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Surprise Johannesburg mayor sets out to transform the city in his images

At 11.41am on Friday, Herman Mashaba, the new mayor of Johannesburg, sent an email to all the top officials of South Africa’s sprawling, chaotic commercial capital.

The tycoon, who took office in the city of 5 million people less than a month ago, ordered more visible policing, a clean-up campaign, repairs to roads and a dedicated civil servant to liaise with private property developers.

“In the next few days, not weeks, you will see some big improvements in the city,” the new mayor told the Guardian 20 minutes later during an interview in his downtown office.

Such measures are hardly controversial. But Mashaba, a political novice who recently published a semi-autobiographical book called Capitalist Crusader and inveighed against a “culture of dependency” in South Africa, has much more ambitious plans. He wants to see a transformation of Johannesburg, and the country too, in line with his own unapologetically rightwing principles.

“I am against government trying to solve everything,” Mashaba, 57, said. “Society deserves less government … As a democrat and a libertarian, I believe in freedom for everyone … I want human beings not to depend on government … As long as we don’t adopt freedom policies we are not going to succeed. For any country to create wealth, you need individual freedom.”

Surprise Johannesburg mayor sets out to transform the city in his images
Surprise Johannesburg mayor sets out to transform the city in his images

The change of control in Johannesburg dealt a humiliating blow to the African National Congress, the celebrated anti-apartheid party once led by Nelson Mandela, which still holds power at national level.

The Democratic Alliance (DA), which Mashaba joined two years ago, won or retained power in a string of major cities and in Johannesburg won 38% of the vote. With the support of the hard-left Economic Freedom Fighters, it was enough to oust the ANC from city hall for the first time in the post-apartheid era. In its place came the DA, which has run Cape Town for a decade and has been branded a white, elitist movement by opponents, with politicians like Mashaba accused of being sellouts.

The new mayor’s views shock many in a nation blighted by tenacious poverty and yawning inequality, where both local and national authorities have systematically intervened to redress the historic legacy of the racist apartheid system and to protect those seen as most vulnerable.

But analysts say the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” message of the tycoon appeals to a constituency of sometimes poor voters which is much larger than most overseas observers think.

The new mayor has set himself the ambitious target of growing Johannesburg’s economy by 5% and cutting unemployment levels to 20%. He is calling on businesses in South Africa, across the continent and around the world to help.

“We need them more than they need us. I am begging them, saying ‘Guys, come into our city and make as much money as you like, and you’ll employ more people and pay your taxes and I am not going to steal them … I am going to make sure I improve the lives of our people,” the tycoon said.

Observers had almost universally predicted defeat for Mashaba in Johannesburg at the hands of the veteran ANC incumbent.

But many South Africans’ faith in the ability of the ANC to revive the continent’s most developed economy has waned in recent years since president, Jacob Zuma, took power in 2009. High-profile corruption scandals have damaged the reputation of the party, and failure to deliver quality services has disillusioned millions of poor voters.

Born in poverty in the tough neighbourhood of Hammanskraal, 110 km north of Johannesburg, Mashaba, whose mother was a domestic worker, left college after a year to work in a supermarket before launching a career as an entrepreneur. His breakthrough came with a hair products company called Black Like Me, launched in 1985, at the height of repression by the apartheid regime. He later diversified.

“I was born alone,” Mashaba said. “My life is not shaped by other people. If I had allowed other people to shape my life I would not have started my business when, by law as a black man, I was not allowed to start a business. Imagine if I had let the [apartheid authorities] determine my life.”

Some commentators have stressed the tycoon’s unique biography, “Mashaba is an example of that quite rare group of people … who were black and yet still somehow managed to overcome the obstacles apartheid had put in their path to achieve considerable success,” wrote commentator Stephen Grootes on the Daily Maverick news website earlier this year.

“He also brings, rarely in our politics, a fierce belief in the power of capitalism, and a wholesale rejection of those who say government should provide. He also wants to do away with any mention of race … saying that he does not want to still be classified as a black man by government.”

Talking to the Guardian, Mashaba accused the ANC, which has ruled South Africa for 22 years, of “using race to divide the nation” and said he has deep reservations about its flagship affirmative action legislation.

He also described the imposition of a minimum wage on employers as “an evil system to deny poor uneducated people the opportunity to advance”.

Yet such rhetoric resonates with a much broader constituency than many believe, said Anthony Butler, professor of politics at the University of Cape Town.

“There is a much stronger pro-commerce sentiment and stronger anti-welfare state sentiment among many black South Africans than many outsiders realise. The ANC talk a kind of quasi-Marxist language but in fact the country has had a black commercial class for a century and a half … There is no stigma attached to being a successful businessman or arguing that people should pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” Butler said.

Few doubt the challenges facing the new mayor. There is soaring unemployment, an acute shortage of affordable housing, vastly insufficient public transport, parlous public health provision, endemic corruption and levels of crime which, though much lower than a decade ago, are still very high.

About half of Johannesburg’s households are below the poverty line, defined in official data as below a monthly income of 2,300 rand (£124).

One of the new mayor’s first acts was to cancel a multi-million pound scheme to construct cycle lanes.

“There are people [in Johannesburg] who don’t have toilets. How can you justify not having the budget to give dignity to our fellow citizens and building cycle lanes in [wealthy areas]?” Mashaba said.

But Johannesburg also has a booming creative scene, world-class museums, an increasing number of tourist visits and steady investment from overseas.

Mashaba said his message to the city was simple: if he didn’t deliver, he should be fired. “This was the last job in the world I needed [but] I couldn’t just sit by and watch the ANC destroy my country … Johannesburg is the foundation of this country. If Johannesburg works, South Africa works. I want to turn this city into a construction site. It is just a matter of political will.”

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