South Africa

Analysis: The 2019 Gauteng politics and Life Esidimeni tragedy

By Stephen Grootes 22 March 2018

Earlier this week, former deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke ended an incredibly difficult chapter in the tragedy of the patients from Life Esidimeni. In the end, after hearing moving testimonies, and then a series of obfuscations and evasions from the people who caused it, Moseneke decided government should pay just over R1.2-million to each of the affected families. This was probably the biggest “mistake” in governance in the history of Gauteng as a province. It could well have an impact on the elections next year, as Gauteng could turn out to be a hard-fought battle for supremacy over SA’s richest and economically most powerful province. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

The Gauteng ANC is these days probably relieved that the Esidimeni public hearings are over. For months, people in the province have been following live testimony given by officials who simply can’t, or won’t, explain why they moved people who were physically healthy but mentally unwell out of the facility they knew, into unlicensed NGOs.

It is obvious that money was involved. Some of the NGO owners appeared to get rich quickly; the officials kept saying the same thing over and over. It may turn out that a significant turning point was the moment former Gauteng Health MEC Qedani Mahlangu tried to start her testimony by talking about her role in the Struggle. The hostility towards her in the room from the relatives of the deceased could be felt simply by listening on the radio. That she should try to rely on her Struggle history at a moment like this was a moment of supreme callousness; the lack of responsibility for her actions and sorrow for the pain she caused was just startling.

The political consideration for the Gauteng ANC is not irrelevant either; in 2014 they barely managed to hang on to the province, winning only 53.59% of the vote. At the time, the key issues were, of course, then President Jacob Zuma, and issues such as e-tolls. Now, the situation is quite different. The ANC leader is someone who is from Gauteng, who grew up in Soweto, and has a message that is likely to resonate well among the former ANC voters who stayed away during the 2016 local government elections.

There is plenty of research which suggests that for voters, often the most important part of the decision of which party to vote for is the leaders of the various parties. In the context of Gauteng, where Zuma was incredibly unpopular (he was booed at the FNB Stadium twice, once completely organically during a Bafana game), this could make all the difference. Ramaphosa will be able to stride into almost every area of the province and be warmly welcomed. From Chaiwelo to Sandhurst, he will know people, shake hands, point to places he’s spent time at, greet everyone in their preferred tongue, and perhaps be the perfect candidate. Certainly, if Nasrec had gone the other way, the Gauteng ANC would be in a very, very difficult position.

This “Cyril Spring” is going to put the DA in a difficult position. They need to work out, first, who it is who will be on their election poster as their Gauteng candidate. This is actually a very difficult decision. Some might say it’s time to put the aspiration represented by its leader Mmusi Maimane to the ultimate test, and that he is the biggest vote-getter the party has. That may or may not be true, but it would surely be foolish to not let him be the symbol of the national campaign. It could get very mangled if this is not managed properly.

There would be others in the party who may say that the best possible choice would be a mayor who is performing well. Herman Mashaba in Joburg may want to be in the running, but is surely a little too Free Market as a candidate. There appear to be two more likely candidates. The first is Solly Msimanga from Tshwane. He’s been a public representative for the DA for years, is from Gauteng, and is doing a good job as mayor. He is also a good media performer, and can probably be relied upon not to do anything that would scare voters away. The other is Ghaleb Cachalia, who was the 2016 DA’s candidate for mayor of Ekhuruleni. He is currently an MP in the National Assembly, but is clearly being groomed for big things. And yes, it’s quite a surname he carries.

It should not be forgotten that the ANC needs to field a Premier candidate as well. It would surely be likely that this would be David Makhura for another term. He campaigns honestly and well, and has become adept at showing that he is listening to residents who are angry or frustrated. As the representative of the party that has been in government in this province for 24 years, this is something he has had to become accustomed to.

Then there are the issues upon which this election will be fought. It is foolish in the extreme to predict now what will be happening in our politics over a year from now. But Esidimeni is still likely to be in the frame.

The problem the ANC has is that the people implicated, including Mahlangu, may be focusing too much on their own skins to worry that much about politics. As a result they will attempt to stall investigations and court cases. That would make the entire saga continue, and that the families of those who died will still be in the media during all of this time. There can surely be no better proof of Maimane’s claim that “we don’t have a Jacob Zuma problem, we have an ANC problem” than what happened at Esidimeni. This is likely to bring in the provincial health department more generally, and the state of government hospitals in the province, which is dire, and it sometimes seems like an unsolvable problem.

Other issues which could well come into the frame include some local politics, the state of roads and infrastructure, the standard of education and government schools, and whatever emerges between then and now. But all of this could still be overshadowed by national politics, and the politics of the two major parties.

In the meantime, there’s still the Economic Freedom Fighters. It is difficult to predict at this stage how they will perform, and it is pretty easy to get it wrong while trying to forecast the behaviour of Julius Malema. Some may even take leaders of the ANC at their word when they claim that Malema wants to return to that party. But for it to play a meaningful role the DA would probably need to get around 40% of the vote in the province first. Only then could the possibility of coalition politics on the provincial stage come into play.

The stakes here are incredibly high. As voters continue to move to urban areas (although the urban/rural identity is complex and different for everyone) the DA will believe that it will stand a chance of taking the country’s urban heartland. But the ANC will know that it simply cannot afford to lose Gauteng, because that could give it the appearance of being a rural party. As a result it will have to throw in immense resources, including the time of its president.

In that light, it is obvious that the ANC will have do an honourable thing and work hard on completing any and all work remaining on the Life Esidimeni tragedy. Any price, political or financial, that the Gauteng government would have to pay now, would be much higher during the 2019 campaign. DM

Photo: Then Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa at the Gauteng Provincial Government’s Senior Management Service Conference, with Gauteng Premier David Makhura, 30 March 2016, Boksburg (GCIS)

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