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After the Bell: The new Joburg council goes nuts

After the Bell: The new Joburg council goes nuts
Illustrative image | Sources: Ousted Johannesburg mayor Mpho Phalatse. (Photo: Gallo Images / Luba Lesolle) | Gallo Images | Rawpixel

The parties involved have treated the process of running the city like a pack of hyenas fighting over a fresh kill.

As every manager knows, change management is an art. I remember seeing a cartoon showing a speaker talking to a whole bunch of people. She asks, “Who wants change?” and everybody puts up their hands. Then she asks, “Who wants to change?” and nobody puts up their hands. And then she asks, “Who wants to lead change?” and the crowd vanishes.

Why is change so difficult? Some reasons are obvious: familiarity (in fact) breeds security and certainty. You hit a groove and it feels comfortable and predictable. That’s worth a lot.

But some reasons are harder to see, particularly if you are rooted in the system. Another cartoon depicts a board meeting with someone saying, “What if we just go on as before and something miraculous happens?” It’s like my favourite quote of the week from comedian Conan O’Brien: “When all else fails, there’s always delusion.”

Change in government is particularly hard because it comes with its own peculiarities. I read one analysis that said part of the problem is mindset. People in government are focused on what is broken and how to fix it, rather than on how to do more of what is working. But the government has other problems too: entrenched party officials in the bureaucracy, entrenched and protected employees, and entrenched attitudes about what politics is supposed to be about.

But in SA, the problems of change are really intense because, in part, the process requiring changes in government is unfamiliar to us because of the ANC’s dominance over (or, dare I say, entrenchment in) the political process. But you know, we better get used to it because I suspect changes are going to start happening quickly now.

Nothing illustrates this better than the recent ousting of the DA’s Joburg mayor, Mpho Phalatse. Just for the record, this is the country’s most important business centre and home to more than six million people. But the parties involved have treated the process of running the city like a pack of hyenas fighting over a fresh kill.

Two political issues are at the core of the problem. First is the ANC’s belief that there is only one acceptable ruling party, and that is them. And you can see why: the ANC’s electoral majority was overwhelming for more than 22 years when it had absolute power. The party still gets the most votes in Johannesburg. In the 2016 election, its support dropped to 45% of the electorate during the State Capture period. The DA almost caught the party that year, getting 38% of the vote. At this point, the DA won control of the Joburg council with the support of the EFF.

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The second political issue is that having got so close, the DA then blew it, somehow managing to alienate some of its most promising members, including the then mayor, Herman Mashaba. In the 2021 election, Mashaba’s party stood on its own and got 13% of the vote. But apart from that, and the fact that the ANC lost even more support, little has changed. The DA and Mashaba’s party, ActionSA, together got the same support as the DA got on its own in 2016.

With the ANC down to 33% of the vote — still the largest single party due to the DA’s ineptitude — the party can only rule with the support of the EFF and a range of smaller parties. Power has shifted from the largest parties to the smallest. We are now deep in the nutty period.

What happened then is extremely instructive. Phalatse was voted in as mayor, as you might expect since the DA and ActionSA are, one presumes, more or less allied and together came pretty close to a majority of the vote. But recently the coalition has fallen apart mainly because, it turns out, the newly rampant Patriotic Alliance demanded control of the economic ministry — all the better to grab contracts and tenders, one suspects. The DA refused to give it to them, and the coalition crumbled.

So what happens next? Well, it turns out, the new power brokers want not simply control, but total control. Acting City Manager Bryne Maduka sent out a letter four days after his appointment saying all major strategic decisions taken by all the 13 entities in the city after September 2022 were suspended. Just like that. I am not making this up. And no board meetings were allowed to take place without his express permission. Apparently, he backtracked a bit, but how much we don’t yet know. The astounding letter is available here.

I mean, I ask you; this is a city, once responsible for nearly 10% of the continent’s GDP, that is now failing to provide hospitals with water. One of the affected organisations is, of course, Johannesburg Water. The intention is to freeze several forensic investigations and senior management suspensions for misconduct. That’s why the letter is backdated to September last year.

This action stimulated an extraordinary response from an organisation not known for its political interventions, the Institute of Directors in South Africa (IoDSA). In a wonderful example of mammoth understatement, the IoDSA CEO, Parmi Natesan, said if true, “It’s hard not to see this move as a departure from good governance.” Hahaha.

She also said it was “questionable” whether any appointed board could be prevented from discharging its legal duties. “King IV makes it clear that boards should hold as many meetings as necessary to discharge their obligations, so presumably they cannot be prevented from doing that,” she said in a statement.

Well, you know, obviously.  As my colleague Rebecca Davis tells us here, there are a whole bunch of reasons why coalitions are falling apart. As she points out, SA needs to get used to political change and develop a ruleset to deal with it. But at root, as long as elected representatives care more about themselves than their electorate, no stock of rules for coalitions is going to help. DM/BM

Gallery

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Dennis Bailey says:

    We know this, Tim. So what rules are being suggested by whom with what interest? Someone must be doing some thinking about coalitions somewhere – or not? That would be newsworthy.

  • Hermann Funk says:

    From Rama-phoria to Rama-catastrophe.

  • Frank Thompson says:

    They are like hyenas fighting over the rotting corpse of the city. Public servants here to help solve problems – NOT!

  • Ritchie Morris says:

    Government: the political direction & control exercised over the actions of the members, citizens of communities, societies, & states; direction of the affairs of a state, community, etc; political administration. Cambridge dictionary = ‘the group of people who officially control a country’. A ‘government’ is a noun, to govern = ACTION. If government is elected by the majority people, and it repeatedly fails due to incompetence & lack of leaders with integrity & managerial skills, then who is to blame? The leaders elected, or the people who elected them? If people repeatedly elect poor leaders, should their right to elect be retained or curtailed in some way? If leaders who are repeatedly elected – as some old people are in the SA Government, & continue to fail in governing, should they retain the right to be re-elected? Who decides? What is apparent, here & internationally, is that politics has become a profession performed by people with often little technical & managerial skills. Many of our current politicians can be defined as ‘someone who says a lot about nothing and does little’. As per the first sentence, the CONTROL exercised by politicians exceeds their ability to use it sensibly. Control and decision making at the managerial and action level needs to be given back to the line managers, Directors, Dept Managers, Municipal Managers – scientists and engineers. The problem is incompetent people were put in these positions by politicians over the past 10 to 20 years

    • dylan smith says:

      yes well said just as a further point There is an interesting correlation to stability of a civilization and its capacity to accept reposibility within the collective. It appears one of the core tenets of the anc is to avoid any kind of responsibility what so ever. One suspects this was developed over years of fighting a subversive fight against apartheid, while ultimately successful it has turned out to be a poison chalice, one that does not seem to have a reasonable end. Simply said should the anc and its members begin to take responsibility of governing the people the party would be torn apart. It is simply impossible for the goals of our leaders to align with those of the common good.

  • nickha says:

    This really is mind boggling! The crash is taking place in full view of voters. Who will take the blame?

  • Glyn Morgan says:

    So, the initial problem is Herman Mashaba. This is from the article – “DA then blew it, somehow managing to alienate some of its most promising members”. I would like to know just what the DA did to “blew it”? I get the feeling that the problem was that some of the smaller parties, including Herman Mashaba, found that if they would get some power if the went crazy.

  • Patterson Alan John says:

    The millions of words penned about advice and what needs to be done about the dire situation in South Africa has fallen on the deaf ears of Government. I have yet to find one instance when Government has considered and acted positively to a suggestion by experienced and capable people.
    Rama-pause-a remains ineffectual as mayhem surrounds him. Pull up another chair and let’s have another chat about what we should do.
    What CEO in the commercial would last but a few days, if this chaos existed in his company?
    If you can, pack up and go to another country.
    Encourage your children to look for overseas opportunities.
    Nothing will ever improve.
    Hope may spring eternal, but hard reality should drive your decisions.

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