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South Africa: Johannesburg’s circus of eight mayors in two years

By Ray Mwareya

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Posted on May 25, 2023 11:20

 © The new mayor of the City of Johannesburg, Kabelo Gwamanda (Twitter)
The new mayor of the City of Johannesburg, Kabelo Gwamanda (Twitter)

The circus of eight mayors in the past two years in the South African city of Johannesburg has not only deepened the city’s rot, but reached a crescendo earlier this month when a suspected fraudster was appointed executive mayor only to briefly appoint a convicted scammer as acting mayor in Africa’s wealthiest city.

Fierce political jostling has tipped Johannesburg into dysfunction, hitting on utilities, including electricity and water, as well as violent crime and high-level corruption.

The revolving door began when Geoffrey Makhubo left office in 2021 only to be replaced by Joline Matongo, Mpho Moerane, Mpho Phalatse (twice), Thapelo Amad, Kenny Kunene (appointed acting mayor for two days), and now Kabelo Gwamanda.

Eight mayors in two years – it’s such a tragicomedy that will haunt Johannesburg’s residents for years to come.

It’s the latter two – Kunene and Gwamanda – whose hold on the mayor’s office has made critics call time on the continent’s so-called “world-class African city.”

The Democratic Alliance (DA), South Africa’s main opposition party, says that before becoming mayor, Gwamanda ran a Ponzi scheme, allegedly defrauding members of the public in an elaborate funeral insurance scam. At least one suspected victim has already reported the mayor to the police, but Gwamanda denies the crimes.

Kunene, whom Gwamanda appointed as acting mayor, is a convicted scammer who spent half a decade behind bars in the 1990s before being released and going into business and politics with a convicted bank robber, Gayton McKenzie.

“Eight mayors in two years – it’s such a tragicomedy that will haunt Johannesburg’s residents for years to come,” independent analyst Kudakwashe Magezi tells The Africa Report.

Financing Joburg’s chaos

At the heart of the instability preventing a stable mayor from leading Johannesburg is the pact between the ruling African National Congress (ANC), which governed the city from 1994 to 2016, and the radical left party of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) led by Julius Malema.

Since 2016, the ANC has been bleeding support across South Africa’s metropolitan cities, getting ousted from mayorships by motley collections of unstable opposition parties.

“To regain its hold of mayorships in Gauteng province, which is the country’s financial hub, the ANC has been entering backdoor pacts with the EFF to support each other and grab mayorships held by the liberal DA party,” Magezi explains. “Hence the Johannesburg circus.”

The ANC has the largest share of councillors in Johannesburg but not enough to rule alone.

In November, The Africa Report revealed a sophisticated tactic whereby the ANC is doling out bribes to buy the loyalty of some small parties, install puppet mayors, and wrestle back South Africa’s metropolitan cities ahead of the 2024 general election.

The last three so-called opposition mayors of Johannesburg, Amad, Kunene, and Gwamanda flatly deny rumours that they are fronts for the ANC and EFF leaders.

Costly circus

Phalatse, who was Johannesburg’s mayor twice until an ouster by an ANC and EFF-led pact, told The Africa Report in 2022 that instability in the mayoralty has facilitated grand looting of Johannesburg’s finances.

Phalatse said that on the eve of her first ouster in August 2022, a corporate company owned by the City of Johannesburg diverted R27m ($1.48m) of public money to a firm allegedly owned by the ANC, and thus helped the ANC build a war chest against her. The ANC denies this.

Furthermore, Johannesburg’s finances are in red, and it has emergency plans to borrow R5.5bn in the short term from the IMF and a second amount of R1.8bn later this year. However, critics accuse the current mayor of planning to blow R2bn on unnecessary refurbishing offices for the city’s executives.

The starkest sign of Johannesburg’s mayoral circus tipping the city into ruin are revelations by The Africa Report that municipally-owned City Power, which is the largest metropolitan electricity supply company in South Africa, is falling into decay.

The Johannesburg grid’s breakdowns mean residents endure up to 16 hours of power blackouts a day, up to eight hours more than the rest of the country.

$3.6bn at stake?

“It is concerning that there has (been) damning information circulating about whether [Gwamanda] could be trusted with overseeing the R70 bn ($3.6bn) budget of the City of Johannesburg,” Phalatse said on Twitter.

“It would be a tragedy for the six million citizens of Johannesburg to be subjected to such dubious leadership.”

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