Athol Trollip: Interview with the new Executive Mayor of Nelson Mandela Bay

BY GRAEME LUND - NOVEMBER 14, 2016

We live in an amazing country. Here, at the Southern tip of the continent with the worst economic, social and political track record on Earth, we are setting a global standard for democracy.

The people of South Africa know they have a voice and that they have a Constitution to back that voice. The people know that they can vote for change and that they can vote to win.

Under the leadership of Nelson Mandela, the African National Congress (ANC) set a world standard for reconciliation and, despite many of their leaders having little or no administrative experience because of the years they spent as political prisoners, they had the determination and goodwill to govern South Africa effectively enough to produce rapid economic growth and political stability.

The massive popularity of the ANC in ‘90s and 2000s led many of the organisation’s leaders to believe that, no matter what they did or how they behaved, they would remain in power.  Slowly, but surely, they lost their moral compass. 

According to Jacob Zuma, the ANC will be in power nationally until the Second Coming of Christ. Well, Adolf Hitler spoke of the 1000-year Reich and Pol Pot started his dynasty with the Year Zero and look where that got them. Fair enough; we’re not sure when the Second Coming will be, so Mr Zuma may turn out to be right. But, if the recent municipal elections are anything to go by, it will have to be very soon for our President’s prediction to be correct.

In my opinion, there are three kinds of politicians; firstly those who become politicians because they truly want to serve their country. Nelson Mandela is perhaps the best example of this type of leader but, unfortunately, this breed of politician is very rare. Thankfully, these types of politicians, despite being few in number can have a massive impact and, luckily, South Africa still has some of these, as Pravin Gordhan has shown.

Secondly there are those that become politicians because they cannot obtain employment elsewhere. Typically, this type of politician is very smooth talking and makes lots of promises but delivers very little. They simply lack the intellectual capacity to understand that hard work and honesty achieve better results than deceit. The ANC, much to their detriment, currently has many of these politicians. It is because of these empty vessels that many of our municipalities are in such dire straits.

Thirdly, there are those political leaders that see only opportunities for self-enrichment in their chosen trade – trade being the operative word. They trade riches for positions of power and positions of power for riches. Nepotism, cadre placement, state (provincial, municipal and ward) capture are their (hidden) policies. Whereas the second category of politician is deceitful, this third category of politician is made up of unrepentant liars. To make matters worse, they love the second category of politicians, as they pose no threat and hence employ vast numbers of them.

Democracy loves the first category of politician and despises, but sometimes tolerates, the second category, but hates the third category and soon eradicates them through free and fair elections.

The ANC, under the leadership of a category 3 politician and with plenty of category 2 hangers-on, has lost not only votes but its moral high ground too.

In recent years, Nelson Mandela Bay’s ANC category 3 leadership acted behind the scenes and the silly category 2 councillors failed to fulfil their promises. Democracy took a firm hand (before the Second Coming and with the assistance of a massive Democratic Alliance [DA] election campaign) and the government of the Eastern Cape’s biggest and richest metropolis changed hands.

The question is; into what category of politician does the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Municipality's new Executive Mayor, Athol Trollip, fall? The voters would not have voted for the DA if they believed that he was worse than the ANC leadership but, not having any previous government experience on which to base their decision, voters have simply trusted that Mr Trollip will do better.

Prior to the election, to be honest, Mr Trollip was not my favourite politician. I was not always impressed by his campaign and his comments in the lead up to the municipal elections, nevertheless I walked into the City Hall determined to categorise our Executive Mayor only after I had asked him a few critical questions.

While waiting in the reception area of the Mayor’s office prior to the interview I couldn’t help noticing the hustle and bustle of Mr Trollip’s team. They all walked and talked with confidence. There was no uncertainty, no hesitation and no nonsense. I had the opportunity to chat to one or two of Mr Trollip’s assistants, all of whom were optimistic and excited about what they were doing and wanting to achieve.

Mr Trollip himself showed myself and my team into his office. He was relaxed, on time and had no delusions of grandeur. In short, I was impressed before we asked the first question.

One thing is certain, Athol Trollip is a politician. He has spent most of his adult life involved in politics and he comes from a family of politicians. His father and grandfather were politicians before him, being part of the Progressive Federal Party (PFP) that, over the years has morphed into what is today the DA.

“I have been in politics for 22 years, having worked as a public representative at a national, provincial and local level. I am passionate about public service and am committed to taking our country forward,” says Mr Trollip.

When asked what inspired him to join the world of politics, his reply was pretty standard for most politicians – to serve my community, my country and my city. What is perhaps different with Mr Trollip though, is that for most of the years of being a politician, there must have seemed little hope of him ever being elected to a position of governance. The Eastern Cape was one of the ANC’s strongholds and, knowing that there was little hope of gaining a position for a category 2 or 3 politician to exploit, one can only assume that Mr Trollip truly does want to make a difference.

We then approached the topic of the recent elections and why the DA was so confident about winning. I wanted to know why this belief in themselves existed, how difficult it was to form a coalition and what the coalition meant for the future of South African politics.

A few things were noticeable from his replies. He has a lot of self-belief and he has trust in God. He has complete disdain for the ANC. This dislike does not stem from party politics as you will find in the US elections, but for a deep seated anger at the way in which the ANC has run this country - and more specifically the Eastern Cape and Nelson Mandela Bay.

He states; “I have stood against white nationalism and I stand against African black nationalism.”

Mr Trollip’s replies where given with no forethought or hesitation and they were clear and concise.

The DA knew they could win and were determined to do so. They planned and campaigned for far longer and far more effectively than the ANC. When they spoke to their coalition partners it was with mutual respect, a joint dislike of the ANC and with a close eye on what the future holds – a government that is not ANC run. The formation of coalition governments as a result of the recent municipal elections, Mr Trollip believes, is seminal in South African history.

There is so much to be done to make Nelson Mandela Bay work as it should and so, I wanted to know what Mr Trollip’s top three priorities were?

His reply was emphatic; “Improving service delivery, growing the economy to create jobs and stopping corruption. 

“Corruption is the easy one and we’ve taken that decision, corruption is out, although it will be a life-long endeavour. Government has been like a cash cow that has not just been tethered and milked, but it lifted its hind leg to make the milking easier. Government procures in bulk and therefore, we should get a discount, but what has happened is that government has paid a premium. This is fundamentally wrong – it is corrupt, it is fraud; that will now end.”

“If we save money from corrupt practices, there is more money for service delivery and service delivery will improve. To grow the economy, you have to send signals to investors.  We have it all here, God-given. Two ports, one airport, beautiful beaches and fantastic tourist attractions. We need to let investors know that the infrastructure will work and that honest government exists.”

What are the three biggest challenges that you have faced as new Mayor, I asked?

The first two Mr Trollip had no hesitation in stating; “Massive legacy backlogs, I do not want to harp on about my predecessors, but there are massive backlogs and there is massive unemployment.” 

Mr Trollip took some time to explain the third point and he mulled over his answer. It was not that he did not know what it was but, in his own words; “I do not want to demoralise people, but the third one is definitely middle and senior management [at the municipality] that is competent, skilled, committed and professional. I do not want to be negative about the people that are in these positions as many of them have the skills, but their morale is broken and some of them are not as committed as I would like them to be.

“But there is a reason for that, cadre employment breaks initiative. So, if you know that working hard and being committed means nothing then you will not work hard.  

“I will keep politics out of the administration and the administration out of politics. I will provide a professional environment in which to work and will reward them [for their hard work]. That is my philosophy.”

It is a well-known fact that there were plenty of ‘cadre placements’ under the ANC and so I asked Mr Trollip if he was concerned about sabotage from municipal employees, who wanted to show the DA administration in a bad light.

“Of course, when you take over an organisation of this size sabotage, obstruction and truculence, lack of vision really, and lack of commitment to your vision is always a challenge. 

“But let me tell you something about what has happened in this city. There is an air of hope and expectancy out there that you can’t measure and it’s not there forever. I have seen that hope and anticipation even amongst people I know didn’t vote for us. We have a window of opportunity and we are going to see our support grow like it did in the City of Cape Town,” an excited Mr Trollip explained.

Corruption in government is something that South Africans have grown to hate and I asked Mr Trollip if he was going to hold those people within the municipality accountable for corrupt practices committed in the past.

“I am not going to spend the next five years digging up old bones, otherwise I am not going to achieve my objectives going forward, but I am going to identify some current projects, contracts and even practices that are holding us back and costing us money and I’m going to go after those, deal with them and move on,” explained Mr Trollip.

In conclusion, I asked Mr Trollip if he thought the DA would grow in the Bay and hold onto it in the next election.

“We have introduced good governance to the Bay and will improve service delivery, grow the economy to create jobs and stop corruption,” says Mr Trollip.

Will he be a category 1 politician I wondered silently?  In his own words he concluded the interview with; “However, the voters will need to assess our performance after five years, and I am confident that our track record will speak for itself.”