Johannesburg ex-mayor eyes win in S.African polls as crime buster

South Africa The 64-year-oldmade a fortune selling hair products for black people.  By MARCO LONGARI AFP
MAR 4, 2024 LISTEN
The 64-year-old made a fortune selling hair products for black people. By MARCO LONGARI (AFP)

A former Johannesburg mayor who calls himself proudly xenophobic is eyeing victory in South Africa's upcoming vote as a candidate who can deliver law and order in a crime-ridden nation.

A successful businessman, Herman Mashaba is among a cohort of new small political party leaders seeking to capitalise on the broad discontent with the long-ruling African National Congress (ANC), as South Africans head to the polls on May 29.

After the "magic" years of Nelson Mandela, South Africa has gone from bad to worse, Mashaba told AFP in an interview on Monday, citing widespread poverty, collapsing infrastructure and a rampant murder rate.

"We are heading into a cliff in the event that we don't mobilise South African voters to stop this country from being another failed African state," Mashaba, who leads the centre-right ActionSA party, said, speaking from his home in a posh Johannesburg neighbourhood.

The 64-year-old made a fortune selling hair products for black people, a venture he started before the end of apartheid.

He appeals to part of the electorate as a blunt conservative and a self-made man, who rails against ANC "communists" who "don't believe in God", and wants to do away with affirmative action policies favouring black employment.

These should be replaced by a tax on companies' profits, and the money used to improve education in deprived areas and to offer cheap loans to black entrepreneurs, he said.

Tackling crime and illegal immigration -- both key issues amid high unemployment -- are also among his party's main priorities.

Mashaba advocates tougher punishments, including forced labour, and stricter border controls.

'Better devils'

As the head of South Africa's largest city between 2016 and 2019, he often pointed the finger at foreigners, mostly from poor neighbouring countries, leading to accusations of xenophobia.

"Anyone coming here for illegal intent... you are not welcome into South Africa," he told AFP.

"If anyone calls me xenophobic, then I'm a proud xenophobic."

Mashaba was elected mayor with the leading opposition party, Democratic Alliance (DA), but left after falling out with its leadership over the handling of racial issues.

The liberal DA has long struggled to shake off its image as representing the white minority.

After forming ActionSA in 2020, he is now back in a coalition agreement with his former party, which he describes with little love as "better devils".

The coalition, which includes other smaller groups, faces an uphill battle to unseat the ANC.

Struggling in the polls, the ANC risks losing its parliamentary majority for the first time since 1994 -- but is still set to win the largest share of the vote.

ActionSA won about 16 percent in 2021 municipal elections in Johannesburg.

But it is untested nationally, where it is competing for the first time and analysts say ActionSA might struggle to repeat its success and expand outside its core black, middle class, urban electorate.

An Ipsos poll published last month put it at around four percent nationwide. But Mashaba is unfazed.

"I'm not distracted by people who smoke I don't know what," he said of pollsters. "We've proven them wrong all the time."