South Africa’s main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance [DA], is increasingly confident it will win control of the country’s biggest city in municipal elections scheduled for May 18.
If the DA indeed takes over management of the Johannesburg metropolitan area of almost eight million people, analysts say it will arguably be the greatest political defeat for the ruling African National Congress since it emerged victorious from the country’s first democratic elections in 1994.
The ANC already suffered a major blow during South Africa’s previous local government elections in 2006, when the DA defeated it in the race to manage the country’s tourism heartland, Cape Town.
Five years ago, the DA garnered a mere 27 percent of the vote in Johannesburg but some analysts say an opposition triumph is now possible given the current “administrative chaos” in the ANC-run city council.
A billing crisis which mayor Amos Masondo has repeatedly dismissed as “not serious” has seen thousands of residents receiving massively inflated bills for municipal services. When they’ve refused to pay, the city council has cut their water and electricity.
Ahead of the elections, there’ve also been several violent protests in impoverished areas of Johannesburg against the city’s failure to provide adequate services to residents. And the streets have overflowed with refuse after a protracted strike by garbage collectors, who allege senior officials in their department are corrupt.
‘Excellence’ versus incompetence
The DA candidate for Johannesburg mayor, Mmusi Maimane, says his party is basing its strategy on its “excellent” record in the municipalities it already manages.
In recent years various independent local government monitoring agencies have rated DA-managed councils, including that of Cape Town, the best in service delivery.
“For the first time, this race (to control town and city councils) in South Africa is a significant one because now you’ve got two parties who are both in government in different municipalities, and voters have got the best choice and the best comparison between the two of them,” said Maimane.
The ANC says it has “vastly” improved the lives especially of Johannesburg’s poor millions by providing them with clean water, proper toilets and electricity.
But Maimane disagrees with the ANC’s claim. “Most people in Johannesburg aren’t getting these services. If they were, we would not have seen all these service delivery protests,” he said.
The ANC also says it has built thousands of “good quality” houses for poor residents since 2006. But the DA says many of these structures are “uninhabitable.” A party statement said the houses had been built with “poor infrastructure, no storm water drainage and poorly constructed sewerage.”
According to South Africa’s National Home Builders Registration Council, about US$ 9.5 billion will be needed to repair and in some cases rebuild more than 2.6 million badly constructed government houses, including in Johannesburg.
The city’s ANC spokesman, Dumisa Ntuli, did not respond to several requests from VOA for an interview, but he recently told The Star newspaper that the ruling party had “taken steps to improve its systems” in Johannesburg and was confident of retaining control of the city.
Maimane insisted Ntuli’s confidence is misplaced. “What is more difficult for the voter to swallow is that when service delivery doesn’t take place, city authorities say it’s because the city doesn’t have money or the resources for it. Yet the people see senior leaders living in opulence,” he stated.
Younger voters give opposition hope
Maimane said in past elections most South Africans have voted for ANC candidates, despite their poor service delivery records, just because they represented the party that freed their country from apartheid in 1994. But “things have changed,” he maintained. “When I look around, I see a younger voter constituency that isn’t as strongly concerned about the past but is concerned about the safety of their children and is concerned with living in good, well-managed cities.”
Maimane’s counting on votes from these South Africans to give him victory in Johannesburg on May 18. His message to them is that the ANC of today is “very different” from the party led by former president and human rights hero Nelson Mandela 17 years ago.
Even senior ANC members have been warning that the organization is becoming increasingly corrupt, saying some leaders are more focused on amassing personal wealth than on fulfilling Mandela’s vision of leading South Africa’s masses out of poverty.
“This is what made me shift (to the DA),” said Maimane. “I look at the past ANC leaders, their credibility, their moral strength, and I look at the current ANC leadership … and those aren’t the leaders we should look for.”
‘Black puppet for white masters’
The ANC insists its leaders are of the “highest caliber” and remain focused on developing all South Africans. The party says Maimane has “no chance” of capturing Johannesburg and has dismissed him as a “black puppet fronting for white masters.”
The DA candidate doesn’t flinch at this accusation, declaring, “If the ANC wants to clarify this issue of fronting, I’d like to propose that their mayoral candidate be someone I can sit down with and have a frank (public) debate with, so that when the voters go on May 18th to make their poll, that they can see quite clearly the contrast between the two candidates. That will be true integrity, in the eyes of voters.”
Maimane said as a member of a party that the ANC routinely claims represents “privileged white interests,” he’s used to being accused of “selling blacks out.” He responded that “those who are selling South Africans out are those who are misusing money that’s meant for poor people,” not him.
Maimane said “typical” ANC strategy is “to try to make elections about race, which they are not.” Yet the DA itself acknowledges that he’s been chosen to contest Johannesburg partly because he’s black and from South Africa’s largest township, Soweto, where hundreds of thousands of black votes are up for grabs.
Yet although he’s black, Maimane couldn’t be more different from the poor, uneducated and unemployed majority in Soweto. The successful businessman has a Masters degree in theology, is studying for a Masters in public administration and speaks seven languages.
While the DA maintains Maimane’s obvious intellect will make him an ideal mayor, the ANC presents it as evidence that he’s “out of touch” with most voters and can’t relate to the poor.
‘Too young, too inexperienced’
Maimane’s age is another factor in the election. He’s only 30 years old. Analysts say the DA, in choosing him as its candidate for Johannesburg, is obviously targeting the many young voters. But the ANC uses Maimane’s youth to attack him, saying he’s too “inexperienced” to be mayor.
He responded, “When (the ANC’s) Amos Masondo took over the city of Johannesburg, he had never been in a city council in his life. Why should it be that when we look to invest in talent and skills, that is the ANC’s response?”
Maimane continued, “The DA has asked me, a competent individual, to stand as its mayoral candidate in Johannesburg. That honor would never happen within the ANC because the ANC reserves its positions for people who have been in the party for too long; it doesn’t matter how competent or incompetent they could be.”
He said if he becomes mayor, he’ll surround himself with the “best” officials and experts to get the “best advice” about running Johannesburg.
Maimane stressed that he’s willing to give his life “to live in a democracy that doesn’t reflect the racial barriers of this country but really interrogates the issues of service delivery, the issues of society.”
He added, “I really believe that day is coming, as more and more South Africans say, ‘we can vote for such and such a person not because he or she is white, black, colored or Indian, but because he or she is the most skilled person for the job.’ It’s these new South Africans who are going to set the political agenda in the future.”
That, more than anything else, said Maimane, gives him hope that he’ll pull off an election victory that analysts say would be one of the most significant political events in South Africa’s recent history.