South Africa

EXPLAINER

Coalition talks: While parties push for control of hung councils, the clock ticks relentlessly

From left: EFF leader Julius Malema. (Photo: Gallo Images / Frennie Shivambu) | DA leader John Steenhuisen. (Photo: Gallo Images / Brenton Geach) | Action SA leader Herman Mashaba. (Photo: Gallo Images / Papi Morake) | Patriotic Alliance leader Gayton McKenzie. (Photo: Gallo Images / Netwerk24 / Lulama Zenzile)

The coalition talks in South Africa’s largest-yet number of hung councils, including five of the eight metros, focus on control in the executive mayor system. It’s politicking that could see voters left out in the cold — again.

First things first. How much time is left for coalition talks?

Tuesday, 23 November is the last day local municipalities and metros can be established. If not, it gets complicated (more later). 

The 1998 Local Government: Municipal Structures Act allows 14 days — calendar days, not working days — from when the election is declared. That’s calculated from the date the Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) gazettes the list of councillors for each local municipality and metro. 

For the 1 November 2021 local government elections, those councillor lists were gazetted on 9 November, five days after the results were announced at the Tshwane IEC national results centre.  

Or, as the IEC confirmed in an email on Tuesday, The end of the 14-day period within which the councils have to hold their first Local Municipal Council meetings is the 23rd November 2021.”  

So what should happen in the newly elected councils?

Legally and technically, it’s fairly straightforward: the IEC councillor lists for every council are the basics from which each municipality proceeds to its inaugural meeting, including the swearing-in of councillors. 

In terms of the Municipal Structures Act, the municipal manager calls this first meeting of the newly elected council. Its first business, according to Section 36 of the act, is to elect a Speaker, who then takes over for the election of an executive mayor and deputy mayor. The procedure is set out in the act’s Schedule 3. 

South Africa’s 213 local councils, 44 district councils and eight metros traditionally are run by an executive mayor, defined in Section 7 of the act as someone “in whom the executive leadership of the municipality is vested and who is assisted by a mayoral committee”.  

It’s the mayor’s discretion to announce the members of the mayoral committee (MMCs), effectively councillors put in charge of specific portfolios to assist the executive mayor, in line with Section 60 of the Municipal Structures Act. But coalition deals play a role here, as does a political party’s national leadership that’s taking charge. 

So what about this other system of collective executive committees?

It’s an option specific to local government — just like municipal elections are a mix of ward and proportional representation ballots. 

The collective executive committee system has, to date, been ignored, but it’s there in the Municipal Structures Act. And while it, at the least, requires a gazetted declaration by the relevant cooperative governance MEC after consultations, a collective committee system would reflect voters’ choice not to give a single party that 50-plus-one majority in three times as many councils as the 27 hung after the 2016 local government elections.  

“An executive committee must be composed in such a way that parties and interests represented in the municipal council are represented in the executive committee in substantially the same proportion they are represented in the council,” according to Section 43(2) of the Municipal Structures Act. 

A mayor would still be elected, although (s)he would basically be ceremonial, as the power lies with the system of executive committees that collectively run the councils.  

The collective executive committee system in Section 44 of the Municipal Structures Act has the same powers as an executive mayor outlined in Section 56 of the act. That includes identifying and reviewing the needs of a municipality, addressing priority needs through the integrated development plan and local budget and determining “the best way, including partnerships and other approaches, to deliver those strategies, programmes and services to the maximum benefit of the community”. 

Like the executive mayor system, the collective executive committee may establish committees under sections 79 and 80 to assist the council to do its job.  

But what must change is the winner-takes-control political mindset.  

Right now coalition talks are about getting the numbers in the executive mayor system 

Political parties had a moment of introspection as it became clear voters had stayed away — voter turnout stood at a historic low of 45.8%. But that was then. 

Now opposition parties are focused on the 2024 national and provincial elections, having smelt blood as the ANC scored its lowest national polling yet — 45.5%. 

“The DA’s job is not to save the ANC. We want to govern our own councils, set up our own clear blue water,” said DA leader John Steenhuisen in Tuesday’s briefing on its YouTube channel. The DA will not work with the ANC or the EFF, the party leadership confirmed again.  

EFF leader Julius Malema announced the door was closed to the ANC, hinting at potential strategic votes on an issue-to-issue basis.  

“No way the EFF will vote with the ANC. The door is closed, we are not taking any calls,” said Malema in a briefing broadcast on Newzroom Afrika. “The EFF is going to destabilise the ANC… where the ANC has 50%, 51% or 52%. We are working on something nice to teach them a lesson.”

The IFP will give a briefing on its positions on Wednesday. It’s understood its stance in KwaZulu-Natal is set to be different to elsewhere in what’s a hangover of historic rivalries. 

Like the DA and the EFF’s comfortableness with remaining in the opposition benches, the ANC publicly has also proclaimed its readiness to be a municipal opposition. 

However, the spin right from the get-go has been to emphasise ANC outright majorities in 167 councils and, as President Cyril Ramaphosa told the ANC’s “Thank You” event on 8 November, “… millions of people who voted for the ANC in the past chose to stay away from the polls. They chose to stay away rather than cast their votes for any other party.” 

It’s taking the win with the spin. 

 Do any coalitions exist — and where?

By the time Patriotic Alliance (PA) leader Gayton McKenzie on Tuesday went public with the deal with the ANC, the Laingsburg council in the Western Cape had gone to the ANC-PA coalition, with the support of the Karoo Gemeenskap Party and Karoo Democratic Force. As has Prince Albert, with Beaufort West expected to follow on Wednesday. 

The PA has publicly claimed two as yet undefined mayoral committee posts in Johannesburg, and the housing portfolio in Ekurhuleni, alongside several Western Cape council mayorships, deputy mayorships and at least one Speaker’s post. 

In Kannaland, Western Cape, the ANC with the Independent Civic Organisation of South Africa on Tuesday also clinched control after, according to News24, electing a convicted rapist and convicted fraudster as mayor and deputy. 

In Cederberg, the DA secured control with the Freedom Front Plus and newcomers Cederberg Eerste, which will get the mayorship on the DA’s proclaimed principle that the largest party has the most claim on the mayorship. 

And in Matzikama, the DA clinched the mayorship — with the “surprise” support of the EFF, according to DA Federal Council Chairperson Helen Zille on Tuesday. 

Other councils that have held their meetings include Midvaal, the DA-controlled council in Gauteng, on Tuesday.  

Constituting the new councils is under way. What are the issues?

Mostly numbers, and a hard statutory deadline. It’s all eyes on the push to delay Thursday’s Tshwane inaugural metro meeting — and on the 120-strong Nelson Mandela Bay Metro where both the DA and ANC have coalition headaches to get from their respective 48 seats to the minimum 61-seat majority without the eight EFF seats. 

Of the hung metros, Tshwane seems the least difficult — the opposition parties seem on track to get to the minimum 108-seat majority in the 214-strong council with a coalition of DA (69 seats), ActionSA (19), Freedom Front Plus (17), African Christian Democratic Party (2) and one each from the IFP and Good. 

An ANC-PA coalition deal has made an opposition-led coalition in Johannesburg tight — between them, the DA, ActionSA, FF+, IFP, ACDP and Good have 130 of the 136 required for the scantest majority. But without the EFF the ANC-PA deal will also struggle to put together a majority coalition in Johannesburg.  

Ditto in eThekwini, where the ANC holds 96 seats in the 222-strong council — and would have made the majority threshold with the EFF’s 24 seats. 

What happens when councils are not constituted?

With the ANC, DA and EFF all saying they are quite comfortable sitting in the opposition benches, a run on those opposition seats could well mean a stalemate. 

Whether that’s a tactic to effectively scupper a council to ultimately force a rerun election remains to be seen. It would be a deeply cynical move, even in South Africa’s loud and fierce politics. 

Precedence exists — Nquthu in northern KwaZulu-Natal. No council could be constituted after the August 2016 municipal poll as meetings collapsed into politicking or litigation. In February 2017 the then KwaZulu-Natal Cooperative Governance MEC Nomusa Dube-Ncube dissolved the council, and elections were held within the statutory 90-day window. According to the IEC, on 24 May 2017 the IFP won 19 seats at Nquthu, or four more than in 2016, against the ANC’s 11, or three less than in 2016, and one each for the DA, EFF and National Freedom Front — and constituted the council with its Speaker and mayor. 

Meanwhile, politicking potentially aimed at collapsing the electoral outcome has emerged at uMngeni, the DA’s first KwaZulu-Natal council, taken off the ANC.

After the acting municipal manager Sandile Buthelezi called the inaugural meeting, the suspended municipal manager arrived to preside, leading to the walkout of DA and EFF councillors.  

The acting municipal manager is understood to have written to the KwaZulu-Natal cooperative governance MEC to designate a presiding officer. And while the Municipal Structures Act, in Section 36, allows that “if the municipal manager is not available, a person designated by the MEC for local government, presides over the election of a speaker”, uMngeni has an acting municipal manager, who is available.  

The DA is set to talk about its court action on Wednesday. 

If councils can’t be established, what’s next?

Councils without a coalition majority agreement may go the route of minority governance, or issue-by-issue votes. It’s tricky, particularly when special majorities are needed to adopt local economic development plans. Political brinkmanship that marred previous coalition efforts in Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay Metro may see a multifold replay.  

If a council remains unconstituted, it may ultimately be dissolved and an election rerun held, according to Section 25 of the Municipal Structures Act. Simply put, it would be Nquthu over and over again. But, as in Nquthu in 2017, rerunning the elections may not get the hoped-for result. 

The bottom line?

It’s wait and see. For now. By 23 November, South Africa’s political parties will have shown their true colours. DM

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