Democratic Alliance (DA) mayoral candidate for Nelson Mandela Bay, Athol Trollip, is a man who started speaking isiXhosa perhaps even before he started speaking in his own mother tongue of English.
But such are the paradoxes of South Africa and its politics, that while some see the idea of a white man fluent in an indigenous African language as liberating, others regard it as patronising, with the rival African National Congress (ANC) going so far as to call it “deception” and warning voters not to fall for its charms.
Trollip, for his part, believes the best way to show respect to anyone is to try and speak their language, and he has since also become fluent in Afrikaans and has no problem in conversing and understanding Zulu.
But it is the language of politics which has taken centre stage in recent weeks as the build-up to the Local Government elections on August 3 gathers steam.
Trollip is leading the DA’s charge to unseat the ANC in the Nelson Mandela Bay metro – the metro which most analysts and purveyors of politics believe will be the most closely contested of all the major urban centres, and one which the DA sees as key to stripping the ANC of its hold on power since the birth of democracy in 1994.
Trollip was born in Bedford in the central heartlands of the Eastern Cape and grew up on a family farm in an “opposition” and an “anti-apartheid” orientated home with his two sisters and parents, Douglas and Kathrine.
As he goes back to his childhood years he recalls growing up alongside the Xhosa community and playing childhood games of cowboys and Indians, and building forts with the children who later became his best friends.
“I remember as a young child going to the initiation huts, we would take food to them as young boys. Later when my friends went for initiation I would visit them in their huts, so I grew up very close to the Xhosa community and Xhosa culture which was amazing, I had made permanent friends,” he told African News Agency (ANA) in an interview this week.
“I spoke Xhosa before I spoke English, or simultaneously, because those were my friends, I had a lady who carried me on her back and took care of me on a daily basis,” he said.
During his younger years he attended a local convent school and then later attended the Woodridge College boarding school.
He briefly attended the University of Pietermaritzburg in neighbouring KwaZulu-Natal where he became involved in white student protest politics. It was here, he said, that his passion for politics manifested. His stint at tertiary education was however short-lived and he soon left to pursue a path in farming.
With deep family roots in the farming industry, Trollip would go on to work in Australia, New Zealand and Scotland in an attempt to learn about new farming and animal breeding methods.
He had always wanted to be a farmer, but that part of his life ended when he finally sold the sixth-generation family farm to immerse himself in the world of politics and service to the community.
The ANC have taken to calling Trollip a failed farmer. The DA, for their part, has labelled mayoral rival Jordaan of the ANC a failed teacher. Clearly, neither party thinks the other one’s candidate is qualified to lead a metro with a multi-billion rand budget. But such is politics.
Trollip now lives in Port Elizabeth’s urbanised and renewed suburb of Richmond Hill and says his real connection is to the whole Eastern Cape.
“My real connection is in the Eastern Cape because I don’t live in Bedford anymore. My real passion is for this province and for the people of this province and for the prospects for the future of this country and the Eastern Cape,” he said.
But it would be his community involvement in Bedford which played a role in his transition into local government. Starting at grassroots levels, in 1995 he stood as a candidate for the local government elections and was elected on the executive to the Amatole District Municipality.
“I was the only non-ANC on the executive in Amatole, the ANC actually put me there. It was an amazing time because in the formative years the ANC was never in government and were happy to cooperate with people who could assist, it was a wonderful time because it didn’t feel like there was a war between the DP (Democratic Party) and the ANC, we held hands together to try and address something.
“Nowadays, it’s unfortunate but it’s a lot more divided.”
He thinks of himself as an extrovert at heart and loves people, but being constantly on the campaign trail means there is no longer time for his love of horse riding and playing golf. His latest passion is mountain biking as it comes with the bonus of experiencing the outdoors and nature.
He adds that when he is not working, it keeps him “sane” to have a group of friends who are not involved in politics and to be with people who love and respect him for who he is and now what he is.
Trollip puts his children, Roland and Kate, on a pedestal as his proudest achievements in life, although he admits that family time is an area that he has neglected.
“If you give your time to public service you have to sacrifice somewhere,” he said. “I had to sacrifice a lot of family time but I was blessed that my children came out unscathed.”
Later this year in November Trollip is expected to tie the knot with his fiancee, Janine Handley. This will be his second marriage.
Looking forwards to the local government elections, he believes that the DA will win Nelson Mandela Bay and takes the stance that the ANC have become arrogant on “counting on the lifelong commitment of the struggle of black African people”.
He says the ANC has taken the struggle for freedom for granted and have become “self-serving”.
Recently the opposition DA came under fire for using former president and ANC icon Nelson Mandela’s voice in a campaign advert.
Trollip, however, dismissed the backlash as “absurd” and a further indication that the ruling party was “paranoid”.
“In all other African countries led out of colonialism and oppression, the liberation fathers and mothers in rare cases, have been revered by the whole country,” he argued. “But in South Africa, the ANC doesn’t want anyone other than the ANC to revere and respect Nelson Mandela.
“So if people quote what Nelson Mandela said or lived by, his values, surely that’s out of respect and recognition…who on earth gives the ANC the sole preserve of Nelson Mandela? Yes he was an ANC member, yes he went to jail for the ANC, but when he became the president of South African, he became our president.”
The “he became our president” is the DA party line as it defends its usage of Madiba imagery in its election material.
Trollip further slammed Mandela’s grandson Mandla Mandela as being puerile for speaking out against the DA advert.
“Mandla Mandela is not Nelson Mandela, he doesn’t have any of the gravitas his grandfather had. I think he is being puerile. (Nelson) Mandela is a hero, he is a hero all over the world and people should understand that, especially those closest to him. Democracy means free to choose, free to quote your president, free to give people options to weigh up,” he said.
The DA in Nelson Mandela Bay have been labelled by the ANC as a party of noise-makers who have no actual plan.
Trollip, however, sings the good old Cape Town song in saying: “Where the DA govern, we govern well”, and that was, he said, according to every rating agency nationally and internationally, and the Auditor General.
“Nine of the top ten municipalities are DA run. In the metros we do run, people have the highest access to service delivery, water, sanitation and electricity and public transport. Jordaan is a mayor of a municipality that has some of the worst indexes and highest proportion of irregular and wasteful expenditure.”
He further said that none of Jordaan’s promises as mayor had materialised since the start of his term in office.
“Mr Jordaan represents a party that has no plan, he has made a number of promises that have not come to fruition, his is an administration of smoke and mirrors,” said Trollip.
And although the DA is aiming on an outright win in Nelson Mandela Bay, the party is prepared to form a coalition if needs be after the election, but only on the basis that partners are prepared to implement DA policies and adhere to the party values.
Trollip, who often has people eating out of his hand once he begins speaking isiXhosa, finds it patronising that the ANC calls it a deceptive tactic.
“I didn’t learn Xhosa, I suckled it. You can say so metaphorically, but it was something that came naturally because of the way I was brought up. I admire the fact that most African people can speak English, but very few white people in South Africa can speak Xhosa.”
Looking at history’s greats, Trollip speaks in admiration of Abraham Lincoln who became a revered president of the United States despite tremendous odds.
“He was up against much more favourable candidates and when he won, he included all those candidates in his Cabinet,” Trollip said. “He also had the courage and conviction to stand up against slavery at a time it was not popular to do so.”
Some of Trollip’s critics have cited his heritage and history, portraying him as the “racist white farmer”.
But if anything, Trollip is proud and owns every bit of his background, and in some ways draws on the parallels between the two worlds, where in farming one grows seeds, nurtures and cultivates the land, and now in politics he is aiming to “nurture” and serve the people.