In a country of amazing political stories, something more incredible than usual could be about to happen. It concerns a small place, far away, about which most urban centres care very little. The little town of Matatiele could be about to change provinces again, from the Eastern Cape back to KwaZulu-Natal. And this is not because the ANC or anyone else wants to do it, or because the entire nation has decided that a wrong has been done upon the people of this small place. But rather, through the clever exercise of political power by a determined and united party in the urban metropole of Ekurhuleni. It raises many questions about our system of government, how our democracy works, and whether citizens really have a say in who governs them. By STEPHEN GROOTES.
You have to give it to the African Independent Congress (AIC). In fact, this cynical observer of our politics is tempted to send them a bottle of champagne as recognition of how well they’ve played the game.
The AIC is a small party, born out of a dispute with the national government. In 2005, the ANC decided to move the provincial boundary between KZN and the Eastern Cape. As a result, this town, which had been in KZN, ended up in the Eastern Cape. This was not the only boundary change – if you change from four provinces to nine overnight, during the middle of a difficult and hurried transition, some people are going to find themselves straddling difficult borders. Some municipalities found themselves in two provinces, and it took some time to tidy it all up.
But many of the people in Matatiele were unhappy with this aspect of our national “tidying up”. They wanted to stay in KZN, and so they started to oppose the move. Eventually, they went to the Constitutional Court, which ruled that they had not been properly consulted (it’s because of this judgment that we actually have a definition of “meaningful consultation”, which means government cannot just pretend to listen when it’s creating legislation). And the boundary was supposed to move back.
For various reasons, certainly complicated, and possibly nefarious, this never happened.
In the end, people there decided to go the political route. And so they formed the AIC, and the party started to stand in elections. When they first stood in national elections, in 2014, they won three seats in the National Assembly, with over 97,000 votes. At the time, there was much discussion about whether it had only won votes because its name is so similar to that of the African National Congress. Otherwise, there was gentle scoffing about the party’s existence.
Then, in 2016 local elections, the AIC they won 55 seats in eight provinces, and crucially, three of those seats were in the metro of Ekurhuleni, far, far away from Matatiele. At the time, the party said it was interested in one thing, and one thing only – the reincorporation of Matatiele into KZN. And DA leader Mmusi Maimane, when announcing his grand coalition of parties to help take power in places like Nelson Mandela Bay and Tshwane, said that the AIC had rebuffed all of his advances.
The AIC had decided that the only way to realise their objective was to give their support, and thus control of Ekurhuleni, to the ANC. And the ANC gratefully accepted. Otherwise, they were going to lose all of the metros in Gauteng.
And now, after a series of demands and threats by the AIC, no one is scoffing any more. Instead, just this week, the AIC’s top brass has been in meetings with the ANC, including with Presidency Minister (and ANC head of policy) Jeff Radebe. He’s promised them that this border change will now happen.
There’s much to contemplate here. First, it’s a real testament to the power in politics of dedication and single-mindedness. The AIC would never have come to this point without a long-term plan, and the ability to stick it through. At some point, surely, it would be in the ANC’s interests to try to induce the AIC councillors in Ekurhuleni to jump ship. That hasn’t happened, at least not yet. For a small party in a rural area, the AIC leadership must surely have been vulnerable to inducements of their own. (Consider the example of the National Freedom Party, whose Treasurer somehow “forgot” to register candidates for almost all of the councils they wanted to contest.)
It is also an indication of what you can do if you only have one objective. Many of the problems facing the ANC are the result of its size; many people want many different things. The AIC does not suffer from this problem.
And there is also something to celebrate in the decision to actually contest seats in Ekurhuleni in the first place. When first proposed, it must have seemed an odd thing to do. It’s a party with a small base in the Eastern Cape, or, depending on when you read this, KZN. To contest seats in Gauteng is a strange thing to do. But someone must have done some serious political maths to realise that this could be used in this way.
All of that said, one wonders what the people of Ekurhuleni think about this. The vast majority voted for the ANC or the DA, yet now their fate hangs with a party most of them didn’t vote for, and whose real focus is almost thousand kilometres away. The reality is, democracy is a messy business, and these moves happen in coalition politics; there is not much anyone can do about it. The voters have voted, and they have to simply lump it for five years. Unless there is a special circumstance which leads to a special Metro election. That said, it is still hard to see how this is democratic, and truly reflective of the will of the people of Ekurhuleni.
There could also be a case that this is not democratic for all of us as a nation. We are talking about the changing of the boundaries of two provinces. Because of events in a third province. Is that really what we want? Boundaries being horse-traded just because of the balance of power elsewhere?
Of course, it is important to note that none of this would be happening were it not for the ANC’s bad showing in Gauteng. And it should also be said that the AIC should hold the champagne for the moment. Perhaps a long moment.
The ANC is almost certainly going to string this out for a while. A long while. Like, forever. And when it does that, the AIC had better have a plan. And its options are actually limited. It could walk out of its coalition with the ANC in Ekurhuleni. Which would, presumably, give the balance of power to the DA and their sometime friends in red. But then what? That wouldn’t get the boundary moved. It would just lead to people, voters, getting annoyed and confused at the situation. And when voters get annoyed, they can just refuse to support a party in the future, which would weaken the AIC’s position.
As they say in politics, if you use your weapon, you lose it.
It is going to be an interesting ride from here. If the ANC gives in, and they may have no choice in the end, it could be a sign that it’s willing to negotiate. Some may perceive that as a sign of weakness. Others will understand that the ANC is open to more deals in future, perhaps as soon as 2019. DM
Photo: The African Independent Congress was a place above the ruling ANC on the ballot paper in 2014. (Photo courtesy of Mail and Guardian)
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