Let the hustle begin: Many of South Africa’s metros are hung and unstable – how will it work?
Of the eight main metros in SA, only two can expect a relatively smooth political ride for the next five years. The other six are looking at a local government term marked by compromise, horse-trading, and probably a fair quantity of dirty tricks as the parties in those councils jostle for position.
If you are a resident of Buffalo City or Cape Town, you know who is governing your metro for the next five years: the ANC in the first case, and the DA in the second. As the dust settles from the post-election coalition wrangling, those are the only two main metros in South Africa where the two largest political parties can bask in the luxury of a healthy council majority. For the rest, the future is anything but certain.
In Mangaung, the ANC has taken power with a majority of a single seat. This means that there is no room for relaxing: a single by-election loss in the Free State capital would send the ANC scrambling for a coalition partner to maintain control.
In Nelson Mandela Bay, the ANC’s coalition has seen it secure exactly 50% of council seats – meaning that the party will need at least one opposition vote to pass its municipal budget.
This week it appeared that the unthinkable – a DA mayor – might happen in eThekwini (Durban) as the IFP turned its back on the ANC in dramatic circumstances. In the end, what enabled the ANC to claw a victory in eThekwini was the support of a historical backer of former president Jacob Zuma, former Greytown mayor PG Mavundla. Mavundla not only threw his Abantu Batho Congress’s two votes behind ANC mayoral candidate Mxolisi Kaunda, but also brought across most of the 14 small parties that have one seat each on the eThekwini council.
Kaunda ended up with the mayoral chain by just nine votes – so the ANC lives to fight another day in eThekwini, but is reduced to its weakest position ever there.
Most unstable of all are the political arrangements in both the City of Johannesburg and Ekurhuleni (East Rand), where the DA has been able to install mayors but no formal coalition agreements yet exist. That its mayoral candidates were able to win election owes much to the unexpected support of the EFF.
Yet as inexplicable as the EFF’s help might seem, it is in the Fighters’ political interests to throw their weight behind any moves that unseat the ANC from power. The path to growth for Julius Malema’s party is through a weaker ANC, even if that involves instructing its councillors to hold their noses and vote for DA mayors.
In Ekurhuleni and Johannesburg, the DA needs the votes of the EFF going forward to bring the stability necessary to govern effectively. DA federal council chair Helen Zille and leader John Steenhuisen have consistently said that they refuse to make the concessions to the EFF that former DA mayor Herman Mashaba found necessary in Johannesburg. Yet the support of the EFF will have to be secured in both metros to pass the budgets – and Malema is far too shrewd a political operator to freely give away his councillors’ votes.
The fact that the DA has ended up with mayoral chains in four of the eight main metros is an outcome that the party leadership should be thrilled with, given a performance in the local government elections that fell well short of its 2016 result. That the EFF can legitimately take credit for having installed a DA mayor in two of those four metros, however – Johannesburg and Ekurhuleni – will undoubtedly be the source of grit-your-teeth frustration for Zille and Steenhuisen, and virtually guarantees a baked-in instability in those councils.
When it comes to Tshwane, the DA may have an easier ride. If support from the Freedom Front Plus and ActionSA is consistent, the DA will not need EFF votes to govern.
On paper, a coalition between the DA, the Freedom Front Plus, ActionSA and smaller parties looks relatively stable: these entities have a fair amount of common cause, ideologically speaking. But the rough and tumble of the coalition negotiations have been especially bruising this year, and ActionSA president Herman Mashaba has made no secret of his unhappiness with the “arrogance” with which he accuses the DA of having conducted itself.
Indeed, ActionSA’s bronze medal performance in the Johannesburg elections made it a likely candidate to bag the mayoral chain in exchange for supporting the DA in Tshwane. But the DA’s refusal to countenance another Mashaba mayoral term – arguing that he in effect became an “EFF mayor” last time around – meant that ActionSA’s impressive electoral debut still did not translate into major spoils.
Based on Mashaba’s recent interviews, he will carry a grudge in this respect for some time. Add to this the historical beef that Mashaba has with Zille, given that her return to DA party structures was the cause of his resignation from the party, and it may take a while for hostility between the two parties to thaw – if it ever does.
In the hung metros where no formal coalitions exist, residents should expect governance to be a bumpy ride. If politicians absorbed any lesson from the local government polls, it should be that voters are increasingly intolerant of political chaos and its inevitable effects on service delivery.
Maturity – all too often a foreign concept in South African politics – will have to be the order of the day, together with a genuine sense of collaboration. The ANC’s new Nelson Mandela Bay mayor, Eugené Johnson, has already set a promising example in this regard by refusing to lay out plans for the five-year term before they have been thoroughly discussed with coalition partners.
In the past, the absence of formal coalitions in certain metros – Tshwane among them – has spelled something close to disaster. But this is by no means a universal precedent. In the Modimolle-Mookgophong municipality in Limpopo, the DA and the Freedom Front Plus coalition required the outside support of the EFF to govern – and did so with relative success for five years.
This Waterberg municipality has pockets of some of the most conservative and most radical voters in the country, but the opposition was able to put pragmatism ahead of ideology in this instance.
It’s an example that shows nothing is impossible in politics as long as egos are able to be set aside. A hopeful observer might suggest that a marriage of convenience – or even a no-strings-attached fling – between the DA and EFF could ultimately benefit residents, perhaps resulting in the tempering of the EFF’s most radical stances while ensuring the DA governs for the benefit of the poorest as well as wealthier citizens.
Bitter experience in recent years with high-profile coalition disasters – perhaps most notably in Nelson Mandela Bay – may make ordinary South Africans justifiably anxious of the coalition country that is now well and truly upon us. But it has to be hoped that the shock administered by the 1 November election results, particularly for the ANC, will galvanise politicians across the board into a renewed awareness that they exist to serve the people, and not the other way round. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.