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Africa

Johannesburg: New leadership, old problems

After winning local elections in South Africa's three major cities a year ago, the opposition Democratic Alliance is struggling to fulfill campaign promises to improve the delivery of services to the poor.

One year ago - and for the first time in history - South Africa's opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), took over leadership of the country's largest city, Johannesburg. The DA beat out the ruling African National Congress (ANC) in local government elections in 2016 there, as well as in Pretoria and Port Elizabeth.

The DA did not win an outright majority in Johannesburg and Pretoria, but the party secured the backing of the recently formed Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), the country's third-largest political party.

On his first day on the job one year ago, Johannesburg's new mayor, Herman Mashaba, ordered a skills audit and performance review of the city's staff. He wanted to take a fresh approach in dealing with mismanagement and improving services for the poor. He also promised to end corruption and usher in a new political era for the country's economic capital.

Hermann Mashaba - Mayor Johannesburg (Imago/Gallo Images)

The mayor of Johannesburg, Hermann Mashaba, from the Democratic Alliance (DA)

The 57-year-old Mashaba is no career politician. The entrepreneur made his name after founding the "Black Like Me" hair care line in the late 1980s, specializing in straighteners and perm products.

"We have witnessed the country decline into a recession coupled with a 14-year high in unemployment," said Mashaba in June, referring to the country under the ruling ANC, adding that state coffers had been "looted."

Mashaba promised his constituents that the era of corruption, theft and poor service delivery was over. Under his leadership, the city currently has 1,083 open investigations ranging from corruption and fraud to theft.

"About 10.4 billion Rand ($800 million, 680 million euros) has been lost in revenue. These cases are equivalent to 19 percent of the city's total annual budget," he said.

Some progress made

So have Mashaba and his party been able to deliver on their promises? Ivor Sarakinsky, who teaches public governance at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, is skeptical about the results.

"At one level, [Mashaba] is identifying and correcting a whole range of governance areas in the management of the city by previous administrations, and that has to be welcomed," he said. "Public money must be used effectively and efficiently. On that front he has made some progress."

Johannesburg street market (picture-alliance/Dumont Bildarchiv/T. Schulze)

Experts say that the poor are still being left behind in Johannesburg

However, Sarakinsky believes Mashaba has focused mostly on projects for the middle class and has neglected the poor. The public transport system plans are way behind schedule and a program for bicycle use - something more poor people rely on - has just been knocked off the city budget.

"Potholes and roads are fixed in upper and middle class areas perhaps to keep his voters happy," Sarakinsky said. "Data shows that there is a high correlation between whites and DA voting, not blacks. Most black people live in poor parts of town."

Serious doubts persist on one of the main goals Mashaba outlined: to grow the economy and to create jobs.

"There is no clear evidence [on this], not until Statistics South Africa have made reports available," said Sarakinsky.

Foreigners a distraction?

Mashaba has also been criticized for his frequent negative statements on foreign nationals, referring to them as the cause of crime in communities. This rhetoric has proven toxic in South Africa's volatile climate of xenophobia.

Protests in Pretoria (picture-alliance/abaca/C. Tukiri)

Anti-foreigner protests broke out in Johannesburg earlier this year

Just this week, Mashaba confirmed that the city would build housing for South Africans, adding that it was not the city's responsibility to provide free housing to foreign nationals. There is a housing backlog of more than 300,000 households in Johannesburg, with the city only able to build about 2,000 houses in 2017 with government grants.

But while this rhetoric may be welcomed by poor South Africans, according to constitutional expert Pierre De Voss, excluding foreign nationals from housing projects is illegal.

"If people were evicted from, for instance, a condemned building, the city had a constitutional obligation to provide them with temporary emergency housing," De Voss told the South African daily Business Day. This would have to be applied to everyone, not only South Africans, because the Constitution is not xenophobic, he added.

Sarakinsky thinks that such comments by Mashaba are highly irresponsible at a time when nationalist ideas are on the rise.

"In South Africa, those kinds of statements lead to outbreaks of anti-foreigner violence," he said. "In Johannesburg some incidences of violence correlated with some of his statements."

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