Spotlight on: Benedicta van Minnen

Councillor Benedicta van Minnen.

Economic growth, employment opportunities, housing and service delivery – these are the issues in this year’s local government election, according to Benedicta van Minnen, DA Mayco member for human settlements at the City of Cape Town.

The election will be held on Wednesday August 3.

Ms Van Minnen entered politics in 1991, when she successfully stood for the student representative council (SRC) at UCT, and constituted the first non-racial SRC.

“It proved to be quite a challenging year during a transitional time, with a workers’ strike that resulted in quite a lot of violence on campus,” she told Bolander last week.

“#RhodesMustFall are really not protesting about anything new, and it worries me deeply that they give no credit to students’ struggles of the past, and seem to have a very limited sense of student political history.

“But then, it is the prerogative of all student activists to see themselves as the ones who invented student politics.”

But Ms Van Minnen’s political awakening happened even further back in time, to the referendum on the Tri-cameral Parliament in 1983, when she was in Standard 5 (Grade 7).

She recalled her frustration at her contemporaries’ lack of interest in politics.

“I remember the incredible frustration I would have at school that no one else seemed to care about what was going on politically – a girl in my class when I was in about Standard 7, saying: ‘But why do you care? You can’t change anything.’ I have always held the view that I can change things, and refuse to accept apathy.”

University politics followed, with a focus on the End Conscription Campaign, so a move into politics was a natural progression.

First elected ward councillor (Ward 15, Somerset West) in May 2011, Ms Van Minnen has served on the portfolio committee for safety and security, on the civilian oversight committee in the same capacity, and served on the municipal public accounts committee.

She became Mayco member for health in 2014, and was moved to human settlements in 2015. Initially a ward councillor, Ms Van Minnen will stand as a proportional representation (PR) councillor on Wednesday August 3, in accordance with DA policy, which prefers full-time councillors on the PR list, since their commitments mean they do not have sufficient time to spend on ward matters.

An out-of-the-box thinker, who doesn’t take “No” for an answer, Ms Van Minnen has earned the reputation as a “fixer upper” – which some say prompted her move to human settlements, a portfolio seen by many as a poisoned chalice. “It is important not to allow yourself to be overwhelmed by the potential pitfalls,” she said.

However, at the end of the day, delivery remains the same and one must focus on delivering the product, she said, adding that she works with very good officials who are also committed to delivery.

“I also have a very good team around me who have moved with me and who have become very flexible, which is important, because we don’t always know what challenges we will face.”

Unafraid of hard work, and inclined to “walk the talk”, Ms Van Minnen has embraced the challenges of her portfolio.

She said: “I have spent many a night in some very interesting parts of the city actually addressing what people are experiencing, be it residents or City staff, and that gives me incredible respect for human resilience. You have to be prepared to get out of your comfort zone, and actually need to seek out the difficult, the challenging and the uncomfortable.

“I tend to question everything and refuse to accept that things are done in a certain way because it is accepted practice.”

Being a politician means you’ll attract criticism, but Ms Van Minnen doesn’t take it personally.

“Most of it is not personal, so I tend to see it in its political context, and then, unless it adds value, to ignore it. If you are confident in what your department is doing, and the goals you have set yourself, then much of the criticism is just white noise, particularly on social media,” she said.

“You do, of course, get a certain amount of targeted personal criticism, but unless it is constructive, it tends to reflect a great deal more on the person criticising you than on anything else.

“One also needs to understand that some criticism is borne out of frustration with a person’s situation, so one needs to understand context,” she said.

Something of a poster child for powerful, confident women, Ms Van Minnen has earned this reputation through her work ethic. She feels strongly that a “someone must do something attitude” achieves nothing, preferring to get on with it, and do something herself.

“I have no time for sitting on the side-lines. I tend to step into the arena because unless I’m prepared to do it myself, I can’t expect anyone else to do it,” she said.

“If that example can get other women to step forward, then I have achieved something. The fact that we currently have so many strong female leaders in politics is inspiring. It’s a trend I hope continues, as it presents positive role models to young women, and shows they can achieve their goals.

“I have been privileged to meet and work with strong women, not just politically, but in many spheres, from policing, to law, health and human settlements, who give me ongoing inspiration.”

Ms Van Minnen concluded with the following thought about the future and what is needed to make Cape Town a winning City.

“We really need to focus on empowerment in the next term to strengthen the ability of people to access opportunities, and then to have the capacity to be able to take advantage of those opportunities.”

* Next week Bolander will feature Xolani Sotashe, ANC mayoral candidate, in Spotlight on the elections.