PROFILE: How Geordin Hill-Lewis plans to future-proof Cape Town
The Springboks are an example of how South Africa can be excellent, he says
This month marks two years in office for Cape Town mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis. In that short time, he has become probably the most recognisable figure in a city about which he is passionate.
He’s also feeling good about the job, in spite of its biggest challenges: unemployment, crime, load-shedding — and public transport.
“Unemployment has grown significantly in South Africa over the past decade,” he says. The third-quarter figure is 31.9%, slightly down from the second quarter, but still unacceptable to the mayor. “You can’t expect people to be hopeful for the future if you can’t meet their basic survival requirements.”
This is why Hill-Lewis is opposed to cutting social grants. “Ideally we should be able to do a lot more for the poor, but you can only do that in the context of a growing budget and growing economy.” Which is why he’s proud of seven consecutive quarters of job growth in Cape Town.
Two factors that are killing jobs, he says, are crime and load-shedding. “There’s definite evidence in Cape Town that increased crime is linked to increased load-shedding.”
Then there’s public transport.
To say he’s passionate about it is an understatement. Hill-Lewis says improving all forms of public transport, especially rail, will be crucial for future-proofing Cape Town, a city expected to grow to 10-million people over the next few decades. He’s been leading the call for Cape Town to get more control of a rail network that is ideal for getting people to work and for tourism, with the link to Simon’s Town along the False Bay coast one of South Africa’s attractions.
“We have a rail infrastructure, we just don’t use it well,” he says. “I want us to be a successful megacity in the future but that is going to require a functional public transport system.”
Public transport has been a challenge in his tenure. The taxi strike in August had a devastating impact on the local economy but it also propelled Hill-Lewis into the national spotlight. He says he came out of the experience with much sympathy for the drivers, not so much the taxi bosses.
“The way that the entire thing is set up, they [drivers] are right at the bottom of the taxi industry food chain. They only earn anything if they do as many trips as possible in a day, which incentivises them to ignore traffic rules. From a government perspective, we care about traffic safety so that incentive problem has a major public safety impact for us that we are trying to address.”
When he began taking an interest in politics at high school in the early 2000s, he says he was no liberal, but “I found myself more and more attracted to the arguments that the DA was making in those years. They resonated with me.”
He became a student leader at the University of Cape Town and was elected to parliament in 2011 at the age of 24 (he’s now 36), the youngest MP at the time. This month he was elected unopposed as DA deputy provincial leader in the Western Cape.
With an uncommon first name and a double-barrel surname, Hill-Lewis might sound posh to an outsider. That could not be further from the truth. In an interview with the FM, he opens up about being raised in the unfashionable but solid middle-class suburb of Edgemead, where he still lives. His mother, a nurse, was a single parent for a while after her marriage ended. At 13 he moved in with his father, renewing their relationship when his mother moved abroad for better pay. It’s why Hill-Lewis has a high regard for nurses.
“We’ve lost thousands of nurses to all over the world because even experienced nurses can’t make ends meet here, particularly if you’re a single parent,” he says. “I have a huge soft spot for nurses because I grew up around nurses. All my mom’s friends were nurses. I know how hard nurses work. I know how they are disrespected in the health system.”
He says his job has now moved into a different stage where targets and plans are starting to be implemented. “It really does mean a lot to show that we can actually be excellent,” he says, using the example of the Springboks’ victory in the 2023 Rugby World Cup, as any big sports fan like the mayor would.
“We don’t have to accept this kind of national malaise of constant failure and backward movement. We absolutely have all the ingredients necessary to be excellent. We can set the global standards, not just in sport but in lots of other things.”
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