Johannesburg - Johannesburg’s new mayor, Herman Mashaba, says he’s on a mission to clean up Africa’s richest city, and the prime targets in his sights are undocumented immigrants and allegedly corrupt deals by the officials of South Africa’s ruling party.
The influx of undocumented immigrants is so “massive” that the government should close South Africa’s border, Mashaba said in an interview at Bloomberg’s Johannesburg office. And if the national police authorities continue to fail to bring charges against corrupt officials, as he claimed they have, he said he’s prepared to bring private prosecutions.
“There’s massive corruption happening in our city. Unfortunately I am not getting the full cooperation of the National Prosecuting Authority,” Mashaba said. “If we had a functioning criminal justice system in this country and the city of Johannesburg we’d need special prisons because the cancer of corruption was already an accepted value system.”
Mashaba, a 57-year-old former cosmetics entrepreneur, said he’s privileged to run the city as a “capitalist.” He’s cut a controversial figure since taking office in August when his opposition Democratic Alliance aligned with small parties to take control of Johannesburg, the commercial hub, as well as the capital, Pretoria, and Mandela Bay, in a municipal vote.
‘Shock and awe’
A “shock and awe” campaign he’s considering, to remove thousands of unauthorized inhabitants from buildings in Johannesburg’s centre, has drawn criticism from organizations that Mashaba dismisses as “so-called human rights groups.”
“Mashaba often plays on the fears that migrants are taking over our economy,” said Jacob Van Garderen, the national director of Lawyers for Human Rights. “He can be likened to Trump,” he said, referring to US President Donald Trump. “They play off the same play book.”
Mashaba said his goal for downtown Johannesburg is to move people out of “hijacked” buildings, get private companies to renovate them and then rent them to people earning at least R4 000 a month. About 135 000 people in the city centre are from households that earn less than R3 200 rand a month, according to the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa, known as Seri, citing census data.
About 400 000 of Johannesburg’s 5 million people live in the inner city, according to municipal data from 2013. They’re drawn to the area by the proximity to occasional work opportunities, schools, health-care facilities and reduced transportation costs.
The influx of undocumented immigrants is undermining the local government’s efforts to revive the city centre and attract private companies to return to help reduce a housing backlog of about 300 000 units, Mashaba said.
“I’ve got the private sector that is prepared to immediately turn that city into a construction site,” he said. “We won’t push the people out of the city. I am working on a plan right now, which unfortunately I can’t give you the details, on how we are going to be turning the city around.”
The mayor’s comments run the risk of inciting violence against foreign nationals, according to Seri’s executive director, Stuart Wilson.
“What the city should be doing is providing affordable public rental housing to the poor where they currently are, not touting xenophobic and illegal plans to displace them, which have almost no hope of practical implementation,” he said.
Anti-immigrant attacks in 2008 claimed as many as 60 lives nationwide, and another seven were killed when violence flared seven years later. Last month police fired rubber bullets to disperse protesters against foreigners in Pretoria. Residents of a southern Johannesburg suburb in February set fire to at least a dozen houses that they said were used as drug dens or brothels and were mostly occupied by foreigners.
Right to housing
Bonita Meyersfeld, head of the Centre for Applied Legal Studies, which has been representing people in illegal eviction cases since 1978, criticized Mashaba’s remarks and said South Africa’s constitution says that everyone in the country has a right to housing, not just its citizens.
“That plan is not only going to contribute to inequality, it’s xenophobic and unconstitutional,” she said.
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While condemnation of Mashaba’s frequent comments on undocumented immigrants from his own party has been muted, party leader Mmusi Maimane has said the municipality must operate within the law.
“The DA has been getting off scot-free,” said Van Garderen. “They are tacitly supporting these crude and unlawful actions of Mashaba. In Parliament, they present themselves as humanitarians. In Johannesburg it’s a different story.”
DA spokeswoman Phumzile van Damme didn’t immediately respond to call and an email seeking comment.
Mashaba has set up a forensic unit headed by a former police major-general to investigate allegedly corrupt contracts pushed through when the African National Congress ran the city. He’s being given on-the-ground intelligence by his ally in the municipal government, the Economic Freedom Fighters, which he described as a “crucial partner.”
“Mashaba thinks that he is is still campaigning and the time for campaigningis over,” said ANC spokesman Zizi Kodwa. “He is now the mayor, he needs to start delivering. He can’t use the ANC as an excuse not to deliver.”
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Constitutional experts dismissed Mashaba’s suggestion that he may need to conduct private prosecutions against alleged corrupt officials, with Pierre de Vos, the Claude Leon Foundation Chair in Constitutional Governance at the University of Cape Town, saying since Mashaba is part of the government, “it can’t be done.” The NPA’s spokesman, Luvuyo Mfaku, said it doesn’t prosecute cases on the basis of forensic investigations it hasn’t carried out itself.
Mashaba said his performance in Johannesburg could determine the outcome of the general elections in 2019. In the August municipal vote, the ANC’s share fell 7.7 percentage points to 54.5 percent compared with its total in 2014 general elections. If it suffers a similar decline in 2019, it would likely be relegated to the opposition and the DA could form the next government with support from smaller parties.
“My mandate is to run the city of Johannesburg and that’s where I’m putting the focus on, using Johannesburg to be the vehicle for us, as the DA, to take over this country in 2019,” Mashaba said. “I am quite confident that we will take over the country.”