Joburg's new mayor is in tune with the city – and you can take that as gospel

Jozi’s first citizen chats about why the DA is misunderstood, the gospel music she loves, and her very long to-do lists.

Joburg’s new mayor is in tune with the city – and you can take that as gospel
© Provided by Daily Maverick

There were songs of victory playing in Dr Mpho Phalatse’s head when she woke up on 22 November. By the time the sun slipped from the horizon she had beaten her nearest rival by 23 votes for the mayoral chain. Even without a coalition agreement, all parties except Cope voted for the DA to govern in the key City of Johannesburg.

“I wake up with songs in my head and I focus on the lyrics. The words often speak to what’s happening around me or what’s going to happen,” says the city’s first woman mayor of her latest musical obsession, gospel jazz, and also of this uncanny prescience.

But Phalatse is more careful measure than whimsy. The Sefako Makgatho University and Medunsa medical doctor went on to focus on public health administration at Wits University. But since 2016 she’s been a full-time DA proportional representational councillor and was mayoral committee member for health. She’s no stranger to coalitions and the calculations that add up to the political game.

The DA has its blunders and cringeworthy missteps. In the city it was accused of allowing its previous coalition partner, the EFF, to “hijack the work of the city” and that the DA failed to hold the centre, resulting in returning the ANC to govern the country’s economic hub in 2019.

“The problem was not the EFF; the problem was the leadership style of the mayor at the time and that he didn’t have boundaries with the EFF,” she says of Herman Mashaba, then DA mayor and now head of ActionSA. It was Mashaba who placed her on suspension for what were regarded as pro-Israel remarks made in June 2018. She says the comments were “taken out of context” and she was standing up against anti-Semitism, not for the state of Israel. Phalatse was acquitted in party disciplinaries and says: “I stand behind the DA’s stance of a two-state solution.”

For her, boundaries matter. She says: “I have very high standards and expectations and I work at a fast pace, so I like to surround myself with people who are the same. My critics would probably say that I expect too much or I’m too strict.”

Settling down to a late-evening Zoom interview, Phalatse doesn’t go into specifics of the “how” in achieving her long manifesto list. It’s the likes of a 24-hour turnaround on fixing water leaks; bumping up the city’s road network budget to nearly 20 times where it currently stands at about R1.6-billion; establishing a dedicated municipal court to prosecute by-law infringements and cable theft; filling clinic vacancies; establishing drug treatment centres and shelters for the homeless; and implementing a food security plan.

To move these from being mere wishlists to achievable targets, she says: “We need to improve collection strategies by tackling a culture of non-payment; resolving billing queries and rooting out corruption.” She says smarter public-private partnerships will be key, including recovering some of the R36-billion in the city’s debtors book.

“Joburg represents opportunity. We need to run a city that is enabling and creates a stable environment so Joburg can be a gem,” she says.

Joburg pulses, that’s for sure. Phalatse, who grew up in what was then Bophuthatswana, says: “My community was very homogenous and everyone was a Tswana or Tswana-speaking.

“Joburg is energy and diversity; there’s a rich heritage here too that needs to be nurtured so people can start enjoying it. I also love the vibe of Alex and Maboneng,” she says, admitting that the inner city precinct is where she could hang out and also get her lashes and her hair done.

The 44-year-old single mom of two boys aged 18 and 11 and a daughter of five, is always strikingly well groomed. Being a woman in the public eye invites a certain skewed gender-based critique, and politics, after all, is also presentation.

Taking up the role as Jozi’s number-one citizen as a black woman is an opportunity for positive role modelling, and also – finally – some better PR for the DA, which drags along deadwood, blinkers and bubbles. The mayoral position is no doubt a political springboard, too.

“The DA is misunderstood. We know who we are; we are comfortable in our skin, but we haven’t managed the perception of what the DA stands for.

“More young black women need to be involved in leadership and in politics. If people can relate to you, you can address the trust deficit and when they trust you, you can govern better. Going forward I will challenge myself and look at more political roles, not just administrative ones.”

For Phalatse, looking to her “what’s next” comes naturally. It’s because her mother, Moserwa Phalatse, pushed her to never settle for less.  

“I’m an only child and my mom was strict and my toughest critic – she still is. She was also a very hard worker and a perfectionist; she instilled in me my work ethic. But my parents invested in building up my self-confidence, so you’ll find it difficult to break me down; I’ve developed a thick skin,” Phalatse says.

In singling out leaders who have shaped her, she cites her mother and Helen Suzman. The Progressive Party leader was a lone voice against the National Party. Inspiration is also her Christian faith and being “the best mommy” to her three children.

She also carves out alone time to write, to meditate, maybe to practise a routine from her competitive ballroom dancing days or to turn up the volume on virtually any music – so long as it’s not kwaito.

For the next five years, though, there are new tunes to dance to – new rhymes, new rhythms. And she knows she’ll have to be standing firm when the last notes fade out. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

Joburg’s new mayor is in tune with the city – and you can take that as gospel
© Provided by Daily Maverick

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