to be overcome. Although clearly carrying a very heavy workload (he had just come from various service delivery protests) he conveyed a passion, vision and enthusiasm to build a world class city that serviced all its people.

He spoke about the numerous corrupt contracts they are trying to reverse, the open tender process they instituted, their efforts to clean up the city, deliver better services to all…the list went on and on.

In many ways he reminded me of the ANC of the good old days of the 1990’s. This was a time when ANC cadres wanted to do what was right, be world class politicians and administrators, eradicate the old sins (including corruption) of the past and above all serve the people of the country.

I mentioned it to the mayor and asked him why, when faced with power and access to resources, the DA would not go the same way as the ANC has done. He thought for a minute and then responded with a frankness which is rare for any modern day politician. “I hope the DA systems and controls will make it a lot more difficult,” he said. “But you know you can never say never. Then it will be for the voters to vote us out.”

I truly hope Msimanga succeeds, not only because passion and commitment like his should be rewarded, but more importantly because the people of Tshwane , as all others in the country, deserve an efficient local government. It is of course vital for the DA not only if they want to retain power in Tshwane, but also grow their support at the next national election. It will also be a good indicator of whether the DA can be more than a one-metro wonder.

But I am concerned whether Msimanga will be able to deliver on his promises. According to reports Tshwane has a roughly R2 billion deficit. It only has a credit line of about R1 billion. They are squashed by an ANC provincial government and national government and although many of the equitable share and other grants are determined by formula, cooperation with these two tiers of government will be tricky.

The revenue base is declining rather than increasing, because of the broader economic climate as well as water restrictions. And it will take time to clean out the mess that was inherited.

Politically, Msimanga  also has a big challenge on his hands. He has to continuously manage the working relationship with the EFF as well as the many aggrieved and often ill-disciplined ANC councillors who will do their utmost to disrupt and undermine any efforts by the DA caucus and mayor, as their recent behaviour at the state of the capital speech clearly illustrated.

With all these constraints Msimanga will most probably only be able to deliver a fraction of what he wants to do and dreams of. But that could already make a big difference for the people of Tshwane.

What ever happens the ANC must take note. There is new guy in town and he is going places.

– Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland.