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Joburg mayor resolute in face of ANC insults

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Nothing was going to stop the executive mayor of Johannesburg, Dr Mpho Phalatse, last week from delivering her acceptance speech as the city’s first woman in the position.

Not even a rowdy group of chanting African National Congress (ANC) councillors hell bent on intimidating and harassing her by demanding that she withdraw pro-Israel comments she made more than three years ago.

Phalatse braced herself for attacks by the ANC when she entered the Constance Connie Bapela Council Chamber in Braamfontein on 2 December and saw ANC councillors brandishing placards clad in keffiyehs (traditional Palestinian scarves).

She remained calm in the face of taunting chants of “Free Palestine!” and posters saying “Away with a mayor pro-apartheid.”

“I folded my arms, maintained my composure, and allowed them to finish,” Phalatse said this week.

Council Speaker Vasco da Gama attempted to bring the formal proceedings to order as insults were hurled at the newly elected mayor who stood on the podium and waited.

“They were expecting a reaction but when they didn’t get one, they tired quickly,” Phalatse said.

A committed Christian and a single mother of three, Phalatse (44) was in 2018 suspended from her post as MMC for health and social development in Herman Mashaba’s Democratic Alliance (DA)-led government in the City of Johannesburg. This after comments she made expressing support for Israel during a South African Friends of Israel (SAFI) conference were taken out of context, causing outrage amongst the anti-Israel lobby. She was reinstated to her position after an investigation found no wrongdoing on her part, and after she made a public apology to the people of Johannesburg.

At the conference, Phalatse called herself and the City of Johannesburg a “friend” of Israel.

“I’ve responded so many times, and I’ve said everything publicly that I needed to say on the issue. Last week, the ANC needed something to use on the day to try to discredit me and feel relevant, and I didn’t want to entertain it,” she told the SA Jewish Report.

Instead, Phalatse, a medical doctor turned politician remained poised, steady, and calm and waited for the ANC to finish while the majority of councillors watched remotely as scenes of disorderly and unruly behaviour played out in the chamber.

“The behaviour didn’t shock me because every time they come with their scarves I know they have planned something.

“I had a speech to deliver which I hoped would unify the council behind the common vision of building the city. I needed to stay focused to get this message across,” she said.

DA Councillor Daniel Schay said the mayor stood firm and was undeterred.

“This was a deliberate attempt to try knock her off her game and disrupt the council. She remained calm and carried on with the business of the day, putting the residents of the city first.”

He was utterly amazed when the mayor came up to him afterwards and apologised for the ANC’s disrespectful behaviour. “She said sorry to me! I said it wasn’t about me, and was more concerned about her,” he said.

Later Schay posted on Facebook, “Today was my first proper council meeting. Today, we were meant to be doing business that put the residents of Johannesburg first. The ANC had different ideas and tried to make today about a conflict 9 000km away while ignoring the pain and suffering it has caused in our own city.

“To our wonderful Executive Mayor Dr Mpho Phalatse, whose religious beliefs and personal character were under attack today by vicious peddlers of falsehoods, I must bestow the greatest gratitude, for in that moment, you also showed great sensitivity to me and my well-being. Today, your leadership and humanity shined above the vile hatred and lies that emerged within the council chamber.”

SAFI said the ANC should prioritise service delivery over anti-Israel theatrics, and last week’s display by the ANC was an “obvious attempt at overt political intimidation”.

“It was a cheap political PR stunt, and yet another missed opportunity to promote peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict while indulging in hateful anti-Israel propaganda. Meanwhile, the City of Johannesburg suffers from water shortages, power outages, refuse collection issues, sewerage-management problems, and decaying infrastructure. The ANC would do better to demonstrate its commitment to fix these serious service delivery problems instead of obsessing over its anti-Israeli agenda,” the organisation said.

In her speech, Phalatse said the challenge that lay ahead for the 18 parties represented in the Johannesburg council was to bring hope to the city.

Born in Pretoria, Phalatse has hit the ground running since she took up office. She was handed the keys to the country’s largest metro after beating the ANC’s Mpho Moerane by 144 votes to 121, and became the first woman mayor of Johannesburg.

She has consistently said that her aim is to make Johannesburg a better place knowing full well the myriad problems facing the city from potholes; disrupted water supply; inadequate and failing infrastructure; shocking service delivery in poor areas; a complex, seemingly impossible electricity crisis; and the highly nuanced and controversial issue of undocumented foreigners.

Her days and nights are jampacked, from trawling night clubs last week with metro police in search of establishments flouting COVID-19 protocols to meeting disgruntled Soweto residents and Eskom officials to sort out the city’s electricity crisis.

Former Johannesburg Mayor Mpho Moerane this week criticised Phalatse for “running a leaderless city” for not appointing the 10-member mayoral committee by now, the result of ongoing coalition discussions between the DA and other parties. Phalatse said the wait was necessary to form a stable government for Johannesburg “so that we can get down to the real business of effectively building a city we can eventually be proud of”.

“The ANC is trying to build a narrative that the DA is incapable and failing in its duties. This criticism is politically motivated, and we need to remain focused,” she said.

“The two-week odd delay in appointing the mayco won’t be harmful as the issues we face are historical.” She said they were winding down coalition talks and hoped to conclude discussions soon.

Phalatse said the very people who continued to hurl insults and criticism at her were the same people who, over the years, had taught her how to face them.

“The ANC has used lies, fabrications, has even made a song about me and called me names. They have given me training in resilience, and I’m grateful because I have grown a thick skin.”

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