Analysis

The DA’s great mayoral meltdown

By Rebecca Davis 20 June 2018

Photo of Cape Town by the night by EPA.

Amid all the noise around the DA’s attempts to unseat Patricia de Lille as mayor of Cape Town, there has been less attention paid to what has been happening in other DA-led municipalities. But here’s a startling fact: one-fifth of all DA mayors in the Western Cape have lost the confidence of their caucuses over the last year. While the DA might want to point to this as evidence of accountability in action, another perspective might be that the party has a problem with the calibre of its leaders.

There are currently 26 DA mayors in the Western Cape. Over the last year, five have lost the confidence of their caucuses – and have either resigned, or are currently hanging on to their positions by a thread while facing disciplinary charges from the party.

Gone: Matzikama’s Rhenda Stephan, Bergrivier’s Evert Manuel and Knysna’s Eleanor Bouw-Spies. Hanging on: George’s Melvin Naik and, of course, Cape Town’s Patricia de Lille.

Status uncertain: Knysna’s replacement mayor Mark Willemse.

The most dramatic dethroning of a DA mayor to date took place in Knysna in early June 2018, when Bouw-Spies was removed from her position after an ANC-sponsored vote of no confidence succeeded. Two DA councillors reportedly voted alongside the ANC to depose Bouw-Spies. Seven other DA councillors refused to vote and walked out.

The kicker? No word of this plan appears to have been shared with the DA’s federal executive ahead of time.

This is, to put it mildly, not allowed.

The DA’s constitution states that a vote of no confidence of this kind “requires the leave of the federal executive before it is moved in the caucus”.

The fact that Bouw-Spies was deposed without such permission led the DA’s Western Cape leader Bonginkosi Madikizela to term the events an “outrageous coup”.

The provincial DA was not placated by the installation of another DA councillor, Willemse, as mayor in Bouw-Spies’ place. The last fortnight has seen Madikizela and his team flying back and forth from Knysna trying to take control of the situation – apparently with limited success.

Willemse was given a deadline to resign; he refused. Instead, he has been out and about fulfilling the functions of the mayor, and is listed on the Knysna municipality’s website as the executive mayor. That the DA’s provincial leadership does not recognise Willemse’s authority currently seems to matter little.

When Daily Maverick asked Madikizela for a status check on the Knysna saga, spokeswoman Odette Caron responded:

“Unfortunately at present I am not able to provide an update.”

Complicating the situation is that powerful elements of the Knysna constituency appear to have given Willemse’s Game of Thrones manouevres their blessing. The Knysna Ratepayers Association, for instance, has warned that if DA leadership touches Willemse, the party will be “severely” punished by residents at the polls.

It’s a mess. DA leaders can hardly stand by while individual councillors take it upon themselves to topple and appoint mayors, but in this instance it appears the story has a complex history.

In October 2017, Knysna’s deputy mayor Peter Myers was removed from his position after falling foul of a (fedex-sanctioned) vote of no confidence too. But Myers has maintained that his only crime was to speak out against instances of alleged misconduct and corruption implicating Bouw-Spies. He has also alleged that DA leaders failed to take action against Bouw-Spies in the face of such complaints.

So while the Knysna council’s actions in booting out Bouw-Spies without the permission of fedex may seem bizarre and irrational, it’s also possible that they were acting unilaterally in the face of perceived paralysis from DA leaders.

(The DA’s federal executive chairman James Selfe was unable to meet Daily Maverick’s deadline for comment, but we will update this article to reflect the fedex position when comment is supplied.) Discussion of the Knysna issue alone could fill a few thousand words, but there are other municipalities to visit.

To Matzikama, then, where mayor Stephan resigned on 6 June 2018, a day before she was due to face a vote of no confidence from her council. Here, the federal executive had granted permission for such a motion to be tabled, but the details of Stephan’s wrongdoing remain sketchy.

Madikizela was quoted at the time as saying:

“The reality was that the mayor was not optimally fulfilling her role as the mayor in the municipality and thus the caucus said there was a vacuum”.

In Bergrivier in May 2018, mayor Evert Manuel similarly fell on his sword ahead of a fedex-approved vote of no confidence.

In this instance, Madikizela hinted that Manuel was working as a sleeper agent for the ANC, and had accepted bribes from the ANC to join the party and throw the DA-led council into disarray. He said that the allegations were “so serious” that fedex had granted permission for the vote of no confidence over the telephone.

In George, mayor Naik is living on borrowed time after being accused of a raft of wrongdoing, from allegations of fraud and corruption to canvassing DA members to support an opposition-sponsored motion of no confidence against the council Speaker and deputy mayor.

Naik did his precarious position no favours last week, after compounding his troubles by voicing his opposition to a visiting gay choir in a radio interview.

Looking at this mayoral meltdown, a few common threads emerge.

One is that the DA’s federal executive seems to view collaboration with the ANC as one of the paramount crimes of which DA councillors can be accused.

In the case of the Knysna saga, Madikizela’s criticism of the Willemse coup has focused on the fact that it was accomplished with the aid of the ANC. The provincial leader was quoted as saying that any DA member who came to power because of the ANC needed “serious examination”.

In the case of the axed Bergrivier mayor, Manuel, Manuel has claimed that he was punished for his co-operation with ANC councillors. George’s Naik, meanwhile, stands accused of plotting with ANC counterparts to remove DA council members.

For DA leaders to take stern action against such collaboration is in line with the party’s constitution, which states that canvassing DA members to “join or support another party” can result in automatic cessation of membership.

Yet in practice, there is sometimes a fine line between sinister collaboration and useful co-operation. In Knysna, for instance, Willemse has painted what has happened as an example of the latter.

“It has never happened where the ANC and the DA are working together for the good of a town,” Willemse told supporters two days after his election.

It is also worth noting that the DA’s ban on council members supporting opposition-sponsored votes of no confidence is not absolute – as was witnessed when DA caucus members in the Cape Town City Council were instructed to support a (subsequently aborted) ANC motion of no confidence in mayor Patricia de Lille.

Another conclusion to be gleaned from the DA’s mayoral headaches is that the party’s new recall clause, adopted at its national congress in April 2018, may have unintended consequences.

The fact that five mayors have faced no confidence votes since the recall clause was adopted may speak to a renewed commitment to accountability within the party. It certainly suggests that the clause was long overdue.

But it also raises the possibility that a culture of leadership insecurity and paranoia may take root, as mayors witness the toppling of their peers and councillors are newly emboldened to flex their muscles. The safeguard is that the DA’s fedex has to give permission before votes of no confidence take place – but as seen in Knysna, it’s totally unclear what happens next if councillors defy this provision.

Possibly the biggest question underlying this all, however, is the following: If a fifth of the DA’s mayors have been found to be either deficient or corrupt within the space of just a few months, what does that say about the quality of individuals that the DA is electing to top office?

Daily Maverick asked Madikizela if the DA’s provincial leadership was at all concerned that whatever vetting currently takes place might be insufficient.

“The DA has a very rigorous candidate selection process and candidates go through various interview panels before they are presented as candidates,” his spokeswoman Cason responded.

“With every election our processes are improved and adapted. We learn from the challenges we face and use them to guide our processes. For 2019 and the elections to come, it will be no different.”

The federal executive’s position, from the DA’s James Selfe, is as follows:

“There are a number of considerations that the federal executive take into account when deciding whether to grant permission to move motions of no confidence.  First, the caucus itself must indicate that it has lost confidence.  Secondly, federal executive must satisfy itself that serious and valid grounds exist for this lack of confidence, and that it is not actuated by rivalry or personality differences.

“ It is worth noting in this respect that in several municipalities, incidents of corruption and/or maladministration and/or abuse of power were being investigated, and the party had an obligation to act.  Thirdly, federal executive in appropriate circumstances insists that the province attempts mediation or some similar intervention to resolve the issue, and if it is satisfied that these attempts have proved unsuccessful.

“If these conditions have been met, the federal executive sanctions the holding of a formal caucus meeting (usually supervised by the province) in which the office-bearer concerned is given a right of reply, and at which a vote is taken.

“It is very difficult to put iron-clad safeguards in place to prevent the sort of unexpected action that took place in Knysna.  However, we do expect constituency, regional and provincial leadership to alert us to any potential problems or tensions.”

This article was updated at 12.55am on 20 June 2018, after the DA replied to queries from Daily Maverick.

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