Good doctor brings healing to the City of Gold
Share this article:
There's a new sheriff in town, and her name is Dr Mpho Phalatse. The newly elected Joburg mayor's election made history on its own, with Phalatse being the first woman to don the mayoral chain in the City of Gold. But she is not about to let those who came before her dictate the rules of engagement.
Sitting on a two-seater couch in a corner of what looked to have been a busy boardroom with chairs positioned as though people had just gotten off them in a hurry, Phalatse, who rose to the highest seat in the city on a DA ticket, this week opened up to the Sunday Independent about where she comes from and where she's going.
Wearing a navy blue suit with a floral touch and a neatly tucked-in white golf shirt, she crossed her legs as she was adjusting herself to sit comfortably, and in the process she exposed her dark blue loafers that completed her elegant look.
Like a typical Joburger on the move, she had a foam pack filled with a Greek salad in one hand and a plastic fork in the other. With a smile, she politely asked for the interview to proceed as she tucked into her salad, explaining that she was famished and had just come out of an impromptu meeting.
"I guess we will have to multitask. I've had quite a busy day and I haven't had time to eat anything yet," she said, letting out a soft chuckle accompanied by a smile.
As the first woman to lead the country's economic hub, Phalatse is adding a feminine touch to the often abrasive levers of power. She says she is all about making a difference and changing the lives of Joburg residents.
One of the aces that she has up her sleeve as mayor is opening a day-care centre for working mothers at the municipality. She says being a single mother herself, she understands the challenges that these women go through.
"I want to give a gift to working moms. As the first woman mayor, I feel like I understand the plight of working mothers. I already asked the chief of staff in this office to check if there's a day-care centre for working moms. I'd love to give it to them; I tested it (day-care idea) with the lady that is helping me with PA services at the moment. She almost cried (when she first heard the idea), she was so excited and immediately I got goosebumps," said the mother of three.
The 44-year-old Phalatse's story, like that of many other South Africans, began in a township. She was born in Ga-Rankuwa hospital, which has since been renamed Dr George Mukhari Academic Hospital.
She is the only daughter born to Komane (father) and Moserwa (mother) Phalatse. She and her parents lived with her grandmother in Hebron before moving to Mabopane, north of Pretoria. Interestingly, Phalatse started elementary school at the tender age of four .
“My parents moved out and I joined them when I started Grade 1. I had just turned four in November and there were no crèches where they stayed. My mother went in and negotiated with the school. She told them that I was staying with my grandmother and she now wanted me to stay with them.
"She asked the school if I could come and do Grade 1, and as a concession, she said I could repeat the grade the following year. That was the agreement. But I got there and came out top of my class, so they couldn't make me repeat and I had to carry on (and move to the next grade)," she said.
Outside the loneliness of being the only child and having to learn to hold serious academic conversations at an early age, as a result of being born to parents who were both teachers, Phalatse said she loved how simple things were when she was a child in the dusty streets of Mabopane.
"I loved it (growing up in the township) and I miss it in so many ways. That is why I love going to Soweto and Alex, because a lot of times I miss the township vibe. (Growing up) I had a bicycle that had a little basket and my parents would send me to the shops to buy bread, I would put it (bread) in the basket and ride my BMX home.
"Life has changed so much since then. I would not feel safe now to send my children to the shops alone. The other thing I enjoyed most was ’mopapaiso’ (playing house), that was so much fun," she reminisced.
After completing her high school education at Loreto Convent School in Pretoria, she buried herself in her books, music and church, where she served as a youth leader. This was a way to escape being a social misfit, having grown up as an only child who was always surrounded by older people.
She was also a soloist and composer for the church choir. This allowed her to spend more time with her father, who was also the choir conductor. This inspired her to learn how to hit a note or two on a piano and guitar.
“I was inspired a lot by my dad, he was a musician. He couldn't sing, he couldn't hold a note, but he was a choir conductor and he was good at it. He used the melodica to show the choir which note to hit. He would take me to choir competitions sometimes,” she said with a proud smile.
Phalatse said she was also exposed to a lot of jazz music and she fell in love with Ella Fitzgerald, her favourite artist.
Career-wise, she was first influenced by her guidance teacher Mrs Tamma’s husband to study engineering.
“I could see her husband was well-to-do. One day I asked her what the husband did for a living. When she said her husband was a chemical engineer and owned his own company where he made chemicals for swimming pools, I think it was in Grade 11, I said okay, I want to do that course.”
A year into the course she realised that she had made a huge mistake. Upon her realisation, she did everything in her power to make her parents see reason and allow her to change courses. While still struggling with which career path to choose, even after she had undergone career guidance where they told her she had great people skills, a family friend who was a lecturer at Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University (SMU) came to her rescue and advised that she give medicine a thought.
She enrolled at SMU in 1997 and graduated in 2005. Phalatse said that she always knew that she wanted to make a difference in people's lives, but politics was the last thing on her mind. She said that while in varsity she found politics "weird" until a later stage.
After medical school and completing her community service at Tembisa Hospital, she registered her own business in which she rendered disability consultation services in Gauteng and North West. She worked closely with the South African Social Security Agency (Sassa).
Her transition into politics came while she was working at Alexandra hospital in 2016. Not impressed with the conditions that patients were exposed to, she vowed to take a stand.
"Alexandra is where the transition to politics took place because I got very angry while I saw the people of Alex who ended up in our casualty ward… I joined the dots very quickly that it was as a result of the living conditions; you know, the level of aggression, the violence, and frustration and anger of the people. I got angry myself.
“I started writing to people of influence. One of these people was a friend of mine who was a member of Parliament. I asked why the government allowed people to live like this. I needed someone to blame then. In response, he asked me if I ever thought of becoming a city councillor," she said.
And just like that, her political journey started. She later served as MMC of Health in Joburg from 2016 to 2019. But she said she still struggles with identifying herself as a politician because she is more about changing lives than politics.
While she understands the magnitude of responsibilities that await her, Phalatse said that the mayorship is the best tool she has to achieve the change and difference she seeks to make. She wants to be remembered for more than just being the first woman mayor. She wants to leave a meaningful legacy when her tenure comes to an end.
"We are going to be responding to the needs on the ground, and people are asking for restoration of functionality, normality and basic service delivery. It's unacceptable in the economic hub of the country for people not to have electricity and water. I want to restore pride in being a Joburger, and not want to go anywhere else. That's what I want to be remembered for.”