Daily Maverick

Analysis: EFF’s move in Nelson Mandela Bay – let the political chaos reign supreme

On Thursday the Economic Freedom Fighters are due to bring a motion of no confidence in the DA mayor of Nelson Mandela Bay, Athol Trollip. Under normal circumstances, if such a motion were to succeed, the other major party in the council would be in position to install their own mayor, which would mean the ANC would win back control of the Eastern Cape’s big metro. But so interesting and curious are our times that it is by no means certain that that will happen. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

In fact, it seems more likely that something stranger will happen; Trollip could even retain his position. There are many variables to consider, and predictions are hard to make. But it is entirely possible that no government can be formed, and considerable chaos, followed by a metro-election, could emerge. Which, in turn, could provide a matrix for what happens to our national politics in the near future.

On Tuesday News24 reported that the ANC was suddenly not so keen to form an administration in Nelson Mandela Bay with help from the EFF, should its motion to remove Trollip be successful. At best, it appeared lukewarm about the idea from the start; now, the party’s feet seem to be almost frozen.

News24 reported that it had been told by several sources in the ANC that they were loath to allow themselves to be beholden to the EFF in any way, even if it gives them control of the city they want so much. Because, to paraphrase Homer, beware the gifts from Malema, who might well use his balancing power in the city to remove it from the ANC’s grasp in the future.

This is clear-sighted politics precisely because Malema’s future actions are hard to predict. He claimed to be opposed to the election of Cyril Ramaphosa as President in Parliament, but was forced to go along with it after misjudging the mood on the day of that parliamentary vote. Since then, he has almost had to sit on the sidelines as Ramaphoria has filled the air. In the meantime, possibly to stay relevant, the EFF has been picking fights with journalists and generally looking for new mortal enemies.

To many, this has given the impression that the EFF is actually flailing around, and appears to have lost some of its mission in life, now that Jacob Zuma is a private citizen destined to spend some time warming the bench looking on as grown men in black dressing gowns refer to him as “Accused No 1”.

In other words, it would be bad politics for the ANC to give the EFF any kind of political oxygen by suddenly giving it the power to decide who rules Nelson Mandela Bay.

But this gets to a much bigger issue in our national politics. The ANC, at the moment, faces only the EFF as any kind of threat from the Left. The SACP is still, amazingly, within the alliance, Cosatu is back in harness as supporting the party, and there is really no one else. This is a golden opportunity for the ANC to dull the EFF’s attraction, and in so doing create a situation in which the only real other contestant is to the Right of them, where it is only the DA that is a challenger, and it seems too preoccupied with internal matters to be an effective challenger.

So… despite the real internal battles that the ANC faces, this presents them with a golden opportunity. It can deal with one major threat while knowing that its other major challenger can be neutralised pretty easily. This is all happening amid increased chatter that some in the ANC are considering calling next year’s election early. This is unlikely, if only because a ruling party might be playing with fire due to the unpredictable nature of politics – just ask Theresa May what happens if you have a bad campaign.

It should not be forgotten amid all of this that the only reason the EFF has the power it has in Nelson Mandela Bay is because of the particular electoral maths. Like with David Mabuza in the ANC, its power only comes because the ANC and the DA are so evenly matched. And until certain previous coalition partners walked away from the DA, it actually had a majority. This means it would be foolish to give it more power than it actually has in reality.

There is, of course, a small way out of this for the ANC. It can vote with the EFF to remove Trollip’s administration, and then install someone from a smaller party as mayor. But this would hardly be welcome for the good burghers of the metro. They would then be governed by a mayor with no real political power base at all, who was not their choice in the first place. This would make them vulnerable to everyone, and dependent on a large number of diverse constituencies. Nothing would get done, and nothing could be done.

It is also utterly fascinating that in all of this, there is no discussion at all about the EFF itself taking over. The party’s officials have said they do not want to govern the city. In 2016 Malema claimed that the party would actually govern a metro, that they would win. Obviously, this was simple election speak, but it is still an interesting contradiction. It raises questions about the EFF’s actual will to govern. Or whether in fact Malema trusts the EFF people in that council at all. You can imagine the implications for him. It would be a weak administration, and suddenly the DA and the ANC would have a common enemy. But worse than that, it could prove that the EFF would fail the test of actual governance.

On balance, it is probably best for the EFF to avoid that possibility.

This all brings to mind other national possibilities. It is in the nature of electoral systems which use proportional representation that results become close, and that no one party wins a complete majority, leading to coalition governments. But, as has been stated before on these pages, that has tended to happen in countries with relatively homogenous populations. If you are Danish, economic inequality is probably not your biggest problem. In South Africa, racialised inequality is possibly our biggest problem.

This means that it would be difficult for the parties which represent the heterogeneous constituencies that make up our voters to actually work together. And in turn that means that should there ever be coalition governments in our national politics, the turmoil that we have seen in Nelson Mandela Bay would be replicated on a national scale. Imagine a small, radical party calling the shots, or bringing down the government of the day every time it disliked how senior coalition partners voted? As parties’ executives have the power to hire and fire top civil servants (through cadre deployment) that could lead to huge difficulties all across government.

In the end, when Thursday’s decision comes, different people are going to have to make different, and difficult, decisions. It may well come to pass that one or two of the smaller parties simply abstain, unable to make a decision. An ANC or a DA councillor may not be able to make it on the day; in a vote as close as this, literally anything could happen. And in the middle of it all the voices of the residents of the city are not really being heard. Rather, this issue is being decided in the interests of national politics. And there is very little that is democratic about local government issues being decided on the grounds of national political interests. DM

Original Photo: Julius Malema from the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and other party members leave the parliament buildings during the election of new South African President, Cyril Ramaphosa, Cape Town, South Africa, 15 February 2018. EPA-EFE/Brenton Geach

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