A reply to Michael Beaumont

Douglas Gibson says that whatever his other virtues Herman Mashaba was not skilled at running a caucus

At the risk of giving oxygen to his party, but because of the somewhat overheated personal attack of Michael Beaumont on me, I will respond to his article, “Coalitions will not be built on forked tongues.”

I like and respect several leaders of ActionSA party. That includes both Michael Beaumont and Herman Mashaba. After all, with varying degrees of success they learnt most of what they know about politics in the DA. The fact that they are party number 42, (or is it 43?) to be formed in South Africa does not take away their right of existence, even if they are one of the few parties in the democratic world where they are not elected to their elevated positions: they are all self-appointed, or appointed (and paid) by Mashaba.

Beaumont implies that there is something reprehensible about being an ambassador. It is probably because he has his facts wrong and he does not understand what ambassadorship entails. I was the first opposition MP appointed to a diplomatic post after 1994. President Mbeki appointed me in 2007. I had the job of representing South Africa (not the ANC or the Zuma administration, as he incorrectly puts it) as ambassador to Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia and as permanent observer to the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific.

Just so that the Beaumonts of this world could not misinterpret the situation, I consulted the leader of the party, Helen Zille, the former leader, Tony Leon and my successor as chief whip of the Opposition, Ian Davidson, before accepting this unprecedented appointment. They all approved the step. Furthermore, when Kader Asmal leaked the news of my appointment at a cocktail party, causing excited speculation, I did not want anyone to think I had been coerced into joining the ANC.

I issued a statement to the effect that it said a lot for President Mbeki and Minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma that they would appoint a loyal DA member and strong supporter of my party leader and trust me to do a good job for South Africa.

Let me record that never once in my four and a half years with Foreign Affairs, did I need to have pangs of conscience or do or say anything that contravened my beliefs. I was constantly promoting my country, our tourist offering, the World Cup of 2010 and our trade ties with countries in South East Asia. It was a great experience and I rather enjoyed being transformed from “Mr Nasty” as chief whip, to “Mr Nice,” as a diplomat.

My wife and I worked our hearts out working for South Africa and it was counted as a success because three other DA MPs were appointed in the years that followed: Sheila Camerer, Sandra Botha and Tony Leon. They all served with distinction. Beaumont thinks that they too had to still their pangs of conscience. That is just ignorant.

He equates service like this with being appointed onto the board of City Power and suggests that I had to quiet my conscience in accepting the appointment. This is nonsense. My party was leading the coalition. Why on earth should I have declined? During the preceding municipal election, I appeared on public platforms with Herman Mashaba in support of his mayoralty and I was delighted when he was elected to head a DA-led coalition.

I served for three years, two as chairperson of the Risk Committee and one as chairperson of the Audit Committee and I gave energy and commitment to the task until the whole board, apart from one EFF member, was retired by Mayor Makhubo, who thereupon appointed a board more to ANC taste.

The DA-led coalition did some great work over those three years. Unfortunately, it ended in tears. Mashaba, whatever is said now, resigned, opening the way for the ANC to resume control. Two DA councillors had indeed been bought by the ANC. One had financial needs and the other needed a job. They went over to the ANC as soon as they had delivered their secret votes. But the mayoral election happened because the leader of the coalition ran away on silly grounds. He let his party down; he let his voters down; he let Johannesburg down.

The truth is that whatever skills Mashaba had, and those were many and used for the benefit of Johannesburg, he was not skilled at running a caucus. He had to be the boss. He vilified a councillor as a racist when that person insisted that his ward needed proper municipal services like fixing potholes, repairing pavements and kerbs, cutting grass and maintaining parks. According to Mashaba the money had to be spent only on the poor in the townships. Anyone wanting a fair shake for their own wards, consisting of mainly white voters, was a racist.

Similarly, he treated his own councillors in wards of mainly coloured and Indian voters with disdain when they repeatedly expressed their concerns about the land invasions. This led to disillusionment not only with Mashaba as their leader, but also by the voters, to the great detriment of the DA.

Beaumont is proud of the fact that Mashaba managed the coalition well. The EFF, after initially refusing to accept him as mayor and being forced to do so when the DA refused to nominate another candidate, ended up describing him as the “EFF mayor.” A number of councillors in his caucus became uneasy about the close relationship with the EFF, upon whom the coalition depended, and the concessions too readily made to the EFF.      

The percentage of councillors, quoted by Beaumont as being 43%, who preferred being in opposition rather than being in the Mashaba-led coalition proves conclusively that he had lost the support of a sizeable portion of his own caucus. This contradicts the proud assertion about Mashaba’s management skills.

He might have managed the EFF well; he failed when it came to managing his own party friends and colleagues. His new party would do well to remember this. They will, of course, be unable to do much about it because unlike when he was in the DA, Mashaba has to fund the whole show. People like Beaumont and many of the management team earn whopping salaries that are largely paid for by Mashaba or through his efforts.

Beaumont is a hired gun. He is a professional political bureaucrat. I am not sure if he has ever had a real job in the private sector. He certainly has never “built a business, created a job, healed a patient or arrested a criminal,” to quote his own words.

I was never a professional politician and throughout my sixteen years in the Transvaal Provincial Council, five years as a Councillor, and for many of my 17 years in Parliament, I practised as an attorney – mainly to ensure that I would never be dependent on the public for my family’s income.

I am enthusiastically in favour of diversity in public life – diversity of gender, race, language, rural and urban, education and profession, exactly as the DA demands of its representatives. In the forthcoming local government elections, an extremely comprehensive nominations and selection process is already being followed to ensure that the DA delivers its promise: voters everywhere will be able to see people like themselves as DA candidates and public representatives.

The purpose of this is to strengthen the DA vote and to maximise public support. The party has already strengthened under the elected leadership of John Steenhuisen and is looking increasingly bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Just look at the excellent performance in Parliament. Those predicting doom will be disappointed.

The DA will go for a majority in all the councils because it wants to carry out its vision, its policies and to live up to its values. It has proved that it is miles better at governing than the ANC and would welcome the chance to do so in many more towns and cities. One hopes that Beaumont’s party ends up taking a couple of wards here and there from the ANC, rather than trying to undermine the DA. Let’s see which wards they contest. Their first foray into elections, in Benoni a few weeks ago, was a disaster. Their best effort was 6% where the sitting councillor resigned to stand, pretending to be an independent but financed and helped by Beaumont’s party.

Where it falls short, I am sure the DA will attempt to put coalitions together. Some of those will no doubt include ActionSA if it confounds the expectations of failure and wins some wards in areas where many of the voters have grown accustomed to staying away from the polls.