This ANC premier has never had a meeting with President Jacob Zuma
After nearly two years in the job, Gauteng Premier David Makhura has never had a one-on-one meeting with his boss, President Jacob Zuma, despite the fact that he is head of the economic hub of the country.
It is a fact that is hard to fathom, though Makhura prefers to make light of it: “It’s just not how we do things,” he says.
Still, it is difficult to imagine the CEO of an ailing company not directly interacting with the head of a key department, not even by phone.
The two men did not even speak when Gauteng took a hammering after R169-billion was wiped off the JSE in two days in December when finance minister Nhlanhla Nene was unceremoniously fired.
“Of course we felt the consequences,” the premier says. “You can’t be a leader and not be affected by something like that. And we particularly felt it in this provincial economy, where a lot of investment is directed.
“But, no, I didn’t phone the president,” he continues. “And the reason is simple: an issue of great concern is addressed in the provincial ANC. That’s my first port of call.” Makhura is deputy chairman of the party in the province.
At 48, Makhura is an old hand at ANC politics. He was elected provincial secretary of the ANC in Gauteng in 2001 and held on to that very senior post with relative ease for 13 years over four consecutive terms, a measure of the considerable respect he amassed along the way.
However, his appointment as premier in 2014 was less smooth and it was widely rumoured that his old ally Paul Mashatile, the long-standing provincial party chairman, had to put up a tough fight to ensure the premiership did not fall to a Zuma partisan.
There was also the sobering issue of poor performance: the ANC had just emerged from a bruising election in which its vote share in Gauteng had dropped from 64.75% in 2009 to 54.92% that year. This illustrated just how badly the provincial government was in need of a strong and steady leader.
Gauteng is arguably the trickiest of all nine provinces to govern, regardless of who is at the helm. Its sophisticated economy and relative success have made it a magnet for job seekers from around the country and elsewhere and though this dates back to the gold rush, the pressures it is placing on housing, education and health of late are becoming insurmountable.
“They are palpable, constantly in your face,” Makhura says.
According to him, there are 13.2 million people living in Gauteng today, up by one million from five years ago, “but the census from 2011 is not even fully factored into the budget yet, so we are working off old figures, and therefore always one step behind.”
To finance this, the province has an allocation of around R90-billion/year.
The flaw in the design of the allocation is best highlighted in the education sector.
At the beginning of this year, there were 14 000 school beginners who couldn’t find a place in Gauteng’s 1 417 primary schools. By February that number had been whittled down to 9 000 and now, at the beginning of March, Makhura claims that all of them have been placed.
The concern, however, is that this may have been achieved by overcrowding classrooms.
“The biggest driver of this is not poor planning but learner migration,” he insists.
Makhura points to the phenomenon of children migrating to the province, either with or without their parents, so as to get into better schools.
Last year, 90 000 children from outside Gauteng applied to enrol in the province’s primary and secondary schools, of which more than 20 000 were from Limpopo and 12 000 from the Southern Africa region.
“But while schools are emptying out in other provinces and learners are coming here, the budget allocation is not following them,” he says.
So what’s the solution? “We need a firmer national hand on managing migration. Our national policy and planning needs to be responsive to that,” he says.
Four years ago, Western Cape Premier Helen Zille rowed herself into controversy when she too raised the issue of migrant learners, calling them “education refugees”.
The concepts are poles apart, Makhura says, refusing to entertain a comparison. “My issue is not one of racism, but about the need to get the planning right and the budget with it,” he says.
This grim side of urbanisation is also acutely felt in the housing sector, one of the main causes of the thousands of service delivery protests that hit the province each year and which are becoming increasingly violent. There are close to 500 000 people waiting for a house in Gauteng today, yet only 50 000 homes have been delivered under Makhura’s watch.
Makhura acknowledges the less-than-impressive rate of delivery (one of the reasons he roped Mashatile into the portfolio last month to break the back of the crisis) as one of the worst during his tenure.
Still, he presides over an economy whose growth typically outstrips national figures on an annual basis.
However, the troubled rand has forced a downturn across Gauteng’s main sectors, namely finance, manufacturing and trade, which was in part to blame for pushing the number of unemployed up to 2.2 million this year.
His response was manifold, foremost of which is a new draft provincial economic plan to reposition the economy, which he hopes to finalise at an economic indaba scheduled for April.
Makhura has also poured time and money into the so-called township economy revitalisation programme, and has created a Gauteng Consultative Business Forum.
It seems to be paying off. For example, it was to him that ArcelorMittal’s top brass turned early last year when they failed to get a hearing with national government to talk about plunging steel prices.
In the end, Makhura facilitated talks between the steel giant and Economic Development Minister Ebrahim Patel and Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies to stave off job cuts, in Gauteng and elsewhere. The success of that intervention remains to be seen.
However, one of Makhura’s earlier, and perhaps less successful, interventions as premier was in the e-toll debacle in 2014, when he assembled an advisory panel to examine the road charges. The media mistakenly saw it as his first stab at Zuma, rather than a move by a savvy politician to be seen to be doing something, even if not much actually comes of it.
The public were equally wrong-footed, applauding this as the beginning of the end of e-tolls — which, of course, it wasn’t either.
Though it was never envisaged that Makhura’s panel would abolish the tolls, at the very least they ought to have overhauled the cost structure, abandoning the one-size-fits all fee.
Asked whether a tiered cost structure would have been more equitable, he replies: “These issues of affordability are something we continue to engage with. For as long as these e-tolls are a part of this province, not doing something about them is not an option.”
With that mixed bag of challenges, he now faces a local government election this year. Makhura says he is confident the ANC will hold on to the main metros, though Tshwane appears to be the weakest link at this stage. “Tshwane has always been the poorer performer, but we will hold on to it,” he insists.
His optimism may be short-lived, though, as both the EFF and the DA have set their sights on Tshwane and have not ruled out a coalition in a desperate attempt to wrench it from the ANC.
“A coalition won’t work between those two,” Makhura retorts. “They are too different here in Gauteng.”
At this stage he is tracking his opponents’ strengths and weaknesses carefully and their ability to meet the needs of the people. His observations are telling him the ANC will still poll well throughout the province.
“It’s not a hard science though,” he warns. “Politics never is.
“You can only read how people are responding on the ground today. That might change tomorrow but if it does, we will respond to that too.”
That may not always be possible, however, particularly if it is beyond his control, as the Nene matter was.
Temperate as ever, Makhura refuses to entertain any talk about Zuma.
“I don’t discuss any leader’s performance or how they are doing their job.”
This article first appeared in the Financial Mail