New Executive Mayor Elrick van Aswegen (Elle Photography)
At a Special Council meeting held on 11 of June, long-serving Ward 6 COPE Councillor Elrick ‘Ricky’ van Aswegen was elected as Knysna’s new Executive Mayor.
This ended nine mayorless months for Knysna since Mark Willemse lost the executive position last year after being expelled from the DA Party.
Though van Aswegen’s election to Mayor was thanks to votes from the ANC and KUC councillors, there are many residents who are hoping that the politically well-seasoned ex teacher, who has been involved in Knysna politics since 1993, will make the perfect ‘middle-man’ between the DA and the ANC parties, and get Knysna moving forward in a positive direction. With the wards of Willemse and the recently resigned Peter Myers both awaiting by-elections, currently the DA and the ANC both have eight seats on the council, with COPE, KUC and ACDP each holding one.
In his inaugural Mayoral speech on Monday 15 June, van Aswegen emphasised that getting Knysna back on track as a town would be a major priority.
“A turnaround strategy for our financial woes is vital if we do not want service delivery to be affected. It is, however, important to note that we are not a bankrupt municipality, but are facing serious fiscal challenges.” He went on to say that the 2017 fires, the current COVID-19 crisis and poor financial decision-making had contributed to this situation, and that steps had already been implemented to contain costs and curb spending.
The new mayor also touched on the sensitive subject of corruption.
“Knysna Municipality and Knysna Council are not at the epicentre of corruption. There are appropriate legislation and legal procedures to deal with instances of alleged corruption. Council has instituted action against a number of officials on receipt of allegations. However, it must be noted that these procedures exist to not only punish the persons involved, but to allow those officials who may be falsely accused of corruption to restore their names to dignity. I will ensure that these matters are dealt with swiftly and in a procedurally correct manner.”
Regarding the disastrous effect that the COVID crisis has and will continue to have on tourism, the driving force of Knysna’s economy, the Mayor did not offer any quick-fix.
“We are in for a tough time,” he said “And it will take time to recover.” He added that he had set up a meeting with Provincial Treasury to explore ways they might assist in rebooting Knysna’s fragile economy.
But van Aswegen admitted that his most immediate priority would be to get Council’s approval of the budget for the next financial year. According to legislation this has to be done by the end of June, before the start of the new fiscal year but has not gained a majority vote at the last two council meetings for various reasons. “In light of the Municipality’s financial situation, we urgently need an approved budget so we can get down to business. If we do not, our poorest will become poorer and the town and this municipality will continue to suffer financially. As Executive Mayor, I shall act on my responsibilities and enter into talks with all parties to ensure we approve the Budget in time. We must all consider our responsibilities to our constituents and reach a consensus on this matter by Thursday.”
The Mayor ended his inaugural speech with a vote of thanks for deputy Mayor Aubrey Tsengwa who has been holding the fort for the last nine months, and a warm welcome to the new Acting Municipal Manager Dr Louis Scheepers, who had just begun his tenure.
Mayor van Aswegen will announce his Mayoral Committee in due course.
Asked for his thoughts on the new Mayor, Sedgefield’s Ward 1 DA Councillor Levael Davis was upbeat about the COPE Councillor’s election and wished him well, hoping that he would be the man to focus council members from all parties on a common goal.
“I would like to congratulate Cllr Elrick van Aswegen,” he said, “He has the political experience required to navigate Knysna through this challenging time. One thing I ask is that he does not forget about the value and significance of Sedgefield and that he will address our residents’ concerns. I wish him well.”
Cathy Weideman, Sedgefield’s Ward 2 Councillor did not respond herself, but forwarded comment from Dr Dion George, the DA Constituency Head for Knysna.
“The DA in Knysna congratulates Councillor Ricky van Aswegen, from the COPE on his election as the Executive Mayor of Knysna.
“Cllr van Aswegen and the ANC form the local government in Knysna and the DA will rigorously pursue its role as the official opposition. We assure the people of Knysna that we will be holding Councillor van Aswegen and the ANC to account.
“In our role as the official opposition, we will appoint shadow MMC’s who will closely monitor the performance of their counterparts in government and hold them to the high standards expected of them in service of all of the people of Knysna.”
Knysna also welcomes a new Acting Municipal Manager. Dr Louis Scheepers started on Friday 12 June, only a day after the controversial exit of the previous Acting Municipal Manager, Dr Michele Gratz.
Dr Scheepers has a wealth of experience in local government, beginning in 1992 when he started as a clerk with the then Eden District Municipality. After nine years holding various positions there, he went on to be the Municipal Manager of Saldanha Bay from 2001 to 2006. He later returned to Saldanha to hold the same position there from 2012 to 2016.
Dr Scheepers has also worked for three years as a Unit Manager for the Development Bank of South Africa, and as a consultant to the MEC for Local Governance from 2006 to 2008, during which time he was the administrator of the embattled Oudtshoorn Municipality.
During 2009 he was the Administrator for the Koukamma Municipality in the Eastern Cape.
From January 2017 to October 2018, Dr Scheepers held the position of Executive Director Area-based Service Delivery for the City of Cape Town.
After leaving this post he set up and ran his own consultancy company, the Lemon Tree Group (Pty) Ltd.
The doctor says he has a special connection to Greater Knysna, as prior to the amalgamation of municipalities in the late 90’s he was the secretary to the councils of Brenton on Lake, Brenton on Sea, Belvidere and Rheenendal.
He is currently an Adjunct Professor of the University of Western Cape School of Government.