South Africa: Mpho Phalatse, the first black woman mayor of Johannesburg

By Romain Chanson

Posted on Friday, 17 December 2021 20:13
Mpho Phalatse was an emergency doctor before entering politics. Mpho Phalatse © Democratic Alliance/Creative Commons

Politics sometimes plays strange tricks on you. “We were surprised, just like everyone else,” the Demoratic Alliance's (DA) Mpho Phalatse said during a television interview that was broadcast the day after her victory. The day before – late in the evening of 22 November, when no coalition could be formed to govern Johannesburg – the parties had agreed that they would be happy with anyone, except the African National Congress (ANC) candidate.

Furthermore, Phalatse managed to win the votes of ActionSA and the Economic Freedom Fighters Party (EFF), without having to beg for support.  Weakening the ANC has taken precedence over ideological quarrels. This unexpected rallying has made the little-known Phalatse very happy.

“She’s no beginner,” says Mike Moriarty, her campaign manager. “She has a very solid pedigree.” Phalatse joined the DA in 2016 and was elected that same year. The party beat the ANC in several metropolitan areas during the local elections, including Johannesburg, South Africa’s economic capital. Phalatse became executive city councillor for health and social development. This was a rapid rise for the woman who had just moved to Johannesburg five years ago.

Phalatse is first and foremost a daughter of Pretoria and its surrounding countryside. As a student, she lived with her grandmother in the rural village of Hebron (North West Province) before joining her parents in a township, and later a suburb. This open family environment has influenced the new mayor’s career.

Gunshot and stab wounds

In an interview on eNCA, she talked about her time as an emergency doctor at a clinic in the Alexandra township, north of Johannesburg. “It was depressing to be [there] and hear the patients’ stories,” she says. She was distressed by the gunshot wounds and stabbings of victims who had been robbed of their phones. This discomfort gave rise to her political ambitions. “I have always wanted to serve humanity,” the new mayor of Johannesburg told local media.

This campaign speech has, however, lost some steam. Just elected, she has to deal with the anger of the inhabitants of Diepkloof, in Soweto. The neighbourhood has been plunged into darkness for several weeks. Cable theft, electricity diversion and unpaid bills are affecting the grid in the township.

Eskom, the state-owned company, refuses to restore power until the fines have been paid. Rather than taking her constituents’ side, Phalatse is defending the unpopular Eskom and calling on residents to pay their debts. “It’s not a humanitarian issue, it’s a sustainability issue,” Phalatse told a reporter.

Crime is high, people are being robbed in the city, buildings are being hijacked [by mafias who collect rent]. Some areas have been abandoned, like the Hillbrow area, it’s just horrible.

“She speaks as if she is Eskom’s spokesperson, rather than at the public’s service,” says Funzani Mutsila, an economist and former figure of the #FeesMustFall movement that rocked Johannesburg in 2015. “Her manner of speaking and principles are very anti-poor,” she says. The ANC has also levelled this accusation against the DA, which is portrayed as a white, bourgeois party.

Mutsila also accused her of supporting Israel. In 2018, the then city councillor said at a public meeting: “I am a friend of Israel, and the city of Johannesburg is a friend of Israel.” This stance, in a country that supports the Palestinian cause, led to her being temporarily suspended by the then mayor, Herman Mashaba. Three years later, ANC activists continue to use Phalatse’s words against her.

On 2 December last year, during her inaugural speech, ANC councillors came in wearing keffiyehs and ordered her to retract her 2018 remarks. ‘No more pro-apartheid mayor’, ‘Free Palestine’, proclaimed the placards. Phalatse has not given up. On Twitter, for example, she encouraged Lalela Mswane, the Miss South Africa 2021, to travel to Israel for the Miss Universe contest on 12 December, against the South African government’s advice. Dressed in a white feather suit, graceful as a swan, Phalatse described the beauty queen as an “angel” and “ambassador of peace”.

Fragile coalition

The mayor will need thick skin to lead Joburg. 18 parties are represented on the municipal council, compared to 11 during the previous term. The executive city council, which was announced on 13 December, is made up of a 10-party coalition. “In this environment, where no party has a majority, you are fighting to get a configuration where your partners guarantee you five years of stability,” says Moriarty, her campaign manager.

“The word ‘fragile’ does not adequately describe this type of coalition. You need a strong mandate to get results,” says political scientist Ralph Mathekga. There is no shortage of work to be done in a city that is “in a bad state”, he says. “Crime is high, people are being robbed in the city, buildings are being hijacked [by mafias who collect rent]. Some areas have been abandoned, like the Hillbrow area, it’s just horrible,” he says. Crime is Johannesburg’s biggest problem, according to 33% of respondents surveyed on the quality of life (2017/2018).

Restoring order is one of Phalatse’s priorities, although a municipality’s powers are limited in this area. She has tried to send a message by appointing David Tembe as her security adviser. “I have confidence in his ability to strengthen the fight against crime, David Tembe is the former head of the Johannesburg police, he is a man of experience and expertise,” says anti-crime activist Yusuf Abramjee.

Wolf’s appetite

Phalatse’s objective is to make Johannesburg a showcase for her success and a stepping stone for her ambitions. ‘Jozi, are you ready?’ were the headlines on the 9 December issue of the people’s magazine You. The ever-elegant Phalatse, dressed in an embroidered white shirt with her hair pulled back in a bun, smiles warmly at the reader. On two pages, she shares some personal information about herself. She talks about her life as a single mother, her three children and her parents who have come back to live with her due to her father’s illness.

She also says: “My goal is to become the minister of health.” Phalatse is getting a taste for politics and has the appetite of a wolf. A former colleague in the municipal council thinks she will have a bright future. “I dare say she will become the leader of the Democratic Alliance within the next five years,” says this friend who prefers to remain anonymous. “People call me Madam Mayor, Doc, Doctor, my sister Mpho, Mama, Mayor Doctor, anything goes,” says Phalatse in You. She wouldn’t mind being called ‘Madame President’ either.

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