Herman Mashaba: The man who betrayed his voters

Helen Zille says the former Joburg mayor's record in office was woeful

For all its complexity, the Democratic Alliance is a fairly efficient machine. Over the years we have built systems and processes to give us the edge over our opponents, and we have developed mechanisms to find and nurture the best candidates.

But every now and again we make mistakes, some bigger than others. As Charles Dickens wrote in David Copperfield: "Accidents will occur in the best-regulated families." And so it is apt that Herman Mashaba’s Chief of Staff, Michael Beaumont, has titled his literary debut “The Accidental Mayor.” But, in the end, Mashaba’s short stint as Johannesburg’s Mayor wasn’t just an accident, it turned out to be a car crash. So let’s pick through the wreckage and set the record straight.

Mashaba’s choice of Beaumont to write this memoir is fitting. His loyalty to his boss is well known. This symbiotic relationship has served Beaumont well over the years, such as when Mayor Mashaba unilaterally hiked Beaumont’s ratepayer-funded salary by half a million rand to R1,8 million per annum. This caused such an uproar at the time, that Mashaba later had to reverse the decision. One decision that wasn’t reversed was Mashaba’s sanctioning of a council-funded personal smoking balcony for Beaumont.

But let’s start from the beginning. In the run-up to the 2016 elections I had, along with others, done my best behind the scenes to recruit Mashaba as our Johannesburg mayoral candidate because of his relatively high profile as a businessman. In retrospect, his elevation from political neophyte to Johannesburg Mayor was far too quick – he just didn’t have the political nous to manage a complex coalition and all the other pressures that come with governing. We should have given him a chance to cut his teeth as a councillor or an MP before handing him the keys to executive office.

I have come to learn that high-profile candidates often regard their entry into politics as a “favour” to the party. They certainly have no intention of starting at entry-level. If they agree to venture into the terrain at all, they want to start at the top -- and even that takes a lot of persuasion.

To be fair, back then, we were not realistically expecting to be in a position to govern Johannesburg (or Tshwane for that matter) after the 2016 election. But the result of that poll exceeded our expectations and, on the back of 480 000 DA voters, Herman Mashaba was elected Mayor of Johannesburg on 22 August 2016.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that Herman Mashaba was never really DA material. For one thing, he started as a rabid free-marketeer, well to the right of most people in the party. Certainly far to the right of me. And, not long into his term, Mashaba’s increasing xenophobia – as evidenced by his many tweets on immigration – had started to become an issue in the party.

Leading a minority coalition government in the City of Johannesburg, that could only retain power with the support of the EFF, it did not take long for Mashaba to dance to their tune, and accuse anyone who disagreed with him of being “racist”. As Gwen Ngwenya, the DA’s Director of Policy memorably said, he flip-flopped from a self-appointed “capitalist crusader” to “a man who grew cosy with VBS looters”.

It was well known in Johannesburg council circles that Mashaba took more notice of the EFF caucus than his own. Colleagues tell me that he would arrive at DA caucus meetings, make long, self-glorifying speeches, announce that he had reached an agreement with the EFF, and then instruct the DA councillors to vote accordingly. It was hardly surprising that he was soon referred to in the DA caucus as the EFF’s Mayor. And, true to form, when he resigned, Mashaba made a point of saying goodbye to the EFF caucus, but not to the DA one.

This was Mashaba’s first great betrayal: voters who voted for the DA soon discovered they had elected a mayor who let the EFF call the shots so that he could stay in power. Whether it was staff appointments, tenders, in-sourcing and even disciplinary matters – Mashaba spent three years in office marching to the beat of the EFF’s drum.

In an attempt to justify this betrayal, Mashaba was fond of trotting out the well-worn political aphorism that coalitions are the future of South African politics. What he never understood is that the art of coalition-building does not involve sacrificing your principles to accommodate your opponents. The real art of coalition management is to hold together a complex range of parties in government without sacrificing core values and principles. It is, undoubtedly, difficult to work out where the line is, and when one is at risk of crossing it. But that awareness needs to be uppermost in every coalition leader’s mind.

When I was mayor of Cape Town, trying to hold together a complex, seven-party coalition, Badih Chaaban thought he could hold a gun to my head by threatening to take his party out of the coalition and bring the government down if I did not accede to his demand to run the system of public tenders for the World Cup in 2010. I responded by firing him and his party from government. We were prepared to move into opposition rather than violate our core principles. Had the Independent Democrats not agreed to join our coalition, our government would have fallen. We were all prepared to let that happen rather than accede to Chaaban’s demands.

Mashaba, on the other hand, took what he described as a “pragmatic” approach to the EFF. This translated into impassioned pleas, in federal meetings, for the DA to work more closely with the EFF, often – bizarrely – conflating the EFF with black South Africans. Anyone who opposed this was therefore, by definition, racist. When many of the DA’s leadership rejected his pleas, he accused them of failing to support him and his coalition government in Johannesburg.

I recall in January 2017, a few short months after the 2016 local government elections, when Mashaba argued passionately in favour of the DA putting the EFF into executive power in Metsimaholo, a municipality in the Free State. It was quite clear to all of us that this was part of the “pound of flesh” the EFF was demanding to keep Mashaba in power in Johannesburg. He sent around an email to all Federal Executive members saying: “I fail to understand why we do not see the overall advantage of supporting the EFF on their genuine request to give them a chance to run such a small municipality.”

This says it all. Mashaba was happy to hand power to the EFF in a place where they would have had free-rein to loot and pillage, as they have done in other places where have had access to power and patronage. The wishes of the voters never featured in Mashaba’s calculations. It was all about retaining his position as Mayor of Johannesburg.

Never, in my experience, has a leader squandered political capital as rapidly as Mashaba did. Initially regarded as a hero by his own caucus, his autocratic leadership style quickly led to profound alienation amongst his colleagues. His increasingly Pavlovian default to EFF positions developed to a point that several DA councillors were rumoured to be planning to vote against him in the scheduled no-confidence motion tabled by the ANC.

Instead of managing his own caucus, and quelling the rising mutiny, Mashaba decided to jump before he was pushed. It was a near-certainty that he would lose the no-confidence motion, which was to be conducted by secret ballot. His determination to avoid that humiliation was the real reason for his resignation as Mayor.

It was also his second great betrayal. By walking away from governance, he handed the City on a platter to the ANC. He is going to have to explain that to the voters when he stands as a mayoral candidate again in 2021. Beaumont’s book is the start of the rationalisation process, the seeking of scapegoats and the refusal to take personal responsibility.

Mashaba knows he has a difficult task ahead of him, which is why he has hand-picked a coterie of former DA ‘strategists’ to direct his campaign. Sadly for him, this is the same hapless crew that presided over the DA’s reversal of electoral fortunes last year. And it is clear they have learned little from their mistakes.

If previews of Mashaba’s new book are anything to go by, they seem to think that targeting me is the ticket back to the Mayor’s office in 2021. Back to the good old days of inflated salaries in the mayor’s office, private smoking balconies and access to VIP vehicles and security.

It was no doubt on their advice that Mashaba chose to attack me in his theatrical resignation on 21 October 2019. I must admit that I was taken aback when, in his resignation speech, he said that my election as Chairperson of the DA’s Federal Council was a “victory for people in the DA who stand diametrically opposed to [his] beliefs and value system”.

This came as a surprise because, just six months previously, in March 2019, Mashaba had tweeted: “In all the years I have known Helen Zille, including reading extensively about her beautiful life, anyone calling her racist is actually racist herself/himself. Helen is one those SA (sic) I personally hold with the highest esteem. I am proud of her as my fellow SA. Period.”

This dramatic about-turn was final confirmation that Mashaba is a man devoid of principle. While many of us had always known that Mashaba didn’t have much of a political compass, it had become progressively clear he had no moral compass either.

A whole lot more about Mashaba’s short and chaotic stint as mayor is yet to be revealed. But because he has chosen me as a target in order to justify his self-serving betrayal of the voters, I am compelled to set the record straight: I had absolutely nothing to do with any DA decision-making from the time he was elected Mayor in August 2016, to his resignation the day after I was elected Chair of the Federal Council in October last year.

To suggest that I was behind a plot to oust his coalition government from power in Johannesburg is a delusional conspiracy theory. And his claim that I am “to the right of Orania” is just plain silly.

One of the most amusing aspects is his claim to have brought new support to the DA, and his belief that his departure will draw significant support away from the party. The actual electoral statistics reflect a different picture. According to data provided by the Independent Electoral Commission, the DA won 319 000 votes in 2014 in Johannesburg. In 2019, after three years of Mashaba’s mayorality, the party attracted just 274 000 votes.

In short, 11% of the votes the DA lost in the disastrous 2019 election were lost in the City of Johannesburg -- 45,000 votes in all. That summarises how the DA snatched defeat from the jaws of victory under Herman Mashaba.

As I consider this, I also reflect upon my profound political mistake in believing that “trophy candidates”, like Mashaba, could change the trajectory of the DA. How wrong that turned out to be.

Funny enough, our political polling is showing that we are starting to regain the ground lost over the last few years. Mashaba, on the other hand, has dropped off the radar of most South Africans. His attempt to pick a fight with me is his bid to get noticed again. Let’s see if it works out well for him.

Helen Zille is Chairperson of the DA’s Federal Council