South Africa

Analysis: Tlokwe, split councils and divided municipalities

By Paul Berkowitz 24 July 2013

On Tuesday the ANC made an application to the North Gauteng High Court to have the ejection of its mayor in Tlokwe declared invalid. The battle for Tlokwe is the latest example of a municipality whose fate will be decided in the courts, since the ballot box is no longer sufficient. By PAUL BERKOWITZ.

The story in Tlokwe is unfolding in fine literary tradition, with cliff-hanger following cliff-hanger as if in a Dickens novel or an Isidingo omnibus. First the ANC mayor was kicked out. Then he was reinstated. Earlier this month he was kicked out again and the party expelled 14 of its councillors for their roles in the mayoral musical chairs.

On Tuesday evening, Judge Neil Tuchten postponed his judgement in the ANC’s application. The party had applied to have the last Tlokwe council meeting nullified – the one in which the in-again, out-again mayor Maphetla was expelled. While the judge didn’t say no to the ANC, his words couldn’t have inspired hope within the party.

Tuchten said, among other things, that the opposition had some leeway to be “opportunistic” and to “exploit divisions in government”. He did not specify when judgement would be handed down.

Some of the claims made in the court, if true, may fill in earlier gaps in the narrative. The council meeting was held on the same day that the ANC’s provincial disciplinary committee expelled the 14 councillors from the party. The opposition claims that the disciplinary committee (DC) was held at only one day’s notice, and that the motion of no confidence in Maphetla had been on the council meeting agenda for some time.

If you join the dots in a certain order, it points to a trend of the ANC in Tlokwe in using technicalities to avoid a council debate about Maphetla. It is possible that the party’s provincial DC was held at the same time as the council meeting to discourage the attendance of ANC members in council, even to make the council inquorate. After all, a council without a quorum cannot hear any motions, including motions of no confidence.

The ANC will claim that its critics are joining the dots in completely the wrong order. Tlokwe is not the only municipality where there have been accusations and counter-accusations of council manipulation by the DA and the ANC.

In Swellendam the Western Cape ANC had accused the DA/ID-controlled municipality of illegal behaviour in early-2011. Following the 2011 elections the DA (four seats) governed in coalition with the ACDP (one seat) in a narrow majority over the ANC (four seats).

The trouble started when the ACDP councillor defied his party’s co-operative agreement with the DA and started to vote with the four ANC councillors. In early October 2012 the ACDP councillor convened a special council meeting with the ANC councillors to appoint an acting municipal manager.

A week later, the same five councillors convened a meeting and declared a vote of no confidence in the mayor and speaker of the council (both were DA members). Very shortly after that, the same group tried to remove DA councillors from the council, and the ACDP then suspended and expelled their councillor.

It seems that the problems between the ACDP and its member began much earlier than this. In April 2012 it was reported that the Swellendam council had been unable to complete much of its work because it could not raise a quorum. The ACDP had first suspended its councillor back then, and the remaining eight councillors (four DA and four ANC) couldn’t get the council to work.

The DA (and the ACDP) accused the ANC councillors of walking out of council, rendering it inquorate. The ANC claimed that the DA councillors represented a minority of the council and therefore didn’t have the authority to pass decisions. Either way, nobody was attending to the business of the municipality.

There have been other protracted and messy exchanges between the ANC and DA in the Bitou municipality (where the DA still governs in coalition with COPE, but may control the municipality outright if they win a crucial by-election next month). The highlights of this story include an accusation of arson by the DA mayor against a ‘political collective’. The mayor himself has been accused of physically assaulting his partner, and the accusations may be politically motivated.

Both these examples come from the Western Cape in municipalities where the DA governs in coalition by a very thin majority. The DA has levelled accusations of a ‘dirty tricks campaign’ against the ANC for some time now. The ANC has its own set of claims against the DA.

In many ways Tlokwe is different : it’s a municipality that has (or had) a healthy majority in council. In some ways Tlokwe is a mirror image of Swellendam, with the DA and its opposition allies being accused of holding illegal council meetings and frustrating the workings of the municipality – or is it the other way around?

For the person in the street, the common factor to all three municipalities is that the normal running of the municipality is being frustrated and undermined. There are also questions to be asked about the loopholes and gaps in the legislation that are allowing this party or that party to challenge and subvert democratic outcomes and processes.

One thing that we the people can and should demand is detailed transcripts of all council meetings for every South African municipality. These minutes of council meetings should include a roster of all councillors present and a list of all motions tabled and passed.

These transcripts should be a matter of public record, and parties should be required to defend them as part of their electoral campaigning. Parties should also be required to explain why their members were absent, whether there are patterns to this absence, and whether absenteeism is preventing council from being convened.

Tlokwe is a page-turner, and the story is far from over. Let’s not get so caught up in the fast-paced plot that we ignore the more glaring holes in the story, holes that are appearing in more and more stories. If we don’t plug them they could spoil the whole genre. DM

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