South Africa

Op-Ed: How tightly is the ANC really holding onto power?

By Stephen Grootes 29 June 2015

Amidst all of the conversations about the ANC, our politics, and the possibility of change, one recurring theme keeps coming up. It becomes particularly pertinent when the party's deployees in government ‘forget’ to look at passports as genocidal dictators leave, and when dark talk emerges about Number One thinking of staying in his position past 2017. It's whether the ANC would voluntarily give up power, were it to lose an election. When people ask this, it's thought of in grand terms, as if the country would go through a major shift very quickly. But actually, these things happen slowly, and over time. The ANC has already lost some power in one election, and may soon lose more power. Its behaviour so far in these situations does not engender confidence. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

The role of Local Government Elections as signals, signposts, and testing grounds can often be overlooked in South Africa. But they really do provide a proper opportunity to watch power ebb and flow, and to see how politicians react as that happens. This means what happens in municipalities as the ANC loses them is very important.

The first, and so far only metro the ANC has had to give up is Cape Town. It was in the elections of 2006 that the party lost control of the city to what was then a multi-party coalition led by new mayor Helen Zille. In the months leading up to the election, it seemed pretty clear which way the wind was blowing, and the ANC started to make some preparations of its own. The then-mayor Nomaindia Mfeketo decided unilaterally to extend the contract of then-City Manager Wallace Mgoqi. Technically, then and now, the position of City Manager is a politically neutral one. But there was no doubt which way Mgoqi would swing; he was very much an ANC appointee. When Zille was installed as mayor, the multi-party coalition she led tried to have that contract extension annulled. In the end, the matter went to court, and Mgoqi and the city went their separate ways.

At the time, the ANC still controlled the Western Cape (through its still inexplicable coalition with that strange entity known as the New National Party). So the then-Local Government MEC Richard Dyantyi decided that the system of governance in the city should change. The change, surprise surprise, would benefit the ANC, even though it was in opposition in the city. In the end, a deal had to be brokered by national government.

If these developments nine years ago don’t augur well for those who pose this question, consider what is happening in Oudtshoorn in the Western Cape at the moment. There, through a by-election, the ANC lost power to a coalition of the DA and Cope (remember them?). Currently, this coalition has thirteen seats in the council, while the ANC has twelve. The ANC has to give up the keys to the mayoral BMW as well as to the offices. This it has failed to do. Things have now got to the point where the DA has written to President Jacob Zuma, as leader of the ANC, asking him to order the ANC deployees there to give up power. Do you think he’s done that yet?

As an aside, doesn’t it say something about the ANC’s development that in 2006 national government was happy to broker agreements, and could be trusted to do so, in cases that were essentially political disputes between the ANC and the DA? It seems unlikely that anyone would trust them to do that now.

So, then, what does this suggest could happen next year, if the DA is able to take over, or lead coalitions that take over power in other metros? Surely, for one thing, that we should probably put our seatbelts on and prepare for turbulence.

At this stage, the most likely metro to fall is still the Nelson Mandela Bay Metro Municipality around Port Elizabeth. The results of last year’s national elections, extrapolated to examine the picture in the city itself, suggest that it could well see power changing hands. Whether Danny Jordaan survives the FIFA scandal or not, the voting trends are pretty clear.

What happens there could well depend on the result. If it’s incredibly close, the ANC may try to pull a dirty trick or two, as it did in Cape Town. If the result is very clear, then things might be easier for the winning parties. However, PE being a backwater in independent media terms (i.e. media not controlled by Hlaudi Motsoeneng), that issue may not get the national exposure it would deserve.

The Cities of Tshwane and Joburg, however, are likely to be places under the spotlight. Of the two, Tshwane appears to be more vulnerable. There, at the moment, tensions between DA councillors and the current mayor, Kgosientso Ramokgopa, have risen to the point where personal insults are being exchanged, including reference to people’s identities. It would seem quite difficult for the ANC to accept losing power there, considering that backdrop. Over the last decade or so, the ANC has come quite close to losing Tshwane, and probably would have had to give up power there already, if it hadn’t been able to keep expanding it through incorporating other municipalities.

And it’s probably impossible to have a conversation about this issue with a DA member without them bringing up Midvaal, where the ANC has tried, and so far failed, to incorporate that DA-controlled council into a bigger metro (strangely, the Municipal Demarcation Board, after making this decision, refused to give the report on which the decision was based to the media. The DA had to start court action, which so far, has been successful).

In Joburg itself, the issue may very well not come up, as the ANC may well keep control of it. To win Joburg, you really have to win Soweto, and that’s a big ask. Services and facilities there have improved dramatically over the last ten years, and the Gauteng ANC has a very effective get out to vote operation in that area. And, of course, it’s a traditional ANC stronghold.

The ANC may well have a ready response to this question, whenever its true commitment to democracy is questioned. Apart from the stock answer, “We brought democracy to this country,” it could point out that it did give up power both in the City of Cape Town, and in the Western Cape itself. But for the party itself, those with a longer term view would also need to start planning now.

If the ANC is in danger of losing certain places, it would be in the party’s own interests to start thinking of how to win them back five years later. In other words, it needs to learn how to be a meaningful opposition party, and to claw back ground it has lost. This, in the Western Cape, it has spectacularly failed to do. So, if it is to lose Tshwane, for example, it needs to start working out now how to get it back. To behave undemocratically would be to handicap itself quickly. The message would be that if the party were ever given power in that place again, it would not give it up. Which is surely something voters would punish, and punish strongly.

Of course, there is an easier path for the ANC, something that would be better for both the party and the country. It could simply start to govern better. And then this question would simply not arise. DM

Photo: African National Congress supporters carry a flag during their celebration in Johannesburg, April 23, 2009. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko