Originally published in the Sunday Tribune, January 16, 2010, page 19
As his term of office as mayor of eThekwini comes to an end, Obed Mlaba looks back … and to the future. He chats to Matthew Savides
Obed Mlaba sits back with his arms outstretched on the leather L-shaped couch in his parlour at the Durban City Hall. He smiles, a glint in his eye, as he thinks back on his more than 14 years in Durban’s highest office.
“I am delighted with what I have achieved here. I never thought I would ever hear the words ‘Mayor Obed Mlaba’, in my lifetime” he said, laughing.
“Looking back, I am really happy,” the soon-to-be ex-mayor of eThekwini told the Sunday Tribune this week.
According to the Local Government Municipal Structures Act, a mayor cannot stand more than two full terms in office. This means that Mlaba’s reign – barring a dramatic, late and extremely unlikely amendment to the law – will come to an end after the upcoming local government elections, likely in April.
It is unclear yet who will replace him, and this is a topic Mlaba was loath to talk about, saying only that the ANC would “look at every candidate” and that the appointment would not necessarily be in-house. However, he said the recent National General Council of the ANC in Durban passed a resolution that about 60 percent of councillors needed to remain in their positions “to ensure continuity” – hinting that an internal placement could be likely.
What was important, he said, was not who took over, but that the person ensured that service delivery continued in the city – an area that Mlaba believes he has been successful in.
“I am happy with what we have achieved. I am very happy with the marks that we made, for instance, in hosting the World Cup in 2010. I believe we have done quite a lot, especially if you consider the budget has grown from R6.7 billion then (when I started) to R26bn now.
“I smile about the infrastructure that we’ve delivered across all communities, particularly among the African areas where this was never even considered. I’m struck by the kind of roads that are tarred and compacted across the metro. I’m touch about the water and electricity that has been made available and the housing that has been given to communities. I’m touched by the fact that our economy is growing, which is one of the elements that if we don’t have, forget it, there is no council or no municipality.
“I am excited and very happy when I look back,” he said.
However, it was talking to the public that gave him greater satisfaction.
“I become more happy when I interact with the people on the ground because these are the people who tell me the truth, not the people who speak on big stands and on stages. The feedback is that we are doing very well, but there are still a lot of areas we need to work on,” he said.
Before taking up the hot seat after the 1996 local government elections, Mlaba worked with SAB’s and with Eskom’s strategic management teams, after earning an MBA. He told the Tribune that the same principles and ideas that made him successful at these two companies were carried through to his running of the council.
“When I started I was very pumped up. I had just done my MBA and also done good exercises with two major companies. When I started I had a meeting with city officials. After my address there was an expected mixed feeling. During tea there were a lot of people surrounding me asking, ‘Mister Mayor, do you think this strategic thing works for government?’
“I responded that my studies tell me that government is an organisation, and if it works for SAB and Eskom and if it worked for Tongaat-Hulett, it will work for this city.”
What was clear from the outset was that the ANC – the party that deployed Mlaba to his position – was happy with the job he was doing, despite grumbles from some sections of the population.
Just three years into his reign, Mlaba was put on to the African National Congress’s lists for candidates to national parliament and the KZN legislature, meaning he would move from eThekwini.
However, he said he was asked by then ANC deputy president Jacob Zuma to withdraw from the list and remain as mayor.
“It was the same thing in 2004. My position had even improved on these lists. But I was again asked to withdraw myself and stay for a final term. When I heard that my leaders are happy with what we’re doing and, therefore, for it to continue I had to stay, I accepted without hesitation,” he said.
Mlaba said a similar thing happened during the national and provincial election in 2009 when mayors of host cities were asked not to take up positions elsewhere because of the World Cup a year later.
“I did not hesitate to do what I was asked precisely because it has never been in my culture or that of the ANC to go about chasing positions,” he said.
For this reason, the current climate of self-promotion and desire for office within the ANC upsets him deeply.
“This is not what the ANC is about, it is not what the likes of Inkosi Albert Luthuli were about. It bothers me to see people going to the papers and campaigning about what they want and what they don’t want and so on. It bothers me because it’s all about ‘my this’ and ‘my that’. I even know that people are joining the ANC simply to see what benefits they can get out of it and not because of the good values of the ANC,” said Mlaba.
Opposition parties have also praised Mlaba for the work he has done over the past 14 years – although the IFP believes that he was there for too long and lost some of that early momentum.
“As far as mayors go in the South African context, Mlaba is within the top five. He’s performed admirably. There have been times when he’s made mistakes, but he is the type of man who is not afraid to admit it. He’s been a good mayor and has been diligent about his work.
His counterpart from the IFP, Thembi Nzuza, said, “He’s been good for the city and has been focused on development. If you look at the infrastructure backlogs that were there when he took over, he has done a good job to deal with them. He also oversaw an efficient administration. However, I think he was there for too long and he got deflated along the way.”
While he is happy with his achievements, Mlaba admits that it hasn’t always been sunshine and roses at City Hall.
“One of my biggest lowlights is that we still have so much inequality in wealth creation and employment opportunities where Africans are still the last in the queue when it comes to job consideration. I get upset that we are still a divided society in many ways.”
In terms of race relations, Mlaba described the situation in Durban as “horrible” in that there was still a “staggered racism” in local businesses, where white people were still at the top, followed by Indians, then coloureds and then Africans.
“I think this is the same socially. If you go to special occasions, like December 16 when we should be celebrating, how many times do you see people mixing in the real sense? As long as the fundamentals are held by one race group over another, this disharmony will continue.
“We shouldn’t be told that this is a Rainbow Nation by some politician, I should be able to feel it. And I don’t think that people can really feel that at the moment,” he said.
He added that boosting economic activity in Durban and creating job opportunities was vital – and that this was one of the key challenges for whoever might take over from him in a few months’ time.
Housing, too, would be a key priority.
Outside of his office, Mlaba describes himself as a family man who likes micro buses and kombis – “because they give me the opportunity to drive around with my family”.
Mlaba has seven children, although one has passed away, and several grandchildren. And, yes, he is the typical doting grandfather.
“We always go around playing kickball on the beach or in any open space. We drive into the countryside, to Estcourt, where I come from and into the Eastern Cape, where my wife is from.
“I’ve taken a mentor role with my two grandsons, who are both studying in university. We have a wonderful, wonderful relationship.
“My family are angels. They are sweet – from the cute little ones to the big ones. They are wonderful,” he said.
And would he be spending more time with them when he leaves office? Not likely. Mlaba still believes he has a role to play in local government.
“Once a politician, you are always one. There’s no doubt about that. I’m available for the ANC to deploy me wherever.
“The ANC is my home. The ANC is my everything. That is why I would love to and always will be available for some kind of deployment,” he said.