South Africa

Analysis: Tlokwe’s merry-go-round

By Paul Berkowitz 4 July 2013

On Monday the Tlokwe (Potchefstroom) municipality passed a vote of no confidence in mayor Andrew ‘Maphetle’ Maphetle, and once more voted in DA's Annette Combrink as the mayor. Maphetle is an ANC councillor in a ANC-dominated (30 out of 52 seats) council. This is the second time that this motion has been passed: the mayorship has passed from Maphetle to Combrink, back to Maphetle and now back to Combrink. Will the DA hold the council this time, and is that even their primary goal? By PAUL BERKOWITZ.

The municipality of Tlokwe is on the eastern border of the North-West province. It shares half of its northern border with Gauteng and almost its entire southern border with the Free State. It used to be known as Potchefstroom, named for its biggest city. Potchefstroom was one of the very first Voortrekker settlements in the former Transvaal, and was definitely the first to grow into an established city. It was the first capital of the Zuid Afrikaanse Republiek, in 1848, and only lost that title to Pretoria in 1860.

Potchefstroom never regained the political power it had once held, but instead refocused its ambitions and became a centre of Afrikaner culture and education. Even now, 175 years after its founding, it remains a place of significance for Afrikaners. Whites still make up 27% of the population, against a national average of about 9%.

The ANC have run the municipality of Potchefstroom since 2000. The ANC’s majority in council was sustained through the name-change in 2007 and continued through the 2011 elections, but under slightly reduced circumstances. The ANC’s share of the vote fell below 60% for the first time, while the DA’s share rose to 37%.

In council seat terms, the ANC won 30 of the 52 seats (26 ward, 26 proportional representation/ PR) in the 2011 elections. The DA won 19 seats, the FF+ won two, and Cope won one seat. The ANC has had a clear (albeit slightly smaller) majority in council since 2011. This hasn’t saved its mayor from two votes of no confidence, where fellow party members voted with the opposition for his ouster.

A bit of history is important for context. The Daily Maverick has previously analysed the deep divisions besetting the ANC in the North-West. These divisions and tensions have been present for many years, and they provide the backdrop for some the current problems in the province.

Tlokwe is not the only municipality in the North-West to experience this intra-party discord, but it is the first one where the ANC’s control has been seriously challenged – twice. In November 2012 the council first passed a motion of no confidence in Maphetle by 20 votes to 19 and handed the mayor’s chain to Combrink. Combrink remained mayor for three months until Maphetle was voted back in, in February 2013, by a full council vote of 31 votes to 21.

In the interim, the very top brass in the ANC – including Gwede Mantashe, Jessie Duarte and Nathi Mthethwa – visited the municipality to deliver the equivalent of a three-line whip to their errant councillors. The solution that the party engineered turned out to be a temporary one, because history repeated itself just four months later. This time, Maphetle was voted out by 29 councillors, and there were no votes in his defence.

Maphetle has been accused of being dirty by both the DA and the ANC councillors who voted for his removal. Ostensibly, the ANC councillors voting for his removal have voted with their conscience, but neutral observers might ask whether such a fuss would have been made if the party’s internal divisions in the area were not so big to begin with.

Such a question is largely academic for the ANC’s North-West PEC and its NEC. It has to put an end to an open revolt from councillors who simply refuse to accept the party’s choice for mayor. It has chosen to use force to crush the rebellion; on Tuesday the party’s provincial disciplinary committee held a disciplinary hearing and on Wednesday evening it released its judgment. Sixteen councillors in the municipality were tried by the committee and 14 were eventually expelled from the party for their part in removing the mayor.

In passing judgement (and releasing a press statement describing the hearing) the ANC confirmed the extent of the dissent within its ranks. Sixteen out of the 30 ANC councillors were charged with misconduct – more than half of the party’s councillors in the municipality. The 14 that were expelled from the party didn’t even bother to show up for the hearing and were effectively found guilty in absentia.

At the moment there are many unconfirmed facts in the story. It’s not certain how many of the expelled councillors were ward councillors and how many were PR councillors, but it’s almost certain that there were some from each category (the party had 16 ward and 14 PR councillors before the purge).

It’s not clear how much influence the DA has had over the ANC councillors voting for Maphetle’s removal (or absenting themselves from voting, and thereby not voting in his defence). The ANC did say, in the conclusion to its press release on Wednesday night, that the door was open for the expelled councillors to appeal against their fate, so it’s also not clear how far the party is prepared to take its scorched-earth policy in Tlokwe.

It’s not clear how firm (or shaky) the legal ground is on which the DA currently stands, but the odds on the party retaining control of the council over the medium-term many not be good. The ANC can afford three casualties in this war and it would still retain control of the council (i.e. a reduction from 30 to 27 seats would still be an outright majority).

The party can replace any PR councillors with others from its list, and hopefully these will be more loyal. Any expelled ward councillors will trigger by-elections, which the ANC will be at pains to avoid, although a schism between national/provincial leadership and local councillors does not necessarily mean a disconnect between the party and the voters. On the other hand, the ANC polled four percentage points lower in the aggregated ward vote compared with the PR vote in 2011. This could suggest that some of its ward councillors are not very popular with the voters.

Maybe the DA can’t retain the municipality for any significant length of time. It still has a lot to gain from the situation, while the ANC might lose even more ground.

For starters, the ANC is now going to have to throw serious resources into keeping the peace. If visits from two NEC members (and the minister of police) couldn’t enforce discipline, firing half of the councillors might not do the trick either.

To the party bosses, what is happening in Tlokwe might seem like a rebellion that needs to be contained, but the problem may be bigger than the municipality. The ANC lost a ward in Rustenburg in November last year. It was in the aftermath of Marikana, and it might be significant, and it might not. The ghost of Moss Phakoe may come whispering to voters next autumn or it may not.

Ms Combrink took office the first time knowing that her party’s time in power could be very limited, and this time she may have even less time. The DA had a strategy to hit the ground running from the first day and shake things up – whether for service delivery or vote-getting depends partly on your political allegiances.

Ms Combrink and her party pushed to expose as much of Maphetle’s (allegedly) corrupt dealings as possible. Thus far there hasn’t been much from his side to contest the charges of stealing from emergency funds to buy a luxury sedan. The longer that the DA have the run of the municipal finances, the more dirt they will hope to dig up and publicise.

The DA has also made a number of new staff appointments (or ‘filled in vacancies’ as per its press releases) which were apparently left vacant due to political infighting. The picture being painted – at this point, the picture being given a third coat of gloss and varnish – is that the infighting and factionalism of the ANC / tripartite alliance means that the municipality stays losing.

The longer that the situation remains unresolved, the more chances the DA has to paint these pictures. The ANC needs quick results, and it is using a heavy hand to try and achieve them. By expelling almost half its councillors it is painting another picture, of a party that favours internal discipline, and even undemocratic decisions, above all else.

The ANC is in a terrible position. It can save the municipality and run the risk of losing a chunk of the vote in the province in next year’s elections. The DA might win a bit in this scenario, but the ANC could lose a lot.

It can sit down and talk things through with all parties, but the problems in the North-West are big. They are endemic and they’ve gone on for a long time. There might not be enough time or enough open ears to resolve everything by the election. Any resources that are used to solve this problem are going to have to be taken from somewhere else.

Tlokwe was never typical of the rest of that west part of the old Transvaal. It’s too close to the gold of Johannesburg and the executive power of Tshwane (née Pretoria), and it’s too far removed from the mampoer-soaked dreams of Bosman. Even now, the ructions in the municipality seem removed from the rural lands where the ANC’s support is unchallenged. The ANC must be hoping that Potchefstroom retains its unique flavour in the province. DM

Photo: ANC’s Andrew ‘Maphetle’ Maphetle and DA’s Annette Combrink


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