A Self Indulgent Interview with Helen Zille, Mayor of Cape Town, South Africa

I won’t interview just anyone. I’m Mike Barish, after all. I like to speak with dynamic, interesting, foward-thinking people who fascinate me. In the past, I interviewed Mike Lee, head of one of the country’s most exciting and up-and-coming underground eating clubs.

This time around, I scored a major coup. Well, maybe coup isn’t the right word given the position of my subject. I had the great honor of interviewing Helen Zille, the mayor of Cape Town, South Africa. Ms. Zille was named 2008 World Mayor, which is essentially the International Mayor of the Year award. And GOOD magazine ranked her number one on their list of the most innovative and effective civic leaders in the world.

South Africa stands out as an example of positive development on the African continent. And in 2010, South Africa will become the first African nation to host the World Cup.

Mayor Zille was kind enough to indulge me and I found her to be honest, frank and quite humorous.

You have been the mayor of Cape Town for over two years. In that time, what changes are you most proud of?

In such a short time it is not possible to complete any major projects, but I am very happy with the progress we have made in our preparations for 2010 [for the World Cup]. Some people never believed we could get our new 68,000 seat stadium ready on time [photo at right], especially given all the legal, geological and financial complications around the site. But we are on schedule now, and that is something to celebrate. I am also happy that we have been able to clean up the City’s supply chain management department and other key areas of financial management. There were a lot of problems with corruption that we have now addressed. Then there is the increase in delivery capacity that we have achieved by introducing a new organisational structure for the City’s 22,000 staff, which was a major achievement. We filled 2,800 vacancies and introduced a whole new set of reporting lines and management structures to ensure greater efficiency. And we have accelerated the rate at which we have been able to deliver services, having tripled our investments in capital projects from R1 billion [approximately $107.2 million] per year on average between 2002 and 2006 to R3.2 billion [approximately $343 million] in the past year. This means more public projects and infrastructure to help Cape Town grow as a world city. It also means improved services to the poor, like an increase in subsidised housing opportunities for the poor from an average of 3,000 per year between 2002 and 2006 to 7,000 in the past year. All of these things indicate greatly improved efficiency and productivity in the City.

The 2010 World Cup is rapidly approaching and South Africa will be the first African nation to host the event. How are the preparations coming along?

As I have mentioned above, we are on schedule. But it remains a very challenging project.

Any advice for travelers making their way to Cape Town specifically for the World Cup?

Make sure you leave lots of spare time to explore Cape Town. There is a lot to see and do here and you don’t want to miss out. And invest in a Vuvuzela if you want a uniquely South African soccer souvenir.

Cape Town came in third place when it bid on hosting the 2004 Summer Olympics. Does Cape Town still have Olympic aspirations and will you make a bid for the 2020 Games?

With a new stadium and improved public transport we would certainly be better placed to do it than we were in the 2004 bid. But let’s first see how the World Cup goes!

Earlier this year you received the 2008 World Mayor Award. Why do you think you won?

I was very surprised to win the award, and naturally I was thrilled. I believe that I won because of the great team I have working with me in my office, in the City of Cape Town administration, at home, and in parliament. These kinds of awards are never solo achievements.

Did you get a trophy or plaque that you make everyone look at when they visit you? Maybe a medal that you always wear around your neck?

I received a very uniquely designed metal trophy, which we have on display in the mayor’s office. But I definitely don’t make anyone look at it.

If you were giving a tour of Cape Town to your new best friend (let’s call him Mike Barish), what are the top five places that you would show him?

It really depends what my new best friend finds interesting. We haven’t known each other long so I can’t really say! But if you forced me to choose for you, I would have to say Cape Point, Table Mountain [photo at right], Table Bay (including the V&A Waterfront and Robben Island), and some local performances. This time of year I would take you to watch the Minstrels perform on the Grand Parade – about 20,000 take to the street in parades that include incredible costumes and a whole range of musical instruments. I would show you the different sides of Cape Town so that you could come to understand some of the history, culture and economics of Cape Town, so I would include a visit to the Muslim area of Bo Kaap, the cosmopolitan and highly developed Atlantic seaboard, and the communities of Khayelitsha and the Cape Flats.

I love street food and I hear that the Gatsby is the best street dish in Cape Town. What do you like on your Gatsby?

I actually prefer salomies – and I like a good lamb or chicken curry on mine. A Gatsby is a huge roll with chips and other things on it like pieces of chicken or steak. A salomi is a Cape Malay flat bread rolled around a curry filling.

People often have concerns about crime in Cape Town. What have you done to ensure the safety of both residents and travelers in your city?

We have built partnerships with businesses and the police in most of the major commercial and tourist areas in Cape Town to boost street patrols and keep these areas safer. We are now building similar partnerships with neighbourhood watches to curb crime in residential areas. The City has a very small police force. The main policing function, as well as the criminal justice system, falls under the national government. That system needs a serious overhaul in South Africa.

Many airlines charge passengers to check luggage, so it’s cheaper to just bring one carry-on bag. That means you have to pack lightly. What would you recommend travelers pack in just one bag to help them enjoy a visit to South Africa?

My recommendation is don’t bring anything, just money. Then you can buy some proudly South African clothes when you get here! But seriously, it is not as bad as that! In my experience most airlines allow you a certain weight before they start charging. It is usually about 20kg per person, and then an extra 5kg carry-on luggage. If you are limited, I would say that in summer make sure you bring some swimwear, shorts and t-shirts, and a hat, because it gets pretty hot in Cape Town between December and May. But always bring an umbrella and some warm clothes, because once in a while we get hit by cold wet days, even in mid-summer. Cape Town’s weather is very changeable, and we can also get wonderful hot days in winter too, so bear that in mind if you are coming to the 2010 Soccer World Cup.

Do you get to take much time off? Where did you go on your last vacation?

Normally no, but I am happy to say I just had a two week break in the Eastern Cape with my family, which has been my first real holiday since becoming mayor nearly 3 years ago. We went to Keurbooms River, which is a forested coastal area near Plettenberg Bay on the Garden Route. It is a great place to relax and enjoy some peace and scenery.

What place in the world that you have yet to visit would you most like go to?

There are so many I can’t limit it to one. I would like to visit South America, and see cities like Bogotá in Columbia. Bogotá was able to overcome many of the similar developmental challenges to those which we currently face in Cape Town, especially around crime and urban decay. I would really enjoy learning more about how they did it.

Back in April of 2008, you were in New York to address the United Nations. Did you have a chance to do any sightseeing while you were here? What were your favorite places?

I didn’t have much time to do sightseeing, but I was very happy to see the UN headquarters, which is definitely one of the sights I would have wanted to see anyway.

As I am sure you know, America’s economy is not doing so well, so I have had to start traveling on a much tighter budget. When I come to visit Cape Town, do you think I could sleep on your couch?

You would have to fight with my sons’ friends for the space.

Many thanks to Mayor Zille for her time and graciousness. Special thanks, as well, to Robert Macdonald, Spokesperson for the Mayor of Cape Town, for his efforts in coordinating this interview.