The rosy-cheeked, fresh faced young man who is likely to be Cape Town’s next mayor, looked and sounded out of place as he launched his campaign from behind a blue DA-branded lectern set up in the middle of a frayed street in Bonteheuwel on Sunday 29 August.
The street outside DA councilor Theresa Thompson’s home was chosen as Geordin Hill-Lewis’s launchpad as it was where he signed up as a DA member 17 years ago after being brought to a DA meeting by James Vos, who is a current City mayoral committee member.
The 34-year-old Hill-Lewis looked like fresh meat for a group of tough looking young men eyeing proceedings from the sidelines, although they later turned out to be pro-DA. There were no police or law-enforcement protecting the 90-minute affair attended by about 100 people in the notorious suburb, and nor were they needed.
And to be fair, had he launched his campaign in his home suburb of Edgemead, he would be criticised for pandering to the white electorate and sidelining voters of colour. As Daily Maverick’s Rebecca Davis has noted, in South Africa, and Cape Town in particular, you cannot escape the optics of race. Speaking to Daily Maverick on the pavement after his speech, Hill-Lewis, who is an MP, agreed that the DA’s efforts to transcend identity politics were weighed down by the loss of high profile black leaders such as Musi Maimane, Herman Mashaba, Lindiwe Mazibuko and most recently, Phumzile van Damme. The aspect of race was “a comfortable convenience for opponents” of the DA, he said, but no-one talked about the “dozens” of black DA leaders who continued working at community level, such as Patrick Nqu in Philippi. These leaders deliver votes, said Hill-Lewis, “that’s what people care about”, adding he aimed to support such leaders to achieve better service delivery in their communities.
Hill-Lewis’s speech, delivered following an introduction by Vos and amusing wordplay by DA MP Reagan Allen, avoided the racial optics of his mayoral candidacy. Instead, he warned against the cynical use of identity politics to divide voters, which was also an opportunity to point out national government’s failures.
“The DA in Cape Town doesn’t sit on the sidelines to try and divide people on the basis of race or religion, we get delivery done for everyone,” he said, along with the expected promise that as mayor he will “work day and night to bring better service delivery to every resident of Cape Town.”
Populists and “peddlers of hate” will in the coming months “tell you that you are struggling to make ends meet because of the colour of your skin, because of the language you speak, or because of the God you worship,” said Hill-Lewis, who leans of the traditional values of being a Christian and a family man.
He urged people to unite behind the DA and “not allow themselves to be fooled into blaming one another for the failures of the ANC.” Failures included loadshedding, the disintegration of Metrorail, and residents on the Cape Flats being provided the lowest police-to-citizen ratio in the country.
“They (the ANC-led government) do not care about the people of Cape Town,” he said.
This meant the DA had to “take the fight to the national government” and get more done in Cape Town than ever before. This meant training and deploying more law enforcement officers, using “every tool at our disposal to fight for control over passenger rail services”, and striving to “end loadshedding in Cape Town”, presumably by continuing efforts to secure energy from independent power producers.
With snow visible on the mountains, the metaphor of the DA ushering spring to a city suffering under national government’s winter was threaded throughout his speech. Part of the means to usher in warmth and prosperity was to “unleash the power of the private sector to meet the enormous demand for housing in our city”. He wants to see Cape Town become “one big construction site” building a prosperous future, with “cranes going up all over vacant pieces of state-owned land in Cape Town”. Asked afterwards if this was not at odds with the City’s own contested auctions of municipal property, he expressed the view that underutilised City-owned plots needed to be pre-packaged and released for development to social housing organisations. However, he noted the largest tracts of state land were held by national government, such as the SANDF’s underutilised Wingfield and Youngsfield military bases, and these needed to be released. He said he may not always agree with housing activist organisation Ndifuna Ukwazi who have consistently challenged the City’s housing delivery, but took note of “some valuable points” they raised. He said he was “in discussion” with them and shared their aim to create more affordable accommodation for Capetonians. He intends looking into the detail of why the housing project at Salt River market has been held up, he said.
Asked whether he would bring imagination and vision back to a City that seems to have returned to a dull bureaucratic approach following former mayor Patricia de Lille’s abrasive exit, he said Cape Town was the country’s leader in good governance so “let’s use it as a policy laboratory”.
“If we are a world-class city we must do some big, exciting experimental things, and I don’t mind failing.”
However, he said bold vision could only be put in place if the DA held a majority. A coalition of smaller parties would halt progress.
“If we focus on the message of what Cape Town’s future can be like, I think we can get people behind us.”
Launching his campaign in a ward in which 85% of voters supported the DA in the last local government election, it was not surprising that surrounding residents said they supported him.
At the end of the street, 21-year-old Byron Mackenzie said residents “don’t care about the DA and all that”. What they cared about, he said, was potholes being fixed, street lights working, and the streets being safe enough to kick a soccer ball around at dusk. Mackenzie said he liked the fact Hill-Lewis was young, and believed he would get a lot of votes.
Chestnut Street resident Bradley Comjana, 37, said everyone in the household voted DA, but an elderly lady further down the street, who declined to be named, was sceptical. Feeling betrayed by politicians, she said there was no-one she felt she could vote for in the upcoming elections.
With the DA having achieved a two-thirds majority in Cape Town at the last local government elections, it is unlikely to lose the city this time around despite being likely to have De Lille’s GOOD party taking a bite out of their lead.