Makhura’s ANC coalitions guidelines are a breath of fresh air in local politics’ toxic mess
While the state of the coalitions in local government is much lamented, a tiny window may be opening up for real changes in how they operate, which could lead to better governance. Any substantive changes will first have to win the ANC’s support, but with next year’s elections looming large this may be the best chance we have to avoid a coalition disaster.
On Sunday, the chair of the ANC’s coalitions committee, former Gauteng premier David Makhura, released a set of guidelines the party is studying before entering into deals with other parties.
It is worth noting how important this is. As Professor Steven Friedman has pointed out, this is the governing party of our country, facing possible defeat in the elections next year, which is focusing on how to manage that possibility, rather than cling to power illegally.
The other point to make before even examining the guidelines is that the ANC, through this process, could be imposing limitations on itself. The party does not know what next year’s results will be, both in the national government and the provinces. And it does not know what the local government picture will look like in 2026 either.
And yet, it is seeking to adopt these principles before all of that. The real test could well be in the hours and days after the results: Would the ANC stick to its own guidelines even if that prevented it from being able to form a dominant coalition?
In the meantime, some of the proposals are vitally important.
One of the suggestions is to pass a law that the party with the most seats would lead the executive. In other words, in a council, if the ANC won the highest number of votes, it would automatically appoint the mayor.
While this makes sense and would avoid a situation where someone like Al-Jama-ah’s Thapelo Amad is able to become mayor, it also has drawbacks.
It would probably work if a party won more than 40% of the vote. But what would happen in a council (or a province) if, say, the ANC won 30%, while the DA won 29% and ActionSA 28%? As the DA and ActionSA have worked with each other in the past, and both have ruled out working with the ANC, the ANC would appoint the mayor when it has no hope of forming a working coalition.
There are other suggestions, such as limiting the number of times parties can call for no-confidence votes. This would prevent power in councils from changing hands every week or so (as happened recently in Tshwane and on Monday in Joburg). Here the DA appears to agree with the ANC — it has made similar proposals.
But as has been pointed out before, this also has drawbacks. For example, what would happen if there was a no-confidence vote, a mayor survived it, and the next day video evidence of that mayor engaging in corruption emerged?
It may be impossible to remove that mayor for some time, despite obvious evidence of wrongdoing.
This would also make it easier for someone like Amad to remain in office, even if the bigger parties backing him (in his case, the ANC and the EFF) decided to withdraw their support. In short, this proposal makes sense, but, as with almost any idea, could have perverse consequences.
There is also a much bigger proposal, which would see the governance structure of some metros being changed dramatically.
At present, in cities like Cape Town, Joburg and Tshwane, the mayor can simply appoint councillors as members of the mayoral committee (MMCs) under what is called a mayoral executive system.
In practice, if a party wins control outright, all of those MMCs come from that party. In a coalition, those positions will be given to people from the parties within that coalition.
However, in eThekwini, there is a collective executive system, in which positions on the mayoral committee are shared by most of the parties who win votes.
The ANC suggests that this is more democratic as it forces power to be shared.
It is curious that the ANC never suggested this before when it was able to dominate most councils.
Recently, the Cogta MEC in the Eastern Cape, Zolile Williams, tried to force this kind of change on Nelson Mandela Bay. It just happened that he did this only after the ANC-dominated coalition lost control there and was replaced by a coalition dominated by the DA.
This has led the DA to say it will challenge this in court. It claims this is simply a power grab by the ANC angry that it has lost control of the metro.
This change has been suggested before by those who oppose the kind of politicking currently seen around positions on the mayoral committee.
However, that does not necessarily mean it will lead to improved governance.
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eThekwini is an almost perfect example of this. It has been unable to stop sewage flowing into its rivers, it has admitted to paying more than R570-million for repairs to streetlights that should have cost less than R100-million and its former mayor Zandile Gumede is on trial for corruption.
All of this happened under the system being proposed. While it is not a result of that system, clearly it failed to prevent these failures from occurring.
The ANC has not formally endorsed or accepted Makhura’s proposals. It is discussing them, and for now, the window for proposals is open.
This opportunity should not be wasted.
For example, it seems obvious that councillors should not be allowed to vote for speakers and mayors through a secret ballot. All that this has created is fertile ground for money to change hands and for local politicians to deceive each other.
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Still, this change could only be made if the ANC agrees to it. It is likely that the issue of coalitions will dominate our politics for the next few years. This period of discussion, this open window, might be our best hope to avoid the disasters we have seen in local government being replicated in the provinces and even the national government.
We dare not waste the opportunity. DM