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Interview with the First Female Mayor of Johannesburg: Dr Mpho Phalatse.

Dr Mpho Phalatse will be recorded in history books as the first female mayor of South Africa’s arguably most important metro, City of Joburg – the country’s economic hub. The city is the commercial powerhouse on the African continent as it generates around 16 percent of South Africa’s GDP and employs 12 percent of the national workforce. Phalatse is well aware of the responsibility of wearing the mayoral chain of the City of Joburg and the big challenging task ahead of her. Municipal Focus magazine caught up with Phalatse for a conversation about her vision for Johannesburg and some of her immediate priorities as Executive Mayor.

Q: You have just been elected the first female mayor of Johannesburg, what is your vision for the city and what will be your key priorities as you take up the reins of the economic powerhouse of South Africa?

A: We’ve had an interesting election outcome, one which we didn’t expect where no single party had an outright majority, yes we entered in a coalition in 2016 but it’s more expressed now in 2021. In 2016, we had 11 political parties; currently we have 18 parties that have made it into council. Many of them have one seat but they are in council nonetheless. But now if you look at the split of the votes across all political parties, you would need to have a coalition government of quite a number of parties to have a stable government which is 50 percent plus of the seats in council for you to be able to make decisions and approve budgets,

Integrated Development Plans etc. So the first vision is to form a stable government, we’ve had an unstable government in the last five years where we’ve had four administrations in a five year period. We don’t want a repeat of that, you see it reflected on our streets and communities through the breakdown in service delivery and infrastructure so we need to see some upward development this time around and that will take a stable government which is the first priority. We want a stable coalition government that can take the city forward in the next five years. And once that has happened we will open up to other political parties to make inputs into a manifesto that we had tabled our offer to the city.

Q: Talking about forming a stable government being the first priority, how critical is it to form a majority coalition government?

A: It’s so important because you don’t want to be negotiating a coalition before every council meeting because there are certain council items that require a 50% plus one majority for them to be approved, therefore it becomes cumbersome that for every council meeting you have to be negotiating and it also opens up room for corruption and corrupt dealings between the political parties to sweeten deals so we don’t want to expose ourselves to that.

Q: What type of approach is required to bring about stability in a coalition arrangement that can often be tricky, if what transpired in the last term is anything to go by?

A: As you’ve rightfully said, we’ve learnt a lot from what happened between 2016 and 2019 in particular when we were in a DA-led coalition government and a lot of those learnings have given rise to a draft coalition agreement which was developed by the Democratic Alliance in trying to address a lot of the gaps which we realised were there in the initial coalition arrangement of 2016.

There are conversations you need to have before the fact, you need to set parameters and you need to be clear on your non-negotiables. For example the DA has been very clear on the need for alignment on certain key values and principles, and also on the fact that we will not entertain corruption. And that we will not use the procurement or the recruitment space to sweeten deals with coalition partners. We will put residents first and run transparent governments where we govern and those are some of the good governance principles which for us are a non-negotiable. So those conversations must happen prospectively so that anybody signs understanding these are set parameters and when anybody deviates we can go back to our document and deal with the matter. This was not done in 2016 so we have improved in how we do this based on the mistakes that we made.

Q: You have previously expressed views on equal representation of all constituencies as being key to your administration, why is this so important for the city and how will it benefit a city like Johannesburg?

A: Let’s just qualify equal representation. What I have said is that there has to be representation but representation has to be proportional to the number of votes. However, we will want each constituency to be represented in some form or another when decisions are made around the table. That’s why even in the coalition negotiations we have tried to accommodate as many parties as possible to ensure that as many constituencies are represented at the decision-making table. This is important because each resident of the city counts and matters. Joburg is a very complex and also a very diverse city, even socio-economically you’ve got different constituencies.

We need every Joburg resident to feel that they have a voice in our council chambers when decisions are made. That’s what the outcome of the elections has given us, an opportunity to be truly representative of different groupings of Johannesburg.

Q: You’ve touched on rooting out corruption in the city, how will you go about ensuring that this indeed does happen?

A: There’s already mechanism in place that we can piggyback on and strengthen. You will recall that in the 2016 DA-led administration there was an office which was established called Group Forensic and Investigation Services. Now this establishment still exists and what we need is to capacitate it and ensure that it’s enabled and empowered to discharge its mandate. And what we also need to do is to use the data that is received from this unit. In the past we focused on investigations with a view to have prosecutions and ultimately convictions and have money stolen out of the system recovered. What I’ve seen since I have occupied this office, and I have had engagements with this unit, is that they actually have useful data that can inform us of the leaks in the system. Corruption looks different in City Power than how it looks within the health department. You can be able to zoom into departments and observe patterns which you can use to perform re-engineering initiatives in those areas to make it difficult for people whether officials or politicians to engage in corruption.

Q: Anything you’d like to achieve in your first 100 days in office?

A: The fact that we are now working on a majority coalition which will involve a few other parties as much as I had my 100-day wish list, I would now need to go and review it with a view of accommodating other parties. But I think some of the obvious issues that are burning issues for most people in Johannesburg are things like stable power supply and water supply. I think those are things that we can already agree on across political parties that they are a priority. So we can start rolling out programmes addressing those issues. I am already in talks with independent power producers on how we can jointly run pilot projects; of course we need to look at legislative limitations of doing that. 

But I would like to do something to stabilise power supply within 100 days in Johannesburg with a view to increase capacity by opening up the market to more players. As we increase capacity, we will also be resolving the issue of backyard dwellers and informal settlements which are yet electrified. This is where we see the increase in the population in Johannesburg against our ability to be able to supply basic services including electricity. That will help when we have more players. What it will also help us with is to offset load-shedding. I am excited about the talks that are happening right now but I can’t reveal too much.

Q: Speaking of power supply, you have recently met with Eskom officials regarding problems of electricity theft in Diepkloof, Soweto. How big is this problem and how can be resolved?

A: This problem is big and what makes it big is that it’s a culture which was entertained for a very long time. Had it not been so, it wouldn’t be such a big problem. What Eskom is saying is that; you have a community in Zone 3 Diepkloof where they have eight transformers. In that area, less than 20% is buying electricity, and the rest are either bypassing meters, connecting illegally to the grid or buying energy from ghost vendors. In the last eight months, Eskom reports losses of R96million in Diepkloof alone. That is not sustainable. Eskom is saying to those residents; please pay at least a reconnection fee as they have identified 700 transgressors.

Eskom is requesting R6000 reconnection fee from each of the transgressors. What Eskom will recover is around R4m which is nothing compared to the R96million which has been lost. The problem is that there’s a long standing culture of non-payment and most of the people do not want to pay for electricity. These engagements have been happening for years, back and forth through different political parties and we’ve never been able to crack it. But this time around I believe that we will get it right.

Q: Joburg, as the country’s economic powerhouse is arguably the most important municipality in the country with many economics and political analysts believing Joburg’s success is critical for the country’s overall success. What is your take on that and does that bring about added pressure?

A: It’s absolutely true; Johannesburg is the economic hub of the country and is also a gateway to Africa. So it’s also an economic hub for the African continent. That being said it’s important for Joburg to work. We contribute a lot to the GDP of this country; we contribute a lot to the tax base of this country which then benefits, not only Johannesburg but the whole of the country. Joburg is a very important city and needs to work in order for South Africa to function and thrive.

Q:Does it pose a challenge?

A: Yes, I view it as an exciting challenge. You can see that the challenges of Joburg are man-made whether by officials who are corrupt or by residents who are not doing their bit by taking responsibility. Once we can sort out a lot of those behavioural issues and get governance systems in place to ensure that we close taps and leaks in the system and get it to work, a lot of things will function.

There’s a lot of goodwill out there, a lot of private sector players who are begging to get involved in the spaces that we’ve protected for so long.

Q: What’s your message to the people of Joburg? What can they expect from your leadership as their mayor?

A: My message to the people of Joburg is that this is an exciting time. Every resident must really get excited. We’ve got a golden opportunity where we have a multiparty government which represents most if not all constituencies in the city which is exciting. So everyone can be sure that their lives will improve. We also have responsibilities as much as we have rights, we would like to encourage the residents to exercise their rights but also remember responsibilities.

Those who can afford to pay must pay their bills; those who cannot afford also have a responsibility to make that known by registering on the city’s indigent database so that they can be assisted. It’s so important; we must collectively rebuild our city. Don’t litter or participate in illegal dumping, report any illegality that you see. Work with the city. To the private sector as well; our doors are open and Joburg is open for business. Let’s work together and we can do so much more.

Q: You are a qualified medical doctor, what was your journey into the political sphere, and what do you think your past experiences uniquely bring to the table?

A: My journey has been quite interesting, I’ve been a councillor now since 2016 and I suffered huge culture shock initially. Just in terms of the level of professionalism, sometimes our council meetings look like a circus. It’s sometimes unbelievable to witness the behaviour of some adults and you’d expect some level of decorum. You don’t find such in the profession that I come from. You find a high level of discipline and people are generally ethical and focused in delivering their mandate. That was a bit of something that I struggled with when I started. I’ve gotten used to it, I’m able to function in the noise while ignoring the noise and keeping my focus. I’ve gained new skills that I didn’t know I needed. So I’d say I’ve grown in quite interesting ways.

I was quite disappointed at the lack of team work in politics. In medicine, if you are in casualty and you have a patient wheeled in that needs resuscitation, everybody literally drops what they are doing and run to the patient and everybody does something. One would put up a drip, one would prepare the drugs and one would be doing CPR. There’s a culture of teamwork whether it’s your patient or not. In politics it’s quite the direct opposite. Everyone next to you is either trying to pull you down or trying to set traps for you. You just need to have eyes everywhere. I’ve learnt and gained skills to survive. I come from an environment where the stakes are high, if you don’t do your work a patient dies. The way I approach problems is very systematic and that comes from my medical training.

Q: On a final note, who is Mpho Phalatse – what does she like doing during her own time, and do you have any hobbies?

A: Mpho Phalatse is very family orientated. I have intimate relations with my parents and my children. I love spending time with the people that I love and those are the people that are very close to me. You’ll never find me at a night club. I don’t like noise, I love good conversations. I am also a creative; I write songs and my thoughts. I also listen to music. I love walks, hikes and long drives even when I do them alone. I love to introspect and listen to my thoughts. That’s me in a nutshell.

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