South Africa

Reporter’s Notebook: Discussing politics with Gauteng Premier David Makhura

One of the small joys of the political reporting beat in South Africa is to watch people move through the ranks, and how they so often have the same relationship with you once they attain high office. Not everyone is like this of course, but some are so democratically minded they don’t look down upon you when they reach high office. David Makhura, the Premier of Gauteng, is one such person.

David Makhura enjoys infinitely more a discussion about high policy rather than low politics, and is not afraid to go on the record on anything. He greets you with a warm handshake and a question or two about recent career moves of my own, and then the shoulder hug so prevalent in our politics today.

I first came to know Makhura while he was the Provincial Secretary of the ANC in Gauteng, when he was “David”. I get the sense he prefers that title to the one I call him now, “Mr Premier”. Once, at a Walk the Talk event for my former employer, my wife (who is ungovernable) asked him if he’d actually walked 12km or just gone to the start and then zipped around it in an X5. With my heart in my mouth I watched as he laughed heartily, and gave her the warmest possible handshake (our domestic discussion later was less amusing).

So I came prepared to talk policy, and he came prepared to talk about anything, about Brian Hlongwa, land, the economy, and of course, the Life Esidimeni scandal. It was an interview that convinced this writer, at any rate, that he is ideologically wedded to the idea of title for land. In an environment where it seems almost any idea about land is suddenly on the table, this is important. He also appears to be hinting that the ANC Gauteng itself will, soon, take action against its Chief Whip in the Legislature, after Hlongwa was found by the Special Investigating Unit to have profited from wrongdoing in the provincial health department.

We started with a conversation about how the ANC will do in Gauteng in 2019. Of course, post-Nasrec and in public, he’s very optimistic. But that led immediately to my question about how surely the DA will campaign not against him or President Cyril Ramaphosa, but on the issue of corruption in general, and Hlongwa in particular.

He started down the “innocent until proven guilty” line, and was not annoyed when I suggested that that sounded a lot like the ANC of Jacob Zuma. Then came the meat:

There are internal ANC processes which I know will reach finality in that matter, there is the legal process of the courts... also the process, the internal process that will also reach finality which will help the ANC to say there are certainly issues on which member of the ANC, or members, need to be held accountable.”

Then, the summation:

We’re not only saying he must have his day in court, we’re saying the integrity committee of the ANC will advise the ANC.”

When I pushed him on the time this will take (2019 is not getting any further away...) he dropped a possible clue.

We’re very conscious about it ourselves. I can’t say how long the processes will take, but the ANC’s internal processes will take that into account.”

For Makhura to have any credibility after that comment, the integrity committee will surely have to “advise the ANC” that Hlongwa must leave his position. And Makhura had better be able to make it stick.

And then on to the burning issue of the day, the year and probably the decade: land. I put it to him that the Gauteng ANC’s policy of rapid land release, of government land being given, lock stock and title, to people to build their own homes, was a stroke of political genius. It would present voters with a clear choice between the EFF and the state owning land, or the ANC and owning land themselves.

He laughed out loud here, saying that “I read what you wrote about that” on the issue. Chuckling, he went on to say that this was not a political gambit, “it was not conceived as such”.

Then came an interesting story, one of those stories that can explain something. Makhura explained how he had been going around the province now since 2014 (the year he became Premier) speaking to people and discussing various issues. The two main issues that came up time after time after time were housing and, of course, jobs. But there had been a change over time, he thinks, and many people now are prepared to build their own home, if they can just get a piece of land on which to do it.

Still, “we will not informalise Gauteng”, he said. He does not want shacks across the province, and those who invade land illegally, “as the policy of a certain party proposes” will not be given title or infrastructure.

Rather, he says:

We wouldn’t have a position where all land would be owned by the state, we’re not against private ownership of anything, we’re not that kind of an organisation. Nor do we want all land to be owned by just some.”

In case you still doubt his commitment to land tenure, he goes further:

Ownership is critical, people need to have title to their land, so they own it to pass to the next generation... people need to know that from now, henceforth, my children will have something.”

He then pointed to an example of how former Tshwane mayor Sputla Ramokgopa gave some portions of land to people in Mamelodi.

I saw what that does, suddenly that area doesn’t look informal, all of a sudden people say this is my place.”

In other words, it developed quite quickly, as a result of private ownership.

And then came another diagnosis.

Informal settlements have a lack of accountability because no one knows how long they will be there; when you give them title deeds it changes their mindset immediately.”

It’s one of those small comments that explains so much about our current situation, and reflects the true lived experience of millions of people.

As he spoke I said that this was “very middle of the road, very ANC”. He laughed, and repeated the phrase “very ANC”. His comments are surely a strong indication that there is not that much appetite in the Gauteng ANC for any kind of state ownership of land. Of course, he’s not happy with the current situation. But he’s looking for constructive solutions.

One of the first things Makhura started speaking about when he came into office was what the Gauteng ANC calls the “township economy”. For him, it’s about how to grow the economy in township areas. He’s very proud of how the procurement policies of his government have helped companies based in townships to grow. But he is concerned they’re too dependent on government business, and worries about what would happen to them if the ANC were to lose power and the policies were to change.

But the broad idea is quite a simple one, to create enough businesses in township areas so that people will not have to travel so far for work. As he was talking, I wondered to myself if perhaps we will know South Africa’s economy will have fundamentally changed when white people leave the suburbs and travel to Soweto every day to work in commercial enterprises. But this won’t happen overnight, and he’s aware of how much work needs to be done.

While talking about the economy, there’s a tangible sense of excitement from Makhura as I ask him whether he believes Ramaphosa can actually get the economy to grow. He talked about how he felt as Ramaphosa outlined the idea of his social compact during his State of the Nation Address, and then spoke about what Gauteng has managed to do.

Business was sulking after December 2015 (the removal of Nhlanhla Nene as Finance Minister) and the 2017 March reshuffle (the sacking of Pravin Gordhan), but Gauteng continued to work with business,” he says.

He suggests that Gauteng has a model national government can follow here. It’s clear there’s a sense of mission in this relationship with business, that he has put time and effort into creating it and nurturing it; he’s eager to help national government on this.

Makhura is also incredibly proud of the role his province played, over the last few years, in making sure the corruption around Zuma did not infiltrate Gauteng. He feels that they have proved that Gauteng is “an ANC-governed province that is not a centre of corruption scandals”.

He mentions that name, the name that is everywhere, “the Guptas”. He says “they did it elsewhere, they could have done it here but they didn’t. This is not a mistake, we looked at polling data, at other information and we understand that corruption is a grave concern”.

Makhura’s absolutely right that the Guptas were not able to make money out of the Gauteng province. But it is probably also true to say that that is also because there is much more media attention on issues in Gauteng than in, say, the Free State.

But this is also an example of what happens in a democracy when the governing party fears losing power. Makhura came to power with the ANC on just 54% of the vote in the province. They had no choice but to clean up their act. And it shows the power of voters in those situations. He may wish to claim credit here, but his party also had no other choice, if it wanted to stay in power.

There’s a noticeable change in Makhura’s face when I mention the word “Esidimeni”. He leans back in his chair, waiting for the question, his face a study in sorrow. In all his time in Gauteng, first 15 years as Gauteng Provincial Secretary and then his four years as Premier, there has probably been no other problem, no other scandal, as serious and damaging as this one. I’ve always found it hard to know what to think about his involvement here. As Premier he holds ultimate responsibility. And yet he also did ensure that Qedani Mahlangu left office as Health MEC, and then appointed former Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke to chair the mediation hearings. Those hearings may have saved the ANC, by providing an outlet, a way for those affected, and the province as a whole, to process what really happened.

I started by suggesting that there don’t seem to have been any serious consequences for those involved, and particularly Mahlangu:

Knowing what I know, because the SIU and the SA Police Service have briefed us, I think it is one thing that the citizens will see, things don’t just happen and there are no consequences... I am quite satisfied that they are following through on what came out of the investigation of the health ombud and the arbitration processes, and that is one thing that is not going to disappear.”

I counter: “So, there will be justice?”

There will be justice,” he promises. “I made a commitment to the affected families, that I will walk all the way with them to ensure that justice is served.”

Later, he emphasises the point: “The only outstanding issue is about the people facing criminal charges, and law enforcement agencies are dealing with that. And I’m hoping there will be no undue delays.”

To watch and listen to Makhura, is to believe he really wants action here. The problem is the track record of the ANC when dealing with its members found guilty of wrongdoing.

Just last week ANC deputy secretary general Jessie Duarte defended Tony Yengeni. Disgraced former Minister of Telecommunications Dina Pule was embraced by ANC MPs when she was found guilty of wrongdoing. Makhura’s claim that the Gauteng ANC is not corrupt could be very much on the line here. If there is criminal action against Mahlangu, then he will be affirmed in his claim, but if there is not, this might well be the issue of next year’s Gauteng elections.

As the interview starts to come to an end, an hour and 15 minutes after it began (and now 15 minutes over schedule) Makhura starts to discuss education, and his concerns about the mismatch between what business needs, and what young people are being taught. He’s clearly worried about it, and it agitates him hugely. But he’s keen to do something about it. If your child is in that system, as is mine, he’s working on it. However, it will be a long hard slog. Changing the way children are educated is tough in any society, never mind ours.

Finally, it’s time to actually, finally, stop talking to each other. I remark that he’s mentioned the DA many times during the interview, but not the EFF. Makhura laughs, and says their strategy is to “work the ground, not talk about the EFF”. He appears to be suggesting they’re not worried about the EFF. Considering that Julius Malema appears to be running out of targets, he might actually be right.

As I say my goodbyes and leave the office, I’m struck by two things. One, I can’t remember discussing that much policy with any politician in a very long time. And two, it’s hard to think of an issue on which to attack Makhura personally. His side won at Nasrec, his province stood tall in the fight against Zuma. He himself has never faced any claim against his probity, his integrity.

That makes him quite a rare person, considering the office he holds (his peers over the last few years have included Ace Magashule, John Block, David Mabuza and Supra Mahumapelo). The DA and the EFF will surely disagree with my claim here.

But his real battle is going to be in proving his promise that the Gauteng ANC can govern cleanly. It’s going to rest on whether Brian Hlongwa is removed from his position, and whether Qedani Mahlangu faces criminal action. If those things don’t happen, then his reputation could turn out to be very different. DM

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