Athol Trollip: ‘had enough’ versus ‘doing enough’


Athol Trollip: ‘had enough’ versus ‘doing enough’

ANNELIESE BURGESS speaks to ActionSA's chair in the Eastern Cape about the trauma of leaving the DA, his astonishment about what his new party is achieving in the province, the plan for getting the ANC out of government and why he he doesn't see himself as a career politician.


ROLAND Athol Price Trollip is a dyed-in-the-wool Eastern Cape man. From our first engagement on WhatsApp, I feel an immediate shared-roots affinity with him. Maybe it's because he still refers to himself as a farmer, even though he has been in the thick of opposition politics for two decades. Perhaps it's his immediate, direct, no-nonsense, yes-absolutely response when I ask for an interview. Or maybe it's the easy rolling back and forth between English and Afrikaans during our chat that, for me, is so unique to this province where we both grew up and still live.

I remember the day Trollip resigned from the DA. By then, Mmusi Maimane and Herman Mashaba had packed their bags. And if those were deep earth tremors for the party, Trollip's departure was a seismic shift. After all, this was a man who had served the DA at the highest level for decades. When he announced his resignation, he was the party chair. He'd been the mayor of Nelson Mandela Bay. He'd been the leader of the opposition in parliament and the legislature.


“I didn't just wake up one day and decide I'm going to leave the DA," Trollip says.

“It had been my home for so long that to leave was traumatic. Really traumatic. But I had lost my conviction. And my whole political life, I had seen myself as a conviction politician, not a career politician. I remember calling some of my closest colleagues in the Eastern Cape and telling them that I could not, with any conviction, continue to sit at the top table of a self-destructing party. 

“I thought the DA were short-sighted and stupid when they scapegoated Mmusi Maimane for the 2019 election when they went back 1.3 percentage points. In that same election, the ANC, headed by Ramaphosa at the height of his popularity, lost 5.5% in support. I had spent 38 years building up trust in black communities in the Eastern Cape, and with one very bad decision that trust had been destroyed. And once trust is lost, it's lost. I think the DA will still realise that in future elections. Added to that, Zille's return was retrogressive for the party."

Farming again

After leaving the DA, Trollip went back to his farming roots. A fruit exporter contracted him to assist black citrus growers in the Kat River and Keiskamma areas of the Eastern Cape. 

“I spent two incredible years there. In the first year, we managed to increase production by 30% and we mobilised funding from the Land Bank to erase years and years of debt. We were also able to secure a year's crop-production funding of around R180m. Those were beautiful years and I was having the time of my life. I was involved in farming and I could come home on weekends, put my phone down and live like a normal human being. My wife loved it."

Then his old colleague, Mashaba, phoned. “I didn't want to meet him because I knew what was coming," he says. But he got on a plane to Joburg.

Action SA

“After a four-hour meeting, I told him, ‘look, Herman, I think it's a fantastic cause and well done and strength to your arm, but I've had enough'.

“And he looked at me and asked me the most incredible question. ‘I understand you've had enough, but have you done enough?'

“I live in a province that is broken. On every imaginable index, the Eastern Cape comes last. Our youth unemployment is at 70%. Nelson Mandela Bay is the crime capital of the country. And yet the ANC still has the highest support here. I couldn't get Herman's question out of my head."

So he said yes.

Back in politics

“Yeah, so I'm back in politics, and it's exciting. I've been with ActionSA for about 18 months now and I have never experienced anything like this. It took me years and years in the DA to find a connection in the black communities of the province, especially in the platteland. And ActionSA has taken me by complete surprise. We established our first branch in Engcobo in the middle of the Transkei and our second one in Bizana near the KZN border, and now we have branches across the province in the metros and small platteland towns in the deep rural area. It's quite incredible."

“I'm very fortunate to speak Xhosa and Zulu; it makes a huge difference. I don't only speak the language, I have an intrinsic understanding of the idiom and the culture. I grew up speaking Xhosa. I spoke it before I spoke English, and now there is the political dimension. It makes a huge impact. "

“Herman Mashaba is a very strategic, very smart guy. He applies business principles to politics, and the party's slogan [Let's fix South Africa] is what attracted me. His invitation to me was: ‘Help me fix South Africa; help me fix the Eastern Cape.' And what I like about that is that there is no blaming anybody. It just says that we've got a problem and we need to fix it. And through action, we can do that."

Umbilical cord

“It's difficult for people who come from the Western Cape to understand how exasperating it is to live in a province like the Eastern Cape. But that makes my determination even stronger to do something in this province, because the people in the Eastern Cape still vote for the ANC.

“It takes a long time to cut one's political umbilical cord. The ANC is a 111-year-old party. For many people, it's a DNA thing that you support the party your forefathers voted for. And because the ANC was born in the Eastern Cape, I think it will be the last place where that will happen." 

Going for a win

Trollip says if you have spent a lifetime in opposition politics, as he has, you lose the idea that you can win. But that view changed when he was given the opportunity to campaign as the DA mayoral candidate in Nelson Mandela Bay,

“We started our campaign 18 months before the election. I kicked it off by going to 60 wards in 60 days and I ended it by going to 60 wards in 30 days. I knocked on most doors in the city at that time," he says with a laugh.

It paid off. The most significant swing in the party's history was that election's 17 percentage point change. The DA went from 40% to 47% while the ANC went from 51% to 41%.

In the next election, in 2021, after Trollip had left the DA at the end of 2019, the DA went from 47% to 37%.

“They don't talk about that. They don't talk about the fact that they have lost eight municipalities in the Western Cape. And 368 councillors across the country. They chased Maimane away for 2019 but nobody said anything about Zille and Steenhuisen's pathetic election in 2021."

His disillusionment with the DA is apparent, but so is his belief that change can come with intense grassroots work in communities — the work he is doing now with ActionSA.

“There is a fascinating thing that happened in the 2021 election," he says. “About 20-million people, 53% of the electorate, did not vote. Those people were registered and eligible to vote but didn't out of choice. Many people think that's a disaster. I don't, because those are people who are in the political wilderness. They are mainly former ANC supporters who have already cut their umbilical cord with the party and are looking for a viable alternative.

“They're not going to vote for the DA. They had that option for a long time and they didn't take it up. But it is exactly that group of people who can determine regime change overnight in 2024, and that excites me enormously."


Of course coalitions can work, he says. “They worked in Johannesburg under Herman Mashaba. They worked in Cape Town under Zille when she first became mayor. They work all over the world. We are just getting used to them here in South Africa. Of course there are many examples of failure and conflict, but I am grateful that we have had the opportunity to trial it at local government level so that we aren't fooling around at  national level in 2024.

“Coalitions require extraordinary leadership from people who can park their egos outside the room. And there are a couple of fundamentals that have to be followed. First of all, you must align with people with similar values. And you've got to have an agreement that is signed in blood. The consequences must be that if you vote against the coalition or do something that makes the coalition vulnerable, you will be expelled from the coalition — you and all the people participating. And it has to be a public document, so the public can assess who's responsible for causing the chaos. And I think we've also now learned, by and large, who is trustworthy and who isn't."

Real issues

But for Trollip, the connection between a political party and the voter goes much deeper. 

“We cannot make progress until all South Africans accept that we have a difficult history and that we have to address that history," he says. 

This is the “conviction politician" in him speaking.

“Some political parties believe you can exist in South Africa by being colour-blind. But we can't, for instance, be blind to the fact that black people live on the periphery of cities and that spatial apartheid is a reality. Black people spend up to 50% of their disposable income on transport. If you had to spend 45% of your disposable income getting to work, you would have two options: get another job, or move. Poor South Africans don't have that option, so we need to address all these historical realities.

“We can only do that if we start rebuilding global respect for South Africa. There was a time when the world was in awe of us and wanted to do business with us. Over the last 28 years, we've lost all that respect and credibility, and nobody wants to invest in South Africa because they're not sure whether we can keep the lights on. Or provide fresh potable water. Or that the police will come if you call them. Or that you won't die in a hospital if an ambulance eventually gets you there. Political parties working together in a new government must address all of these things before we can start discussing the future."

Then there is education, which gets him hot under the collar. 

“If there is one good reason for the electorate to punish the ANC, it should be the state of education.

“We spend more on education than any other developing nation in the world, yet we have the worst outcomes. And we have a president who does a lot of breast-beating about having 28-million South Africans depending on social grants. That tells you everything you need to know about the ANC.

“I don't believe the state of education happened by chance; I think it happened by design. We have a government that is so inept that the only way they can control the electorate is by manipulating them into poverty. And if you destroy education, you will ensure poverty and dependency.

“Better education for our children is not possible under the ANC because the ANC is an alliance with the trade unions, and they have brought trade unionism into the classroom where it doesn't belong. Sadtu [the SA Democratic Teachers Union] does not want inspectors in the classroom because they are not committed to education. And the ANC cannot do anything about this because they are caught up in this alliance with trade unions and communists. Their connection with these two nefarious organisations is taking South Africa down the toilet."

Pie in the sky

Trollip is convinced  the ANC will dip below 50% in the next election. 

“Look at the numbers, the trends, look at what's happening in by-elections, and also at the fact that the ANC has less access to money than it's ever had. In the past, it could always rob the public purse to run it campaigns, but now the public purse has been sucked dry and more and more eyes are watching them."

The challenge is not getting the ANC below 50% but getting it closer to 40%, he says, because otherwise it will be able to go into a coalition with one or two other parties to retain power.  

“That is why ActionSA has been so outspoken in this moonshot coalition discussion. Unless we invite enough people and political parties to come to this convention to get us past 51%, this will be a meaningless country-club discussion and change in 2024 will remain pie in the sky. That is the big issue facing South Africa now. You can't have the second biggest party in the country leading coalition discussions if they are on the record as saying they are keeping the front door and the back door open for what Zille and Steenhuisen refer to as ‘other alternatives'.

“Of course, one of the greatest fears is that the ANC and the EFF get together to form a government, but we've already seen their relationship suffer in Johannesburg, Ekurhuleni and other places. They are too similar, and I think they despise each other.

“The EFF has shown itself to be the most venal political party. It has flip-flopped on almost every single position it's ever had. I experienced that personally in Nelson Mandela Bay where we had a cooperation agreement with them; in a few months, they were already voting against us. But there is another weakness of the EFF, and that is that Julius Malema is a dictator. Political parties run by dictators do not last. I think they've reached a ceiling. If you look at their performance in the last 10 years, they've hit a plateau. Their performance in recent by-elections has been really, really poor."

The future

As he did when he ran as the DA mayoral candidate in Nelson Mandela Bay, Trollip says he will throw everything he has into ActionSA's 2024 election campaign. “I love this country, I love this province, and we desperately need change.

“I committed to lead this province, build up the structures and contest the 2024 election effectively. And after that, we must find somebody else. When politicians stay beyond their sell-by date, it becomes more destructive than constructive.

“One of the big problems in this country is that we have ministers that will die in the harness. Some of them are already dead but are still ministers. Like Angie Motshekga. As the minister of education, she has presided over the destruction of our education system for 15 years. She should have retired or been fired a long time ago. Others are Blade Nzimande, Gwede Mantashe and Naledi Pandor. They are all well past their sell-by date.

“I told Herman I would commit to another five years after 2024 to help wherever needed. But then I want to retire. Hopefully, our political landscape will be different by then and we will be on our way to fixing South Africa."

♦ VWB ♦

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