Cape Town mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis gazed from the window of his office on to a dilapidated train station that has been neglected by South Africa’s government and vandalised by criminal gangs.
“The network has been all but stripped bare,” Hill-Lewis, a rising star of the main opposition Democratic Alliance, said of the state-run rail system that now carries a fraction of the passenger numbers it did five years ago.
Reversing this decline is just one of the tasks that have kept Hill-Lewis busy since he was elected leader of South Africa’s second city two years ago. The 37-year-old has over that time built a reputation for jettisoning ideology in the interests of solving problems, and doing so broadly across racial lines.
As the DA prepares to challenge President Cyril Ramaphosa’s African National Congress in a pivotal national election this year, his successes are being presented to show how South Africa’s opposition can succeed where the ruling party has failed.
Yet even South Africans who recognise the DA’s achievements in Cape Town doubt it would be able to replicate its pragmatic approach across the country, a concern that is reflected in national support levels that barely rise above 20 per cent.
Hill-Lewis’s efforts to wrest control of the railways from national authorities have been rebuffed. But in electricity, up to now dominated by the national Eskom monopoly, he has fared better. Cape Town was the first city in South Africa to pay a “feed-in tariff” to private electricity generators supplying power to the grid, helping to reduce blackout times to below the national average.
In areas where the mayor has more jurisdiction, such as housing, road maintenance and crime prevention, Hill-Lewis has worked to overcome the idea that the DA prioritises rich suburbs over working class areas.
“Part of my role here is to try to address that perception by showing that there are massive benefits to poor, mainly black, residents by having a government that just focuses on getting things done,” he told the Financial Times.
The DA has run Cape Town, a city of 5mn people famed for its spectacular views of Table Mountain and beautiful coastline, outright since 2011. As many of South Africa’s cities, including Johannesburg, have fallen apart, Cape Town has gained a reputation for economic growth and improved services.
That is despite the fact that the city’s wealth, which makes up 70 per cent of the wider Western Cape area’s relatively prosperous economy, belies a much darker reality of impoverished townships blighted by chronic unemployment, crime, deprivation and the enduring legacy of apartheid.
Herman Mashaba, who quit as DA mayor of Johannesburg four years ago, has accused his former party of “cutting grass in the suburbs instead of providing toilets and water tanks in poor communities”. And, nationally, the DA is still viewed with suspicion by many black voters who see it as an irredeemably white party — an impression exacerbated when it ejected its charismatic black leader, Mmusi Maimane, in 2019. Former leader Helen Zille’s comments about how colonialism had brought benefits did not help either.
Hill-Lewis, who is white, has sought to counter that image in Cape Town. “I accept that the DA has a lot of work to do to build trust with black voters,” he said. “We’ve tried to hammer away at that for many years now with very mixed success.”
But he also said voters were becoming less concerned with race and more interested in good governance. “As the basic services on which the poor depend every day have increasingly failed, people are looking for a government that can just fix the basics,” he said. When it came to infrastructure, “we’re overwhelmingly focused in the poorest parts of the city”.
Lawson Naidoo, of the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution, agreed that Hill-Lewis had done much to overhaul the DA’s reputation.
“In the past that criticism was deserved,” Naidoo said of the view that the party was focused on white areas. “Hill-Lewis is starting to address that. He seems to be cut from a different cloth from the rest of them.”
This is reflected in local polls. According to a recent survey by the Social Research Foundation, the DA is likely to lift its vote in this year’s general election from 55 per cent to 66 per cent in the Western Cape. By comparison, the party scored only 21 per cent in the 2019 general elections, underscoring its difficulty in translating provincial success to a national stage.
Still, some South Africans are voting with their feet, with wealthy people from Johannesburg selling up and moving to Cape Town. Poorer people from the Eastern Cape, one of the country’s most deprived provinces, have also long come to the Western Cape to work in agriculture, tourism and other jobs lacking at home. Cape Town’s unemployment rate of 23 per cent, while still high, is nearly 10 percentage points below the national average.
Hill-Lewis said at least 3,000 people were arriving a month, putting school and housing budgets under strain.
The mayor has also faced crises such as a stand-off in August with striking operators of private minibuses after the city’s authorities cracked down on unroadworthy vehicles. Five people died in the ensuing protests, but Hill-Lewis insisted that he had struck a blow for law and order, “which is really hanging by a thread in South Africa”.
Ziyanda Stuurman of Eurasia Group, who is a longtime Cape Town resident, said there were limits to the city’s efforts to go it alone. Even Cape Town’s middle class worried about affordable housing while crime posed a deepening threat to tourism, she said.
“The entire idea that you make this city better by bringing an economic boom is a flawed concept.”
Stuurman said much of Cape Town’s recent success was down to inbuilt advantages, such as a stronger tax base, international tourist revenue and a tradition of better government.
“That said, credit should be given where it is due,” she added. “Geordin has been very good at creating and facilitating policy that brings in international business,” including more flights to Cape Town’s airport.
Hill-Lewis insisted his progress could yet influence the general election. “You can look to what’s happening in Cape Town, even if you live in Nelspruit or Johannesburg,” he said. “We have to do more to convince people that the DA is a real alternative government for all South Africans.”
Additional reporting by Joseph Cotterill in Johannesburg
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