Stevens Mokgalapa. Picture: SUPPLIED
Stevens Mokgalapa. Picture: SUPPLIED

In 2000, while canvassing for votes in ward 58 ahead of local government elections in Pretoria, a young candidate visited an old-age home where one oom dubbed him Tony Leon (then the leader of the DA). He went on to win and became one of the first black ward councillors for the DA.

Stevens Mokgalapa, now 42 and the mayor of Tshwane, laughs as he recalls his description back then as "the black Tony Leon".

The boy who grew up in Winterveld in the former Bophuthatswana and saw his brothers arrested under the gatherings act in the late 1980s was sworn in as the first citizen of Tshwane in February, in a coalition government that can at best be described as strained.

Mokgalapa, who was elected president of the Africa Liberal Network in 2017, proudly describes himself as a liberal — an increasingly rare brand in the DA, which has positioned itself as a governing party with the aim of becoming a bigger player provincially and nationally. In Tshwane specifically, the DA was the biggest party after pushing past the ANC in the 2016 municipal elections.

Mokgalapa, who was a Tshwane municipal councillor for nine years, tells the FM that he became a member of the then Democratic Party (DP) in 1999 after visiting one of its constituency offices when he was a student. He’d seen a DP advertisement looking for volunteers in the 1999 general elections. "They said if you want to fight crime, corruption and cronyism, those three Cs, the DP is the party to join," Mokgalapa says. He asked for a copy of the party’s constitution, read it and the deed was done — he had found his political home.

"I am a liberal and it was a liberal constitution," Mokgalapa, a married father of two, says.

He made his return to the capital city in February after Solly Msimanga resigned as mayor to focus on his campaign as the DA’s premier candidate for Gauteng.

The word in DA circles was that Msimanga was pushed. Whatever the case, this presented an opportunity for a new leader to lead the administration in Tshwane, which seemed to be at war with itself while service delivery floundered.

Stevens Mokgalapa. Picture: SUPPLIED
Stevens Mokgalapa. Picture: SUPPLIED

Mokgalapa, who was a member of the national assembly for 10 years and the party’s spokesman on international affairs and human settlements, was, however, not the candidate many expected would be selected to take over; speaker Katlego Mathebe was touted as the favourite.

But with a caucus divided and in turmoil, Mokgalapa’s position as outsider, despite his roots being in the city, together with his 20 years of experience in the DA, worked in his favour.

Mokgalapa’s first task as mayor was daunting: he walked into the office amid a very public spat between Msimanga and city manager Moeketsi Mosola, whom Msimanga attempted to suspend three times while the city investigated allegations of procurement irregularities over an open-ended contract with engineering consultants GladAfrica.

The council under Msimanga initiated a forensic investigation but the draft report was interdicted by Mosola, resulting in Mokgalapa changing tack on the issue. He says he has now referred the irregular contract with GladAfrica to the city’s audit and performance committee, emphasising that one cannot deal with emotion but must act on the facts. He says one cannot continue doing the same thing (as Msimanga did) and expect a different result.

Mokgalapa, who matriculated from Mabopane High School, did a BA in political science at the University of Pretoria. He also has an honours degree in international relations from the University of the Western Cape — an advantage in a city which houses most of the foreign diplomatic corps in SA.

Mokgalapa is on the DA’s provincial list in Gauteng and its national assembly list for next week’s provincial and national elections.

In coalition politics nothing is set in stone, especially in a metro such as Tshwane, which could easily become a bargaining chip if Gauteng has to be governed in a coalition.

Anything could happen on May 8; EFF leader Julius Malema has said that his party, which holds the balance of power in the metro between the DA and the ANC, would be governing Tshwane come June.

Asked if he has ambitions to become the federal leader of the DA — a position held by Mmusi Maimane, who has fewer political miles on his clock than Mokgalapa — he merely says: "In politics they say you don’t announce your intention, because that is your downfall."