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New Joburg mayor a “useful pawn” for ANC, leaders say



In a week, the city of Johannesburg has gone from being led by an educated, eloquent friend of the Jewish community to one that believes in Sharia values and “loves load shedding”, according to his Twitter account. Not to mention the fact that he harbours vehemently anti-Israel sentiments.

Al Jama-ah’s Thapelo Amad was sworn in as the new mayor of Johannesburg earlier this week. This follows epic political shenanigans by opposition parties, which resulted in the shock ousting of the Democratic Alliance’s (DA’s) Dr Mpho Phalatse via a vote of no confidence.

It also shattered the flimsy DA-led coalition, and potentially further hamstrung much needed service delivery, impacting the economic heartbeat of the country.

Amad was voted in last Friday in spite of his tiny party having only three seats on the Johannesburg metro council.

In one of his first television appearances, many claimed he came across as an inarticulate student activist wearing a t-shirt, with his arms folded defensively, admitting that he felt “overwhelmed”. In another, he was seen proudly wearing a Palestinian scarf.

Some political insiders say it’s hard to believe that only a few days ago, Amad was virtually unknown outside council chambers. His claim to fame was persistently calling for a motion to rename Sandton Drive (where the United States Consulate is situated) to Leila Khaled Drive after a notorious terrorist. Today, Amad holds the ceremonial keys to the highest office in the city.

However, it’s unknown how long he’ll hold this seat.

Independent election analyst Wayne Sussman said it will be hard for the mayor to establish himself.

“It’s a great day for him. It must a big honour to don the mayoral chain, to have the city and the nation’s attention on him, but the honeymoon period won’t last long,” he said.

Al Jama-ah has only three out of 139 seats in the coalition, Sussman said, making the mayor and his party “expendable”.

“I don’t see him being able to lead the mayoral committee well. His work is cut out. He has a great opportunity to establish himself as a major player, to lead the country’s most economically important city with the largest number of residents, but it’s going to be very difficult,” he said.

“If the African National Congress [ANC] and Economic Freedom Fighters are able to find each other, Amad may revert to being a mayoral committee member, and it will be a short-lived sojourn,” he said.

There’s also concern about Amad’s party’s attitude towards the Jewish community.

Professor Karen Milner, the national chairperson of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies said, “Given past hostility of Al Jama-ah against both South African Jews and Israel, we’re concerned about its new prominence in the City of Johannesburg. We expect, though, that the mayor will focus on the needs of the City, and that he’ll respect the rights and dignity of all its residents, including the Jewish community.”

Benji Shulman, the director of public policy at the South African Zionist Federation, said, “We’re well aware of Mayor Thapelo Amad’s anti-Israel posture when he was Al Jama-ah councillor for the City of Johannesburg. We’re hoping that as mayor, he realises that he holds this position for all Johannesburg residents who are interested primarily in service delivery, not a narrow BDS [Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions] agenda.

“As Al Jama-ah councillor, Amad was responsible for an attempt to rename Sandton Drive ‘Leila Khaled Drive’. The SAZF will move quickly to oppose and prevent any anti-Israel antics in the City of Johannesburg or elsewhere.”

DA MP Michael Bagraim, the shadow deputy minister of labour, said it was a low point in Johannesburg politics.

“Johannesburg will now hit rock bottom,” he said. “The new mayor has absolutely no idea what to do in his job. In his first national television interview, he said his priority was potholes.

“It seems that he has been put there as a useful fool. It’s a crying shame to see the metropolis of Johannesburg falling to this very low level. The only topic of discussion from this minority party in parliament is the Israel-Palestine issue. Unfortunately it doesn’t even have a grasp of what’s going on in the Middle East. The one and only representative in parliament makes a lot of noise like an empty vessel.”

Political analyst Daniel Silke said Amad’s appointment as mayor was a reflection of the deterioration of municipal politics in South Africa, and the ANC’s desperation to remove the DA from power in major cities, especially before the 2024 elections.

“This is more relevant to the broader South African political scene. It’s a travesty of democracy when an individual from a very small minority party finds himself amidst the political shenanigans that have taken place, enabling him to take on a position as mayor,” he said.

Aside from the implications for the community, Silke said the change in administration could potentially lead to the further destabilisation of broad services in the city, which was worrying.

“He has a prestigious position. It’s not clear how long he’s going to last, given the extent of game playing that could still occur within local politics. Clearly, his views on the broader Middle East context are known, and while the mayoral position doesn’t have broad foreign policy implications, it’s true that he holds a particular view.”

DA Councillor Daniel Schay said Amad “clearly carries disdain” for the Jewish community. “As far as the general population is concerned, his appointment is a massive loss.

“Mpho Phalatse was a dedicated mayor who really had a plan for the city. To be replaced by somebody whose education is in Islamic studies and whose only interest is his own honour and what he can get from the city, is troubling. It comes down to what each of these parties can get from the coffers of the City of Johannesburg, and it means that the residents are losing out. The pathway to a better city has been set back many years if this guy remains in office.

“For the smaller parties, it’s about positions and better salaries, but for the bigger players, it’s about access to contracts and tenders and what money they can get from the coffers of the city. That’s what it comes down to,” said Schay.

Silke said the Jewish community should attempt to engage with the mayor.

“Just how receptive he is to meeting different members of the community and fulfilling his mayoral obligations is an important test of his mayoral chain,” he said. “This is a time to put him on test to see if he can react favourably, therefore engagement and dialogue with him is important.”

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