Frustrated Mashaba on 77 avoidable deaths; the politicking while Joburg literally burns

This is an interview in two parts with former Joburg Metro mayor and Action SA leader Herman Mashaba expressing his frustration in equal measure. First we discuss the tragic fire at 80 Albert Street in Marshalltown, once the commercial hub of the African continent, which killed 77 of those who lived in the decrepit building. Mashaba revisits a successful mayoral project designed to reclaim hundreds of hijacked CBD buildings – but which was reversed into criminality after his ejection by what he claims was an unholy alliance between the ANC and his own party at the time, the DA. Mashaba then shares duplicity that is bedevilling a potentially promising project by opposition parties, the Multi Party Charter of SA – and explains why, despite this, Action SA hasn’t left the pact. The guileless entrepreneur opens a rare window into how the games politicians love playing are hurting the people they have promised to help. – Alec Hogg

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Relevant timestamps from the interview

  • 00:08 – Introductions
  • 01:52 – Herman Mashaba on his frustration regarding the tragic fire
  • 13:17 – Buildings being used for a money making racket and its consequences
  • 19:53 – On what it will take to clean the city of Joburg up
  • 25:37 – Difficulties in the Multi Party Charter
  • 33:26 – Conclusion

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Edited transcript of the interview with Herman Mashaba, leader of Action SA

Alec Hogg: In 2017 in the UK, a fire occurred in the Grenfell Yower building in which 72 people died. I was in the London at the time and for weeks the tragedy received wall-to-wall coverage by the British media with extensive discussions on how to prevent a recurrence. Last week in South Africa, a fire broke out in a building on 80 Albert Street in Marshalltown in downtown Joburg, resulting in 77 deaths. Watching our media today it almost seems as if it never happened. We’ve invited Herman Mashaba, former mayor of Johannesburg and leader of Action SA, to provide some insights. When you were Joburg’s mayor, I recall you actively trying to address the issue of hijacked buildings in the city. You’re perhaps the best-informed person to discuss what happened here. Yesterday Chris Steyn interviewed Mpho Dagada from the new political party, Arise South Africa, who told us this is all linked to criminality. What’s your take on this tragedy?

Herman Mashaba: Thank you, Alec, for showing interest in this particularly painful subject. Especially for someone like me, who was deeply involved in this issue for three years, despite facing much resistance and criticism. My clear agenda then and now was to reclaim hijacked buildings and provide affordable housing for our citizens. When I took office as mayor, Johannesburg had a housing backlog of over 300,000 people, some of whom had been on the waiting list since the mid-90s. The city itself, which was one of the top cities globally 30 years ago, has unfortunately deteriorated into a slum. My children often ask me if I really believe I can win this battle against the slums, given that they’ve only known Johannesburg in its current state. They find it hard to believe my stories about a different Johannesburg, particularly about how the ANC celebrated Mandela’s election victory in 1994 at the Carlton Ballroom.

Read more: The blood of  77 victims of JHB CBD fire “seeks accountability from corrupt officials…”

Alec Hogg: I do remember the Carlton.

Herman Mashaba: The Carlton Centre was in the CBD, and I was one of the people invited to this event. Over the course of 10 years, the Carlton Centre closed, Johannesburg CBD shut down, and we saw our city deteriorate right before our eyes, taken over by criminal elements. In August 2016, I became the mayor and within the first 100 days of my administration, I committed to reclaiming the city from these elements. We established a forensic group led by General Sibiya, which included a unit focused on addressing building hijackings. Despite facing resistance and being labelled xenophobic, I persevered. I pushed for the Inner City Rejuvenation Project because the city couldn’t afford to build enough houses for South Africans. We got the private sector involved to renovate these buildings and offer affordable housing.

Over three years, we identified over 600 buildings, returned 44 to their rightful owners, and even started construction projects that could bring R32 billion of private sector investment and create 22,000 jobs. Just before I had to step down due to a motion of no confidence against me, I got approval for the expropriation of 38 factories in the Wynberg area. All these projects were shelved by the new administration, to the detriment of those who had invested in them.

Now look at what happened last week. It’s devastating. I’m emotionally drained as I speak to you, because I keep asking myself why it has come to this point? It’s truly disheartening.

After I left office, the degradation of these buildings escalated significantly. The sad reality is that they are being handed over to sham NGOs created by those connected to the council, who then exploit vulnerable people for rent. This illicit operation was highlighted by the recent tragic fire that resulted in the loss of 77 lives. All this could have been prevented had the Inner City Rejuvenation Project continued. This wasn’t a pet project of mine; it was a city initiative approved by the council.

The real issue, Alec, is that law enforcement agencies are aware of the individuals behind these criminal operations. Even during my tenure, there was a marked reluctance to take any action against them. The breakdown of law and order is not just a city issue, it’s a national crisis. I even brought it to President Ramaphosa’s attention back in 2018, supplying him with concrete cases that were ready for prosecution. But years later, I have not even received an acknowledgment.

Now, they’re talking about instituting new audits and commissions of inquiry, which is bewildering. All the necessary information is already available; it’s been approved and passed through the council. This suggests to me that there’s no real commitment to resolving the issues at hand. Instead, it seems like a display of political theatrics with no substantive intent to correct the problems.

Alec Hogg: Herman, since your departure as mayor, stories are emerging that point to an increasingly hazardous situation, effectively turning these buildings into death traps. What’s your view?

Herman Mashaba: The situation is dire, and the risk conditions people are living under have only worsened since I left office. If the government was serious about fixing this, they wouldn’t need to start from scratch; they could build upon the work that we’ve already done. This isn’t just about buildings; it’s about the lives of the people inhabiting them. It’s beyond disappointing to see how far we’ve regressed due to political games and a lack of genuine commitment to public welfare.

Alec Hogg: The political complexities in Johannesburg seem to be hindering progress, perhaps even contributing to tragedies like the one we’ve seen. Is there a way to overcome these challenges and finally govern Johannesburg effectively?

Herman Mashaba: Well, Alec, two weeks ago we signed the Multi-Party Charter, committing various parties to work together. Discussions were facilitated by Honorable Hlabisa from the IFP, with John Steenhuisen from the DA and Corne’ Mulder from the Freedom Front Plus. The aim was to engage the PA and see if they were willing to join this charter, one condition of which is not collaborating with the ANC. While John said he’d talk to them, he couldn’t guarantee anything. Concurrently, we engaged the PA, who were willing to sign the charter and even extend help to the DA in other municipalities.

However, just a week later, I received a long letter from John Steenhuisen stating that the DA would not support our motion of no confidence, which had been submitted seven weeks earlier. They proposed instead to dissolve the council. What’s disturbing is that the media approached me for comment on this letter before I even finished reading it.

In the recent council meeting, the DA’s motion failed because it didn’t have the numbers, needing a two-thirds majority. And despite other parties like IFP, Freedom Front Plus, and ACDP also abstaining, only Action SA was singled out for criticism. If we’d voted, the outcome wouldn’t have changed because the numbers weren’t there. I find it hard to comprehend the DA’s stance, and perhaps there’s an undercurrent that I’m not fully grasping.

Read more: The decline of Johannesburg: Why Africa’s richest city is crumbling

Alec Hogg: You’re certainly not stupid, Herman. But the situation does raise questions. What’s the way forward, then?

Herman Mashaba: To be honest, Alec, it’s hard to say what’s next given the current political landscape. The focus should be on effective governance, but it’s being sidetracked by political machinations. It’s a challenging situation, and frankly, one that I find puzzling.

Fortunately, I have witnesses. You can ask Velenkosini Hlabisa or Corne’ Mulder. We were given the mandate, and John Steenhuisen and the DA were under no obligation to accept it. What I find difficult is why John didn’t call a Zoom meeting to say, “Look, I’ve tried, but my party’s position is that we can’t support this. Here’s an alternative my party suggests.” Instead, he wrote me a letter a week later, and by the time I was reading it, the media had already been alerted.

Alec Hogg: What’s the future of the multi-party charter if you have this kind of deviousness happening in the background, this inability to follow through on shared beliefs? Why are you still part of the charter? Why are the IFP and Freedom Front still there, especially when it looks like the DA is dictating terms?

Herman Mashaba: What other option do we have? My team asks me this every day. Why am I still involved in this charter? But I consider myself a practical man. I would rather leave politics and let the country collapse than work with the ANC. I hope that one day, common sense will prevail within DA structures, allowing them to prioritize the residents of Johannesburg and South Africa over their narrow political agendas. My sense is that the DA is concerned about the growth of the PA in the Western Cape and Action SA nationally. They’re likely receiving advice to discredit us, not realising that I wasn’t born yesterday. I’m not in politics for any other reason than to save this country from the ANC. I will do everything it takes to mobilise South Africans democratically and unseat the ANC so we can start a new chapter for our country.

Alec Hogg: The public, especially those in Johannesburg, are left shaking their heads as the political drama unfolds and people die needlessly.

Herman Mashaba: You have to ask yourself, Alec. I’ve spoken to numerous residents in Johannesburg and the confusion is palpable. Why would we, as a Multi-Party Charter, prefer an ANC-EFF government when we have the power to unseat them? Our proposal to John and the DA was straightforward: If you don’t want to work with a Patriotic Alliance (PA), that’s fine, but don’t tell us that ANC-EFF is a better option. Instead, vote with us on an issue-by-issue basis, holding us accountable to ensure there’s no corruption. The DA’s vigilance would be valuable to us, ensuring ethical leadership and stopping corruption. It baffles me that they would reject this proposition. I can’t fathom the DA’s motivation here.

I genuinely hope that one day they’ll put South Africa’s interests ahead of their own because they won’t govern alone. At this rate, they risk losing even the Western Cape by 2024. People are increasingly frustrated with the DA. We have the opportunity in Johannesburg, the economic hub of the country, to demonstrate that we are a serious multi-party coalition intent on removing the ANC and EFF. Yet, the DA refuses to get involved, even on an issue-by-issue basis. Only they can explain why.

Look, this has only energised us more for 2024. Our goal may seem nearly impossible—gaining an outright majority—but we’re more determined than ever. The only way to save this country is for Action SA to form both the national and provincial governments. In Gauteng, the ANC is undoubtedly on the way out, and they won’t even get close to 40% nationally. There’s a clear opportunity to unseat the ANC, and that’s not going to happen with just the ANC and EFF combined. The risk now is that by refusing to cooperate, the DA is driving voters towards the ANC-EFF alliance, especially with the growth of the PA in the Western Cape. There must be a bigger agenda at play here.

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