‘Democracy’, a term inherited from the ancient Greeks, is alive in Africa. South Africa, specifically, proved this during the 2016 local government election. Embassy Direct gets the opportunity to sit down with the opposition-led Executive Mayor of the City of Tshwane, Mr Solly Tshepiso Msimanga.

Embassy Direct: Executive Mayor, you have the great challenge of being the first Mayor of the opposition elected in the Capital City since democracy in 1994. How would describe your posting, and what have been the challenges thus far?

Mayor S Msimanga: Thank you very much. One of the greatest things we can celebrate as South Africans is the ability to change power without any bloodshed – as we’ve seen in other countries before, where acceptance of defeat has never been the order of the day. We held elections in South Africa last year August, and my party, although in coalition government, is now running this capital city of South Africa, as we are running three other metros and a number of municipalities that were never previously run by the DA, or DA-lead coalitions before. That comes with its own challenges. The acceptance by the previous administration hasn’t been without drama; we have had situations in council where there has been a negative, sometimes violent reaction. But by and large it continues to be a transition in which we work towards improving people’s lives. There were some political appointments within the administration of government that came with other challenges; people wanted to use their political positions to fight administrative battles. It’s something you need to work on one step at a time, and it’s something that you need to make sure you will be able to get right as you proceed forward.

It is widely known that Pretoria hosts the second most Foreign Missions in the world, after Washington DC. How do you address such responsibility and what is your message to the diplomatic community based here?

I believed that the world looks at us through our capital city, so it is a huge responsibility to host so many Embassies, High Commissions, Ambassadors, Chargés d’Affaires, and their families. It is a responsibility to ensure that they experience the city in a positive light; that they are able to experience service delivery in a positive light; that they are able to experience investment opportunities to those that want to come and invest from their countries into South Africa in a positive light; so it is important that we do everything that we possibly can to make sure that this capital city is a good representative of what South Africa is all about. We have the eyes and the ears of the world right here on our doorstep, and we need to make sure that we are able to ensure that we provide the best of services to them so that they can go and be our biggest marketers and advertisers.

In the past, you have held a number of senior management positions in the private sector. What is your approach as Executive Mayor to the business community within Tshwane?

How we approach government is the same as how I’ve approached many of the positions that I’ve previously had in the corporate sector. You have shareholders, in this case residents, citizens, and you need to make sure that (a) you bring accountability in dealing with them; (b) you bring transparency in everything that you are doing; (c) you make sure that you deliver on the promises that you have made. I have a Board of Directors and they are asking for three things. (1) they want to make sure that each and every cent that I collect from them, in terms of tax, is going towards working for them; (2) they want to make sure that everything we do is aimed at ensuring that we run in a transparent manner, that tenders are not awarded in corners, where no one knows how we got to awarding that tender; and (3) that we are also able to provide services to them, that we are able to give them world class experience in the city, that we are able to improve service delivery, so that it becomes a catalytic factor in attracting investment into the city that will create thousands of jobs. That is what I intend on delivering to the people, and those are things that I am coming with from the private sector into a position of government.

As I understand, you are a family man, and a father of two. What are your concerns (and suggested solutions) on issues regarding the youth, such as education, higher education, and job creation?

I look at my children in the morning and think, ‘what am I going to today to make this world, and their lives, a whole lot better?’ I need to make sure that this city is safe, not only for them but for all young people here. Drugs are a huge problem in our city, our youth is ravaged by drugs. I need to ensure that we eradicate drugs from our streets. We need to do everything that we possibly can to make sure that our young people can compete with anybody in the world. I need to make sure that we are able to bring an element of connectivity to enhance their education as well, so we are providing free Wi-Fi throughout the city. This is for young people to access opportunities, to get information, to do research, to do their studies and submit assignments online. Some have started small businesses through the connectivity that they need to be able to run those kinds of businesses.

We are promoting an alternative lifestyle away from drugs. I’m passionate about sports, I do a lot of cycling, running as well. I’m promoting that we put money aside this coming financial year to assist in developing and finalising some of the projects around the city aimed at making sure sports facilities are available for young people. We are embarking on a process of ensuring that in every contract we issue there is an element in the terms that ensures that young people are also involved. More than that, if there are contracts of a certain value, young people coming directly from universities that don’t necessarily have the experience but know the theory now have the opportunity to gain that experience.

Your political career is in ascension as Executive Mayor and Chairman of your party in the Gauteng North Region. What are your aspirations and where do you see yourself seven years from now, when South Africa reaches 30 years of democracy?

I’ve always believed in finishing what I’ve started, so I would love to have a full five-year term. Hopefully, another five-year term after that, so that I am able to see to fruition some of the things that I am starting right now. Some of what we are starting I know will not come to fruition in the next five years, but if I have a longer period of time I will be able to see some of the more long-term projects through. I intend on making sure that we bring a new element of politics into the South African political space. We are saying that politics can be run in a cleaner manner, can be run in a more transparent manner, especially in government. I hope that I will have enough time to see this through to the end.

South Africa is one of the most visited countries on the globe. However, with attractions in Cape Town, Johannesburg and even the Kruger National Park, Tshwane is not on every tourist’s schedule. Do you have plans to place Tshwane on the tourism map, and how would you intend to do so?

We have already started a number of initiatives to put Tshwane on the map. Our city is the only metro city in the world that boasts the Big 5. Our city is the only city in the world that has one of the oldest and most expensive trains in the world. We are the only city that has the biggest concentration of embassies, outside of Washington DC. We are also, I think, arguably one of the biggest hubs that can be used for government tourism as well, as we have a number of departments sitting here, we have the Union Buildings, we have the Palace of Justice. We want to share all this not only with people of South Africa, but with the world. We have the Voortrekker Monument, we have Freedom Park, we have the Pretoria Zoo which has more animals than you can think of. We have the Old Synagogue where Nelson Mandela was trialed, right here in the city. We have City Hall, we have the Paul Kruger statue on Church Square, we have one of the oldest Diamond Mines in Cullinan, we have Sammy Marks Square and the Sammy Marks Museum – there is so much I can mention. We have started putting packages together saying that we want to promote tourism better than what it ever has been. One of the things that we are doing as well, is starting to clean up the city, to make sure that there is more security around the city, to make people feel welcome.

Pretoria has an abundance of cultural and historic heritage. How does this fit on your program as Executive Mayor?

Having grown up in the city, having stayed in Mamelodi – the home of jazz – culture and heritage is something that is very close to me. The promotion of individual culture and artistic wellbeing has been at the heart of everything that we do, as we believe that it plays a vital role in unifying people from different cultural beliefs and traditions. This has always managed to bring us together, as Nelson Mandela used to say, unity in diversity. The difference that you are is what should be bringing people together; the ability to learn from each other and to be stronger together are some of the things that lie at the heart of everything we do. That is why we say, as this administration, not to argue about race, but to argue about what is being done to bring people together, to unite us. This is why when people said we should pull down the Paul Kruger statue, we said no. Let’s get another statue that we can erect next to it that begins to say this is what the statue represented, this is what this other statue represents, creating a dialogue towards bringing together a stronger nation. It doesn’t necessarily mean that I have to destroy somebody’s culture or what somebody believes in, in order for mine to rise. It means I need to do what I can to make sure we bring about an equilibrium, bringing people to a level of equality, instead of putting people against each other, cultures against each other.

And lastly, Mayor, you head a charity organisation called “Make Somebody’s Christmas a Merry One”. Could you elaborate on this initiative?

The initiative started a number of years ago. Coming from the background that I come from – from living in a shack myself – I know what it feels like not to have a meal. I know what it feels like to go collect water somewhere; to not have a decent uniform when going to school. I have been fortunate to have been raised to have a very strong will, and to not look at what is negative about my life, but also at what is positive; asking how I can move away from a poverty-stricken environment to an environment where I’m able to provide for myself. Not only for myself, but also being able to assist others. And so, having moved away from that, I felt that I was in a position to be able to help somebody who was less fortunate than I currently was. This is why I started Make Somebody’s Christmas a Merry One.

It started one Christmas, when we went and bought groceries for the festive period. I thought, here I am buying groceries, but there are so many people that, possibly even on Christmas Day, are not going to have a meal to sit down to and celebrate. Would my success mean anything if I am not able to touch somebody’s life? So we started by identifying a number of families – 10 families per township, in Mamelodi, Ga Rankuwa, Soshanguve, Hammanskraal, Atteridgeville. We started there, and it grew. We were able to reach up to 1000 people to whom we distributed groceries, often more than once. It went from just providing groceries to being able to, in January every year, find a number of underprivileged schoolchildren that I’m able to buy full school uniforms for, for the year, the schoolbooks that they require, and their stationary. That was a way of starting something that says, if you want to bring about change, it needs to start with you. I cannot always point at government and say government needs to do this. This came long before I became Mayor, it was something I started, given the background that I come from. I said I need to start somewhere, I need to do something for somebody who is experiencing the difficulties that I went through, or even worse than what I went through.

Thank you so much, Executive Mayor. Your words today are so full of hope, and I believe that both our readers and viewers will appreciate this interview today.