From DA Lifer to an ActionSA leader – the unretiring of ‘conviction politician’ Athol Trollip

The Eastern Cape farm boy, who was fluent in Xhosa before speaking his home language, says he has finally found a political home that is truly South African. Former DA parliamentary leader and then the party’s federal chairman, Athol Trollip, was coaxed out of retirement by ActionSA leader Herman Mashaba and joined the new party in February. In this fascinating interview with Alec Hogg of Biznews.com, Trollip says he is energised by his new surroundings and like his colleagues, is hard at work to ensure there is a new government in South Africa after the 2024 national election. Describing himself as a ‘conviction politician’ rather than someone who makes a living from the trade, Trollip says it is liberating to be a member of a political party perceived as a home for all South Africans, rather than having to continuously defend the ‘whiteness’ of his past establishment. Athol will be at the fourth BizNews Conference being held from August 30 to September 2 at Champagne Sports Resort in the Drakensberg. Details at https://www.biznews.com/biznews-investment-conference.

Athol Trollip on water issue in Gqeberha and if there’s any upside

There’s a tremendous upside. The water situation in Nelson Mandela Bay is not unique. I think there are many towns and cities across the country that are facing potential day zero. What makes Nelson Mandela Bay different is that it has an augmented system. Water from the Gariep Dam that originally comes from the Lesotho highlands makes its way to the dam through a series of tunnels and canals and rivers and ends up in Kirkwood or Addo. And then from there, it’s pumped to Nelson Mandela Bay. So if I can just do a quick geography alignment, the western part of the city is fed by the catchment area, the dams and the catchment area and the dams in our catchment area are really water shy, which makes it very difficult. If you have a prolonged drought, then you run out of water in those dams, as we are doing right now. The upside of that is that when it does rain in those areas because it’s very steep, the countryside is steep and rocky, you get very quick runoff. So the western side of the city is supplied by the dams in the west and the eastern side of the city is supplied, not by water from the scheme, which is essentially Gariep Dam water, but there’s enough water coming from the east to service the whole city. So it’s unlikely that the city will ever run out of water. The dam can run out of water, we know that it’s been very close to that before. But as long as there’s water in the Gariep dam, Nelson Mandela Bay will have water. The big challenge has been to complete the system, which is two years, maybe three, if not four years behind because of poor management, bad contract management, non-payment of contractors, really just a diabolical mess. And that has been overseen by the Amathole Water Board. That system should have been completed years ago. It hasn’t been. 

On the political alignment in the western Parts of Nelson Mandela Bay

Not really. It’s part of a place now called Kariega, which used to be Uitenhage and Kwanobuhle. They were the first areas that ran out of water, and then you have places like Sea View, Walmer. Summerstrand, etc. So all the areas in the west, part of those areas support the DA or other opposition parties and until recently, certainly Kwanobuhle and big parts of Kariega have supported the ANC. So I don’t think it has any real political alignment, but the reality is that   people have been incompetent, that don’t do their jobs properly and they don’t set a lot of store by maintaining infrastructure, which has been the Achilles heel of the ANC government, especially unseen infrastructure. You know, I see the government working sporadically on overhead pylons and some potholes and that kind of thing. But when it comes to unseen infrastructure maintenance, like sewerage and pipelines, water pipelines that are underground, they have been notoriously bad at doing that. And then when you’re neglected long enough, you run into trouble. And the biggest trouble is in Nelson Mandela Bay, we lose up to between 36 and 40% of our water to non-revenue losses. That means either theft or leakages or poor maintenance. And that’s a travesty. If we could just sort that out, we wouldn’t be anywhere near day zero .  

On his history in the DA and switching political affiliations

I had a 38-year direct association with the DA and its predecessor parties. 25 of those years I was an elected representative and as you say, held various positions in that party. I was completely dedicated and loyal to the cause. It included a lot of sacrifice, not that I’m the only person that ever sacrificed for politics, but I know personally what the sacrifices were for that kind of dedication and loyalty. I’ve always regarded myself primarily as a farmer, somebody who cares for the land, somebody who cares for the community I lived in, that’s my reality, that’s what defines me. And then I got drawn into politics because I came from a politically oriented family, but it was primarily to serve my community. So I’ve always regarded myself as a conviction politician rather than a career politician. And I had to get to a point in my career in politics where I had to make decisions, and I made those decisions based on conviction.  

But there were two main reasons, and I’ve said those publicly and I’m happy to do it again. First of all, I thought the DA treated Mmusi Maimane really badly and unfairly because we went back by 1.3 percentage points in the 2019 election, and that was the first time that the DA had ever gone back in an election. So he was made to take responsibility for that. And I remember saying to the federal executive that Mmusi’s failure is our collective failure. We all elected to make him leader, and if he didn’t succeed, we must take some responsibility for that. So that was the first reason. And the second reason was: Helen Zille had retired from politics. She’s had a very industrious career, a great, great premier. And she said that she would never go back into politics, only to be re-elected. And I thought that was very short-sighted because she has been making more and more polarising statements and utterances. And the last thing a party that wants to be an alternative government needs is to be polarised, where one of our greatest challenges in the DA was always the fact that we were referred to as the white party and we needed to garner support from all communities. So those are the two main reasons. I said, Well, if that’s the direction my party wants to go – to scapegoat our first black leader and then to bring Helen Zille back into a senior leadership position in the party, then my party is going in a direction that I don’t align with. And essentially the art of politics is to change people’s minds. And that’s what I’ve been doing for decades in the DA, changing people’s minds. And essentially I changed my mind because I thought this was not the direction I believe this party should be going in. 

On the difficulties of joining Herman Mashaba

 It was very difficult. I resigned my positions of leadership in the DA in October and then finally resigned at the end of December after I had concluded some important things about Nelson Mandela Bay and Herman Mashaba called me in December 2019 and said: you’ve got to see me in January. I knew what he wanted to see me about and I said yes. Two years later we had a meeting and he basically asked me to come and help him save South Africa and to fix the Eastern Cape. And I basically told Mashaba: “Look, I’ve had enough.” And he looked at me and he said, “Have you done enough?” And you know, it was one of those amazing questions that I knew immediately what the answer was. And it was like it stuck a mark in my heart because I live in a province where we have 48% unemployment. The ANC has the greatest support in the Eastern Cape of all the provinces. We really are a province that has incredible opportunities and potential, but it never reaches that. I said, “Well, clearly I haven’t done enough. And then we completed some arrangements about my joining him and I never, ever thought I’d belong to any other political party. But for the first time in my political lifetime,  I feel an extraordinary feeling of  being a southern African,  for the first time, I don’t have to explain to people that, I’m white, but I really have the interests of the majority of South Africans at heart, and I don’t have to do any of that. We all come from different political parties and they say we’re a new political party, but we are new people. I mean, we were a group of people that have been politically reborn. And that said, we’ve had enough of where we come from. We want to do something different. And that is essentially why it’s so exciting to be in this new political organisation. 

On how far along he feels ActionSA is at this point

Essentially for the first year-and-a half, they were only really active in Gauteng and KZN. And I thought that that was quite prudent of Herman Mashaba because, if he tried to represent himself and his party in all nine provinces at the outset, I don’t think he would have been able to deliver. And I use the example of if you discover some amazing product that people love eating and you offer it to Woolworths or Pick n Pay or one of those chain stores and everyone loves that and snaps that up and wants more of it tomorrow, but you don’t have the capacity to provide that. Then people will forget about that product. So he contested six municipalities, three in Gauteng and three in KZN, and all six of those municipalities. The ANC is below 50%. ActionSA is in government and all six of them have passed their budget. Life goes on reasonably well and ActionSA is the sixth biggest party after contesting six of the 260 odd municipalities. I think that’s quite an incredible achievement. I’ve only been working for about four months in the Eastern Cape and already I’ve seen signs that I’ve never experienced before in my previous political life or across the board support in deep rural areas like Ngcobo, where we launched our first branches and in the metro city. So I’m excited. Two years is never enough to set yourself up for a major election, but heaven knows South Africa needs ActionSA to do well in the next election.  

On the potential of a coalition government

There’s no doubt in my mind that that’s exactly what’s going to happen. If you look at the 2021 election results, the ANC were broadly below 50% across the board. People like Kgalema Motlanthe have said that the ANC will lose power. Just about every single political analyst that you have – and we’ve got some good and we’ve got some really bad political analysts in this country – have said that the ANC will lose. And the ANC are doing everything in their power to make sure that they do that themselves. I mean, with this Eskom debacle, the President’s Phala Phala farmgate, all these things and every one of their conferences is a shambles. The ANC is tearing itself apart. So I have no doubt that with people’s experience of the ANC and the fact that there’s ANC fatigue across all communities and that the ANC is tearing itself apart, it will be below 50%. The question is how far below 50% it’ll go, because the greatest challenge is that they might go below 50%, but still be able to cobble together really bad coalitions, which will not be good for South Africa. So South Africans need the ANC to lose badly. And I mean if I can quote Antonio Gramsci, this is that the old must die before the young are born. And if you don’t understand what that means in sort of farming parlance, in a forest of trees, all the young trees bear fruit, but that fruit doesn’t germinate until the old trees have died. And that’s what needs to happen in South African politics. The ANC has to die before we can bring a new political dispensation to life in this country. 

On the possibility that the ANC steals the election

Absolutely. There’s credence to that. The ANC have stolen everything else in this country. They also have appointed some ANC aligned people in the IEC. And there’s been huge concern for decades over the fact that many of the people who are presiding offices in the IEC are schoolteachers aligned to SADTU. SADTU has not only destroyed education in this country, but destroyed the outcome of elections. But, you know, the beauty about what’s happening in this country now is that we’re not such a homogenous political organisation anymore. And there are political people from new parties everywhere. So when we have party voting agents in a voting station, in a deep rural area of Ciskei or Transkei or KwaZulu-Natal, they aren’t all ANC aligned, so everybody is watching each other. It’s going to be very difficult to steal an election in South Africa, but the ANC will do everything they can. But as South Africans we have seen this movie before. We know what to do and I think we’ll be able to control this election.  

On how the country will change if there is a coalition in 2024

The thing that I worry about most is that many people in this country say to me, what will happen if Cyril has to resign or step down? What will happen when the ANC leaves? They have a fear of the future. I do not fear the future because I see ActionSA as part of the future. What I fear is every day that Cyril and the ANC are still in power. That’s what I really fear, because they are destroying this country and we need something new. So I think what will change essentially after 2024 is that there will be a rebooting of what is expected from the government, what is expected from people in political leadership, and that people will be more demanding and not simply accepting. You know, we went through a period of political change or metamorphosis where people were accepting. They said, well, there’s a new dispensation. We must just accept this transformation and, you know, all of the things that go with it. And that’s like the classic story of the frog in the pot of boiling water that’s getting warmer and warmer. You don’t really feel it until it gets critical. We are in a critical situation. So I think there will be a realignment of what the public wants. And one of the things that attracted me to actually say this is that we demand very strongly ethical leadership. And it’s one thing that I talk to Mashaba about. We are determined that where we encounter any kind of leadership that is not ethical or exemplary, we are going to act very strongly against those people. 

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