South Africa

ANALYSIS

The Joburg option could be Herman Mashaba’s safest springboard to political power

Former City of Johannesburg Mayor Herman Mashaba. (Photo: Foto24/Gallo Images/Getty Images/Trevor Kunene)

Former Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba may well take an unconventional route in his bid to achieve national political stature – contesting the City of Johannesburg before staking a national claim.

Last year’s election results show that there are vast numbers of votes up for grabs, and whoever is able to turn those non-voting citizens into people who cast their ballots could amass significant political power. For the moment, it seems the one person who is going to try this is the former Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba. Fascinatingly, he may choose a path to power that has not been tried before, one that could be more effective.

Until now, it had appeared he would follow the traditional route, which is to launch a political party and contest in elections across South Africa. This has been the road travelled by many. It has also led to ruin for many. 

Cope disintegrated in a leadership squabble, the UDM has become a small party with a geographic base in the Eastern Cape, Patrica de Lille’s Good Party got a few votes in the Western Cape. The EFF has been able to gain traction and call itself a national party, but it only has significant support in Gauteng and the north of SA. 

Mashaba suggested last week that he may try another tack. When asked if he was going to be the leader of a new party, he gave the impression that this was not his ambition. Instead, he wants to be the party’s mayoral candidate in the City of Johannesburg. 

The Sowetan reported him as saying that, “One thing I can confirm with you is that because we are going to form a political party, I’m making myself available to be the mayoral candidate for the City of Johannesburg. We might find someone else, but I am making myself available.”

This suggests he may be walking a previously untrodden path to political power. That he may first concentrate all his efforts in the local government elections in one city, Johannesburg. It could be a winning strategy.

One of the major advantages for a bigger party in local elections is the ability to cover the entire country. Only the ANC is able to have a candidate in every ward in South Africa – even the DA is unable to do this. Organising in every town and village is expensive and requires huge administration. This would be a major problem for Mashaba’s new outfit in next year’s elections – it is all but impossible to scale up to the national level in such a short period of time.

The other problem that new parties have consistently had is one of expectation. A new party has to do well in its first election, otherwise it will be written off. Combined with the problem of campaigning across the country, this makes the next elections a critical test for Mashaba.

Still, he may be able to get around the problem by focusing only on Joburg. By doing so he can concentrate all his resources in one manageable place and will be judged by his performance only in that one place. 

It seems far-fetched that a new party will be able to seriously challenge the ANC (or the DA) for power in South Africa’s biggest city. But the current political situation could create the perfect opportunity.

Mashaba knows Johannesburg well, and can talk up his experience as mayor. The turmoil in the DA is unlikely to end soon. The party will have a leadership election in the next few months that could weaken it substantially (two opposing candidates could end up appealing to the different wings of the party, leading to more internal rancour). Voters are less trusting of the DA than they were.

The ANC, meanwhile, could also be hit by a Joburg-specific storm. The man it installed as mayor there, Geoffrey Makhubo, has been accused of corruption relating to the party’s previous administration in that city. These claims could, and most certainly will, be used to damage him dramatically and so tarnish the ANC.

Voters who are fed up with the ANC and the DA could regard a person they know well and who has a track record as an attractive prospect.

Mashaba would not necessarily have to win more than 50% of the votes in Johannesburg – he would have to just do enough to be able to lead a coalition in the city. If he does this he will be ahead of where other parties have been at the same stage in the game.

The question then is, what happens after 2021?

Mashaba would have three whole years to build up his party, having already won some power, and shown he is a serious contender. This would be a strategically better option than fizzling out while trying to campaign for power countrywide.

And while this may seem like a longer route to power, it avoids the short-cut of having to make decisions while still in the process of being established. Politics is a long game (even a week can be a very long time…). This route will give a new party the option of picking up support and gathering momentum, and the opportunity to make deals with other parties. All of it without suffering crippling defeats that would surely come should it attempt to achieve too much, too soon.

Mashaba may not, in the end, try this route. But globally there are many people who started their political careers through being mayors first and then creating their own party – the former Argentian president Mauricio Macri one of the most recent examples. Like with NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg, it gives one experience in governance, a track record, and name recognition. At some point, someone in South Africa will try it. And they may find that it is much more effective than the route tried by others who have fallen along the way. DM

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