The Lord Mayor of London: SA Ties and Zulu dancers

Susan Miller spoke to new Lord Mayor Michael Bear, a 'Witsie' graduate who learnt about working with local communities in Joburg. Sworn in on November 12, Alderman Bear invited a troupe of Zulu dancers, members of the touring Mighty Zulu Nation Theatre Company to play a part in his ceremony - as a celebration of his South African-ess.

The  Lord Mayor of London is amazingly relaxed – and interesting. Images of golden carriages flash through my mind but Alderman Bear laughs and says the role is more serious – promoting the City of London and good works too.

South Africa first ... when were you at Wits University?
From 1970 to 1974 – I went to the Civil Engineering Faculty at Wits and did the four-year civil engineering degree.

What are your memories?
It was difficult – especially coming from a liberal boarding school [in Bristol]. I spent all of my non-studying time with the South African Voluntary Service – we used to go out to the homelands and Lesotho, Botswana and Swaziland building schools and classrooms and health clinics.

Why did you leave SA?

It was too restrictive. I never really assimilated, if that’s the word, coming from England during apartheid.

After working in and out of the UK for Balfour Beatty, among others, Alderman Bear successfully concluded the 20-year Spitalfields development, as chief executive of the Spitalfields Development Group.

What should one call the Lord Mayor?
The Right Honourable The Lord Mayor and most people would refer to the Lord Mayor as my Lord Mayor.

How does it work?
The Square Mile, which is the City, is our domain – EC1 to 4. It has 25 wards – each ward elects one alderman and councilmen. I started off as a councilman in the Portsoken ward. Only 10 000 people live in the City, but 350 000 commute in every day.

And becoming Lord Mayor?
In order to be an alderman you must be a lay magistrate. Then you have to have served the office of Sheriff – I was elected as a Sheriff in the City of London three years ago and I lived in the Old Bailey and looked after the judges and the Criminal Court...

You lived in the Old Bailey?

Yes, you reside in apartments – on the right side of the cells (laughs)...My family (his wife is fellow Wits graduate Barbara Sandler), came with me ...

What are you hopes for your tenure?
My vision is City ofLondon, City of Choice because we have to be the city of choice for business. There are five criteria: availability of skills (the immigration cap is not helpful); our regulatory environment; our infrastructure; our access to international markets (our time zone is perfect as we fall between the States and the Far East); and ‘the cluster’ – accountants, lawyers, financiers – within walking distance....Capital is moving from West to East and we need to be a part of that.

And what is your relationship wtih the Mayor of London?
The offices work closely together. He’s the strategic Mayor for 33 boroughs. I made a word for what he is responsible for: Teflon...T for Transport, E for Economic development, F for fire and emergency, L – for lPlanning (I cheated), O for the Olympic Games and N for (I cheated again) nEnvironment. He has limited revenue raising powers. We make money, he spends it (laughs).

What is the City?
We are a business City. We run the services – we have 400 or 500 police officers to tackle economic crime and security.

And your office’s history?
In 1215 King John 1 allowed the City of London to elect a Lord Mayor – on condition that he shows himself to the people once a year. This is the Lord Mayor’s show.

Is that when the coach comes in?
That’s right.

When is that?
It is always the second Saturday of November – the Friday before that I am signed in during the ‘Silent Ceremony’– aside from me saying my name – …I get the gold-linked Collar of Esses (chain) which dates back to the 14th Century and the Lord Mayor’s badge, which is 250-years old with 250 diamonds.

Is your role still relevant?
Some people think the Lord Mayor spends all his time in tights riding around in his coach but that’s less than 5% of my time. During my year I will make 700 speeches, visit 23 countries and host a president or head of state once a month and a trade minister or financial minister once a week.

Do you ever visit South Africa?
We wanted our children to know their background. We go almost every year.

■ Born in Nairobi in 1953 to South Africans, Alderman Bear grew up in Cyprus and was educated at Bristol’s Clifton College.
■ He studied Civil Engineering at Wits University from 1970 to 1974 and then completed an MBA at Cranfield University, UK.
■ Over the past 33 years he has worked in the international construction industry – including in China and West Africa for Balfour Beatty.
■ In the City he was Chief Executive of the Spitalfields Development Group.
■ He is Regeneration Director at Hammerson plc and a non-executive director of Arup.
■ Since 1993 he has been MD at  Balfour Beatty Property Ltd.
■ He served on the Court of Common Council as Member, Deputy and Alderman for Portsoken.
■ He serves on the Courts of
the Paviors’ Company and the Chartered Surveyors’ Company.
● This year’s Lord Mayor’s Appeal ‘Bear Necessities – Building Better Lives’ supports Coram, the UK’s first ever children’s charity and RedR, a charity that trains and provides engineers for worldwide disasters.