The politics of disruption: ANC councillors’ destructive path is likely to hurt the party in 2024 elections
The past few days have provided evidence that those predicting chaos in local government after last year’s elections may have been correct.
The Johannesburg City Council has seen disruptions amid a debate on whether voting for the positions of council chairs should be held in secret or by a show of hands. This has seen the DA-led coalition pitted against the ANC, the EFF and a few other smaller parties. Perhaps the real question to ask is whether any of this behaviour, and the disruptions in the council, will lead to these parties gaining support.
It also leads to questions about whether it is possible to demand a vote by secret ballot when the councillors are not voting for themselves, but for the people who voted for them. It also begs the question: will voters punish disruptive behaviour at the general election in 2024?
Last week a Joburg council meeting scheduled to elect the chairs of committees descended into chaos when the ANC and the EFF demanded that the voting take place through a secret ballot. The DA-led coalition (including ActionSA, the FF+, the ACDP, Cope and the IFP) wanted a show of hands, arguing that this is what has happened in the past. The ANC said the law says that Speakers and mayors can be elected by secret ballot. The law is silent on other votes, but the ANC still claimed this set a precedent.
Whatever the law, the moral case for this may be hard to justify.
As Professor Steven Friedman has argued, it is surely undemocratic that those elected to represent voters in councils have the right to vote in that council by secret ballot. Should those who voted for them not know what their councillor did? If the voters do not know, how can they hold the councillors accountable?
It should also be remembered that this council has seen a councillor vote against their party. Then, at least one DA councillor said he had voted for the ANC’s candidate for mayor, after the resignation of Herman Mashaba. At least he said what he had done, and his community could then decide whether it agreed or not.
When this was put to the ANC’s caucus leader, the former mayor Mpho Moerane, on SAfm, he appeared to find it difficult to answer. He quoted the law, but did not provide a moral case for councillors to vote via a secret ballot.
The ANC had also found it difficult to explain its councillors’ actions in the first meeting last week.
Moerane described their conduct as “singing and pushing”, but denied the DA’s claims that his councillors were guilty of assault. (One person pushing another may well fall under the definition of assault, though. The SAPS website describes “assault” in this way: “Assault consists of unlawfully and intentionally applying force to the person of another.” For Moerane to admit “pushing” may in fact be an admission rather than a defence.
Worse for the ANC, its Chief Whip, Eunice Mgcina, claimed on Newzroom Afrika on Monday that ANC councillors had not used violence. While she was making the comments, the channel was showing images of her councillors pushing other councillors.
On Tuesday this week, when the council met again, the parties opposed to the DA-led coalition complained that they had not received bottles of water for the meeting, presumably because they can be used as weapons.
(There is plenty of history for this: in the National Assembly the EFF once disrupted a meeting over exactly the same issue, and in Nelson Mandela Bay the ANC’s Andile Lungisa served a short jail term for breaking a glass jug over a DA councillor’s head).
Eventually, the DA-led coalition was able to gather votes from the Patriotic Alliance, which allowed it to vote Cope’s Colleen Makhubele to the position of “chair of chairs” of the committees.
However, other parties then left the chamber, meaning there was no quorum for the votes for other positions to continue.
These events appear to show that parties like the EFF and the ANC intend to disrupt proceedings where possible, at least in Joburg.
But it is not clear that this will be an effective strategy.
The DA is only able to lead a coalition in Joburg because the EFF voted for the DA Speaker and mayor. When the EFF complained in interviews on Wednesday that it was unhappy with Speaker Vasco da Gama, the obvious response was that he was only there because they had voted for him.
This underscores the EFF’s problem: it voted for DA Speakers and mayors in Ekurhuleni and Joburg (in Tshwane the ANC withdrew its candidates before the vote); now it appears to be working against them.
However, for the ANC the problems may be greater.
The local election results clearly show how close the 2024 national and provincial elections will be, and how the ANC may well fall below 50% (and thus have to share power with a smaller party).
It is not clear that a policy of disruption will lead to the party winning more votes. To put it another way, does the ANC seriously believe that disrupting a vote over water bottles will win it votes in what will be a closely contested provincial election in Gauteng in just over two years’ time?
There may also be another consequence of the ANC’s behaviour here, which boosts the DA-led coalition in Joburg.
The DA never expected to have its mayor elected; this is clear from the fact that its Ekurhuleni mayoral candidate in the election, Refiloe Nt’sekhe, was not present for the election in that chamber, and Tania Campbell found herself suddenly elected mayor there.
This shows how weak the coalition the DA currently leads must be. It is likely to be made weaker by the presumed inclusion of the Patriotic Alliance, which voted with the coalition on Tuesday. Their interests are so divergent that it will make it hard to manage this coalition.
However, this may actually help Joburg mayor Mpho Phalatse.
DA councillors, with other councillors from the coalition parties, found themselves in a physical confrontation with the ANC. This may well have the impact of forcing these coalition partners closer together, as the fact that they faced a physical threat together may well have been a bonding experience.
(It didn’t work with the US congresspeople and senators, though, after the 6 January 2021 insurrection. – Ed)
At the same time, there are other tactics that the ANC could have used in a more clinical way. It could, for example, have approached some of the smaller parties in the coalition and offered them important positions in other councils, perhaps the mayoralty in a smaller council in another province. This would have proven difficult for a smaller party to resist. As a result, the ANC could have regained control of Joburg.
But it has not done this; instead, it appears to have merely displayed frustration, not a good point on the résumé of the party wanting to earn a chance to run Africa’s top city again.
This may also be because of recent events in the ANC caucus in Joburg. First, the former mayor Geoff Makhubo died from Covid-19. Then Jolidee Matongo was elected mayor before dying in a car accident.
This may mean that the caucus itself has not recovered from these events and has not yet been able to properly organise itself
This kind of behaviour is not confined to Joburg, however.
In Ekurhuleni, Mzwandile Masina is no longer the mayor and is reduced to merely leading the ANC caucus. Instead of concentrating on that role this week, on Tuesday he tweeted about the rule of law and the courts, a favourite pastime for an RET luminary these days. In a tweet that may be linked to the debate sparked by Tourism Minister Lindiwe Sisulu about the courts, he commented on a high court decision striking down the Aarto road traffic legislation.
After including a screengrab from a television channel’s coverage of the issue he said, “Last week it was a decision on Aarto, now this👇🏿. Courts must as well go contest for political power”.
It is not certain that this is a rational argument. Courts decide disputes brought before them, a dispute was brought before them and a judge ruled. How Masina comes to the conclusion that courts must “contest for political power” is not clear.
However, it does demonstrate that he may be more interested in the ANC’s internal power dynamics and its leadership battle than in regaining political power for his party in Ekurhuleni.
He may not be the only person in the ANC focused in this way, which could hinder the party’s attempts to regain power in some metros.
While the politics of disruption may be popular in Joburg, it is simply not productive over the longer term. It does not appear to lead to more people voting for a party.
And in the meantime, despite all of the energy on display in the Joburg Council Chamber recently, not one pothole, traffic light or electricity connection was fixed. DM