Sunday Tribune: Mlaba takes a back seat

Mlaba takes a back seat

January 18, 2009 Edition 1

Agiza Hlongwane

WITH his days as eThekwini mayor seemingly numbered, Obed Mlaba has been accused of taking a back seat in the running of the municipality, a job that pays him a handsome R840 000 a year.

Having begun his tenure with aplomb in 1996, he steered the city to its first Vuna award for governance in 2003. But he now runs the risk of undoing his legacy in the twilight of his role as mayor, according to observers.

He is said to be so out of touch that his peers often have to remind him of his responsibilities – one councillor even asked him to “come back from Honolulu” during a council meeting.

Speculation is rife that Mlaba could go to parliament after his nomination last week to the ANC national list of candidates to be elected to the National Assembly.

Mlaba’s salary swelled from R756 900 to R840 159 after recommendations last year by the Independent Commission for the Remuneration of Public Office Bearers. His term began in 1996 and ends in 2011. But if he is elected to parliament in April, somebody else will take over at city hall.

S’bu Zikode of Abahlali base Mjondolo, the shack dwellers’ movement, believes Mlaba could have done much more for the people of eThekwini. “We are happy for those who were served well by Mlaba,” he said. According to Zikode, at least 800 000 people still live in informal settlements scattered around the municipality.

“We were living in shacks when he became mayor. He made many promises, sometimes without even speaking to those who execute decisions. Those promises were not kept.

“It’s unfortunate that as he leaves, we are still living in those shacks and that, despite many deaths from fires, children are still living in these life-threatening conditions.

“We wish Mlaba the best.We hope that the new face will start addressing the needs of those at the bottom of the list.”

IFP caucus leader Thembi Nzuza believes that, as a political head, Mlaba failed the city.

“I don’t think his presence will be missed much,” she said. “He has worked well on the developmental side, but, politically, he has lacked leadership.

“So many wrong decisions were taken and he would just be laid-back. Just look at his handling of the street renaming and Remant Alton bus issues.”

Democratic Alliance caucus leader John Steenhuisen agrees. “Mlaba was an activist mayor, with a hands-on approach. But in the past two years I have seen his interest wane.

“He has become an irritable mayor of the executive committee who wants to finish meetings quickly. These meetings used to take up to three hours. Now they’re done and dusted in 45 minutes.”

Nzuza said, “His job has been to merely say, ‘May the house receive this or that report’. He would not debate things. Many a time I told him to wake up. At one meeting, I said to him, ‘Mr Mayor, we are missing you so much in your presence. It’s like you’re on holiday in Honolulu. Please come back’.”


Nzuza feels Mlaba was a victim of the factions that divided the ANC in the run-up to the Polokwane conference last year and that he continues to suffer the after-effects.

Steenhuisen believes one of two things may have happened to Mlaba.

“He has either been told to back off because his time is coming to an end, or he is suffering fatigue. He has been metro mayor since 1996 and staying in the same job for 10 years is never a good thing. You reach your sell-by date and become stale.”

Steenhuisen said that, on a personal level, he found Mlaba charming and willing to listen.

“But, politically, he has become very weak. He has suffered what I call a bureaucratic coup, where one party is rendered largely irrelevant.

“Mike Sutcliffe has a lot of power within the ANC and he has outshone Mlaba. Sadly, we’ve watched him slowly give up his domain of the executive to non-elected bureaucrats. He has been eclipsed even by the deputy mayor, Logie Naidoo.”

Steenhuisen said it was sad to see Mlaba become a “spent force” given his potential and business acumen.

“As mayor he has to be seen to be reaching out, trying to build bridges between business and the communities. Instead, he has adopted a partisan political line, frustrating any possibility of becoming that bridge-builder.

“It is sad because he has within him the power to build a truly happy city, but he has allowed that power to slip from his grasp. As his mayoral term draws to an end, you begin to wonder what could have been.”

But others hold a different view of Durban’s first citizen.

Mbongwa Xaba, spokesman for the South African Local Government Association, said Mlaba’s contribution in helping to develop business in the city could not be faulted.

“You can’t call Mlaba a political giant. He doesn’t have much of a political history. But you are likely to find the richness of his history in business. He has an MBA – he is too much of a businessman.”

He said Mlaba first showed his capabilities just one year into his job when he helped steer the city to its first Vuna award, which is bestowed on municipalities to honour good governance.

“Durban specifically stands out as a shining example of bold administrative and business acumen because the city has become a tourist destination of choice. Durban is the only port where summer never ends. It’s a playground. Now, do you want a political leader to run these things or a businessman?

“It is our belief that with the stewardship or mayorship of Mlaba, the city has not failed. When you look at Obed Mlaba as mayor of this city, his legacy becomes particularly conspicuous.”