Personalities are not always decisive in politics, but they are often extremely influential.
Not enough has been made of the role of Athol Trollip — the mayoral candidate and leader of the DA’s campaign in Nelson Mandela Bay — in the party’s election battle in Port Elizabeth.
Trollip is a farmer with deep local roots and broad experience of politics. He served his time in the DA structures, and he is not from the old progressive “white madams” party of the leafy northern suburbs (Johannesburg) and southern suburbs (Cape Town).
Trollip became a municipal councillor in 1995 for the Democratic Party (now the DA), then served in the Eastern Cape provincial assembly for 10 years, after which he spent a period as an MP in Cape Town when he was elected parliamentary leader. Having returned to the Eastern Cape, he began campaigning in earnest more than a year before the 2016 polls.
His ability to speak fluent and idiomatic Xhosa to the voters, his relentless slog on the ground tramping the townships and the hard backroom work in party structures all must have impressed voters beyond the traditional DA wards.
By contrast, his ANC opponent, Danny Jordaan, has local roots but was only parachuted back in as mayor after 20 years of involvement (latterly, scandal-tainted) in football. Voters were clearly not impressed by Jordaan.
Trollip sounds like a practical man with an appetite for the detail of local politics and an acute awareness that a DA administration in Motherwell township, no less than in Port Elizabeth, must show early and visible progress.
A few years ago, it was unthinkable that a white man could be mayor of Nelson Mandela Bay, the leading metro in the province that nurtured a generation of ANC leaders. Now, given the campaign Trollip has fought, it seems almost logical.
But perhaps this election illustrates that, despite the race ructions we’ve seen of late, race is less important than making a difference on the ground.