‘Black Donald Trump’ Riles South African Politics

Herman Mashaba (Phill Magakoe / AFP / Getty)
Phill Magakoe / AFP / Getty

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — A South African municipal by-election has pitted opposition party titans – one led by Herman Mashaba, a new entrant on the political landscape who styles himself as a black Donald Trump; and the other the Leader of the Official Opposition, John Steenhuisen – in a battle for the right to lead the fight against the national ruling African National Congress (ANC).

The Tshwane by-election, in a peri-urban ward of the country’s administrative capital of Pretoria on May 4, comes just as Mashaba’s new part, ActionSA had rocketed its previously untested support to a significant vote share in the metropolitan governments in last November’s municipal elections.

Mashaba, the Trump-styled former mayor of the City of Johannesburg, formed ActionSA after resigning from the official opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) now led by Steenhuisen, a veteran white politician. The official opposition was thrown into a quandary by the resignation of Mashaba – widely seen as a future DA leader by the electorate — after an internal DA fallout. The party leader at the time, Mmusi Maimaine – the party’s first black leader — quickly resigned from the official opposition as well.

The by-election is being held after an incumbent city councillor, Alderman Hannes Coetzee, resigned his DA seat and announced he was crossing the floor to ActionSA. He has since been announced as the ActionSA candidate.

The cards appear to be stacked in favour of Alderman Coetzee retaining the seat for the new party against his former political home, taking ActionSA well up from the 11 percent it won in the ward in 2021. ActionSA’s national chairman, Mike Beaumont — himself a former DA party worker — says canvassing figures from the ward indicate the DA and ActionSA are “neck-and-neck”.

The by-election is viewed a potential political watershed if ActionSA wins the ward, and could give an indication how the multi-racial electorate in South Africa could move in the national election in 2024. The strength of opposition parties collectively could see the liberation party, the ANC, lose its over-50 percent average in national elections. Significantl,y the ANC dropped below 50 percent in the general municipal poll last year for the first time since democracy in 1994.

Although nominations for the ward have not been registered by the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) as yet, ANC sources indicate that the national ruling party would not be standing in the race. Owing to the old apartheid Population Registration Act, the area has remained largely an Afrikaans-speaking white area, long after apartheid ended. Only one area polling district in this particular ward has previously shown strength among black African voters for the national governing ANC. This vote could go now to another opposition party, the radical socialist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF).

The odds favour ActionSA because Pretoria’s sewerage plant is located in the ward. The DA put out the repairs to tender, and the contract was given to a black-empowered company that failed to stem a leak into the Apies River, which runs through the ward. The acrid smell is now blamed on the DA-led city government, and sparked the resignation of Coetzee from the local ruling party. He is credited with saying he could not get things done through the DA.

The area “stinks,” said Beaumont, rendering property sales in the area almost impossible. He believes voters will blame that disaster on the DA-led Tshwane city government.

Mashaba defended his support for ex-U.S. President Donald Trump while he was still Johannesburg’s mayor. He pointed out that his support was based on allowing the free market to work and to reduce the reach of the state. His position on immigration was also similar to Trump’s: only those who achieved the right number of points for ability should be allowed in from outside, he said.

As mayor, Mashaba came under attack in the local media when he spoke out about illegal aliens during outbreaks of xenophobic violence against immigrants from other African states. He seemed to agree with Trump, who had allegedly referred to “sh*thole” countries in Africa. Many locals see foreigners stealing their jobs – especially in the service sector – and relate to Mashaba’s message.

Millions of people have illegally entered South Africa from the rest of Africa. Many Zimbabweans, Malawians, Mozambicans, and Zambians have fled across South Africa’s porous borders. Some have lived in South Africa for decades but have failed to obtain permanent residence status. Special refugee status for Zimbabweans is expected to lapse by the end of the year.

The DA candidate in the by-election is Ge’ Breytenbach, a local businessman.

Donwald P Pressly is a graduate of Rhodes University and was a Spring Menell Fellow at Duke University, North Carolina. He studied journalism and African politics.

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