The election of Helen Zille as chair of the DA’s federal council and the subsequent resignation of Herman Mashaba as the mayor of Johannesburg could be a harbinger of important developments. For the moment, there is much focus on the personalities and many questions about Zille’s agenda, Mashaba’s ire and DA leader Mmusi Maimane’s future.
These events may be a direct reaction to the results of May’s national elections. Taken together with the situation in Nelson Mandela Bay (NMB), SA politics may be about to enter another, even more complex phase, with more actors, more parties, and more agendas.
Mashaba had made it clear that he would take decisive action if Zille won the DA’s federal council chair position over the weekend. On Monday he kept his promise and announced he would resign as mayor of Joburg and as a councillor in Joburg for the party.
He said this was also because some in the DA had strongly criticised his decision to form an administration with the help of the Economic Freedom Fighters. He said those who criticised him for this were “short-sighted”.
The most immediate question is whether this will lead to the ANC grabbing back control of Joburg – something the party obviously covets – it was a major shock in 2016 when it lost the metro. Some in the ANC will hope for repercussions in Tshwane, and for an agreement that will allow it to control both metros again.
However, it seems impossible that this could happen without the EFF. And for the moment, such a coalition is still a stretch of the imagination.
Such an agreement would have to be sanctioned at the highest level of the ANC: the party’s National Executive Committee would surely have to have a say. And the EFF’s rhetoric has been particularly aggressive against the parts of the ANC’s senior leadership.
So far, there has only been one major administration in which the ANC and the EFF are in the same loose coalition – in NMB. But there, the mayor is from the United Democratic Movement. It seems impossible for the ANC to agree to be a part of an administration in Joburg and not hold the mayor’s seat. And that might be a bridge too far for the EFF.
Mashaba’s criticism of those in the DA who disagree with his decision to form an administration with the support of the EFF does hold some water. However, all three major parties have the problem of desiring political power in the metro while not wanting to lose votes in national elections.
UDM leader Bantu Holomisa’s perceived tolerance of Mongameli Bobani as mayor in NMB appears to have cost him support in the national elections in May. Similarly, Mashaba may be wrong when he says people who disagree with him are “short-sighted” – the DA may have lost support because white voters didn’t approve of the deal with the EFF.
EFF leader Julius Malema could have the same problem. In 2016, he appeared to agree to bolster DA administrations in Joburg and Tshwane precisely because he had campaigned against the ANC. It is a slightly different ANC now, but he could still lose votes for being seen as helping the ruling party. This could outweigh the pressure from some of his members who would be keen on the patronage opportunities that being a part of the administration would bring. Malema would also be even more vulnerable to the charge of flip-flopping than he already is.
Then there is the ANC. The argument over whether it should do a deal with the EFF is a very difficult one. Many in the party would think such a deal would be asking for trouble. Malema may bring even more instability into the party. Those who think in the longer term might argue that the ANC should never be in a position in which the EFF could remove it from power in a metro. This would allow Malema to threaten, for example, to remove Joburg from the ANC’s power if it did not adhere to his rules of engagement.
In the recent past, the ANC has shied away from working with the EFF in NMB in a formal way. It was only because of Andile Lungisa’s refusal to accept ANC discipline that ANC councillors are in that coalition.
And don’t forget, the person who is the president of South Africa and leader of the ANC was also the person who chaired the appeals panel of the party’s disciplinary process when Malema was formally expelled.
So, the safest prediction to make for both Joburg and Tshwane is some form of chaos.
The DA may continue to try and somehow hold things together. The ANC’s Gauteng provincial government might try to take Joburg into administration. The DA could well go to court. There could be long periods of no real governance at all. The unions, aligned to the ANC, would play havoc with DA-appointed administrators who would now have no political backing.
None of that would improve the situation on the ground.
Unfortunately, this could easily be the situation that unfolds in several places in the near future. Mashaba’s actions and the situation that created this in the DA is not the endpoint of the reaction to the results of the May elections. It is likely that there will be other splits and changes.
This will lead to more actors and parties in SA politics. Factions of the DA may split, or splinter off. Mashaba himself is unlikely to leave formal politics entirely. What else is there to do for a self-made man with millions to spend and a slight populist bent?
There is increasing evidence, in Joburg, in NMB and in other places, that some coalitions are held together through patronage. With the possibility of splits and resignations by some in high office, the chances for people with small constituencies to hold significant power, and thus the keys to patronage, may increase. This could lead to increased corruption and more terrible decisions.
All of this is likely to weaken governance significantly in the longer term. DM
Yellow Stone Park is the world's first national park. It is also known as "America's best idea".