Interview with DA councillor Johan Matthee

PHAKAMISA MAYABA / The Johan Matthee who upped and left Jo’burg some two decades ago was a different person – a numbers man with a healthy crop of hair who was going through a rough patch in his life – to the sincere, self-deprecating and mostly bald DA councillor sitting before me today. We’ve arrived a little early for the interview to circumvent the usual hurdles that dog small-time reporters: usually the subject, if he’s not showing us who’s boss by standing us up, he usually makes us wait, demands to see the questions, or pull some or other move in the vanityh arsenal.

Not Matthee, who promptly slides the mouse aside, pulls up a chair, and gets on with it. Originally from Jo’burg, he town-hopped throughout the years he spent as a senior financial advisor for a major insurance firm. When he returned home to be met with divorce papers, he decided that ‘Gauteng was too small for the two of us’, so he packed up and set out to get his head straight in nearby Gariep, where his parents lived. Headhunted by another firm, he found himself an inkommer in Colesberg, and figured he’d hang around for a bit. Twenty years later, he’s still here, albeit having put away the financial ledgers for a second term on the Umsobomvu Council.

Johan Matthee in his Council office. Image: eParkeni.

Being the lone white face in the council, doesn’t it sometimes feel a little lonely? Not at all, he says. On the contrary, given his experience and knowledge of local governance, he finds his input is always taken seriously. The relationship among the councillors, speaker and mayor are generally cordial, and he’s never really been in the business of seeing colour. When the Umsobomvu Residents Association (URA) campaigned during the last local government elections, and bagged a few seats, there was some hostility in the chamber, ‘but it seems that they’ve since matured’.

He says the Council is ‘very much service delivery oriented’, but — as most municipalities — is faced with financial challenges. ‘Many people in Umsobomvu don’t pay their municipal accounts, simply because they get their electricity directly from Eskom. It’s not sold by the municipality, so the municipality cannot exercise any form of credit control over them, meaning to say, disconnecting their electricity and forcing them to pay.’

In an attempt to remedy this, the municipality has engaged with Eskom to transfer the infrastructure to the council instead, but it wouldn’t budge. By contrast, Lowryville is supplied by the municipality, ‘and if they fall short on their other services like refuge removal and water and all of that, the meters are blocked, forcing them to pay their accounts, and that’s a form of credit control.’

Norvalspont, Kwazanoxolo township in Noupoort, and several other townships account for the 40% of electricity in Umsobomvu supplied by Eskom, hence ‘the municipality depends a lot on conditional grants from Treasury to make do what we can’. Electricity and housing are pivotal issues, both existentially as well as on the campaign trail.

In the course of eParkeni’s reportage, we’ve encountered scores of people specifically from Lowryville, many on welfare, who can’t afford to pay their rates and don’t have the ‘luxury’ – as unpatriotic as that may be – of simply not paying. One especially heartbreaking story is that of Madri Plaatjies.

An unemployed single mother of three, including a four and two-year-old, the household’s only source of income is the children’s social grants and Madri’s social relief of distress grant of R350 which all amount to R1850 a month. When we were first introduced to Madri, her miserable situation was writ large on her soot-stained walls, the stench of smoke heavy in her two-roomed matchbox. Since around November 2022, she says, her meter box has been blocked, meaning no electricity for the family.

Initially she’d relied on a paraffin stove, but the rising prices of the fuel have meant that she now makes do with a tin brazier which, despite the health hazards, is often hauled inside during the dreadful Karoo winter. So I ask Johan whether there is no recourse for such people.

‘There’s a certain criteria,’ he replies, ‘and if people fall into that criteria they qualify for indigent status, and get a certain amount of water and electricity for free.’ But he soon adds that ‘there’s nothing for free in life … that money comes directly from Treasury, and they need to register for indigent.’

The other pressing local matter  is the protests on the back of the SANRAL projects from October last year. ‘A number of contractors arrived,’ says Johan, ‘it’s alleged that they “favoured” a certain political party and employed its supporters, and the rest were overlooked.’

But what was the DA’s stance on the matter? ‘We raised it in Council as a concern. The ruling party flat-out denied being involved – however, what we get from our supporters out there is that if they can’t show a certain party’s membership card, they are told to please move on. So there’s enough evidence to say there is such a thing.’

What if these people indeed have a legitimate claim that they were being overlooked? ‘I’m going to quote myself, what I said in Council, I faced the mayor and the chief whip in council and I said to them ”people, hunger hasn’t got party colours, hunger hasn’t got skin colour, hunger doesn’t know the difference between men and women.

‘These people are people with dependants they need to feed, and we need to look after them across the board. You cannot for the sake of making it an election foefie say, “we will only favour our own”.’

I’m hoping for a scoop on whether the DA is indeed in coalition talks with the ANC. But Johan says he can’t comment, as there hasn’t been any communication from the higher-ups on the matter.

PA leader Gayton McKenzie says the DA is dead in the Northern Cape – his thoughts? He guffaws: ‘I started laughing when you said “Gayton McKenzie”, because he’s a joke. That man is not a credible person. He favours the so-called coloureds.’ The DA lost a number of supporters to the PA, but they were back within three months. ‘Gayton McKenzie needs to wake up and smell the roses … and what we do know about him is that he’s in bed with the ruling party at the moment.’

What about CapeXit? ‘At one point,’ he says, ‘there was talk that the Northern Cape wanted out of the Republic. CapeXit seems to be on hold. The DA is trying to force the police minister to hand over policing to the province, likewise with PRASA and other parastatals but the ruling party is not in favour of any of that.’ However, he does believe that with a coalition government such things will happen a lot quicker.

Does he support the Exit, though? No, not quite. ‘We remain one country. I would rather see us as one country in unity, but I also see merit in instead of centralising the police, railways, harbours and all that, to give provinces more of their own authority.’

The DA is often fingered as ‘a white party’ — how does he feel about this? The party’s support base alone quickly renders this a fallacy. If such parties exist, the DA is not one of them.

While a previous DA constituency chair, Matthee is not currently a formal office-bearer in the party., However, he is playing an active role in managing its local election campaign. After several interruptions (the man clearly has his hands full), we were able to sneak in two last questions before some party members– proudly clad in party colours – had urgent business to handle with the toppie.

Why should I vote DA? ‘It’s the only alternative to the ruling party – it is not corrupt, and has proven itself for clean governance in the Western Cape. It has even been singled out by the Auditor-General as the best-governed province and municipalities in the country, apart from Midvaal.’

There are fewer DA posters in town, compared with previous elections. Does this mean things are not going all that well within the party? Again, Johan chuckles. Not at all – it’s simply a matter of not having received enough posters to cover an ever-expanding Colesberg.

Having finally ‘earned the right to retire,’ this will be Johan’s last term in the council, which will run out before the next local government elections in two years’ time. Although they’ve achieved a great deal, he realises there is much more to be done. Indeed, all we hope for in this regard is that the ‘more that still needs to be done’ will prioritise people like Madri and her children.

FEATURED IMAGE: Johan Matthee with DA faithful. Image: eParkeni.

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared on Phakamisa Mayaba’s website, eParkeni. Used with permission.

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