The cotton wool principles – in local politics, the ANC’s short-term gains pile up long-term problems
While South Africa’s most important political dynamic at the moment would appear to be the relationship between the ANC and the EFF, another set of issues may further complicate future coalitions. On that question, there now seems to be real tension between the ANC’s provincial and regional power centres and Luthuli House itself, further muddying the already messy political picture.
On Tuesday last week, members of the ANC’s Joburg caucus refused to vote in favour of a second mayoral candidate from Al Jama-ah. It’s understood that the real reason is the ANC national executive committee’s (NEC) decision that the party with the biggest share of the vote should select the mayor.
This was despite what appeared to be the wishes of the Gauteng ANC leader, Premier Panyaza Lesufi. He oversaw an agreement with the EFF in Gauteng, where the ANC formed a coalition with that party in Ekurhuleni. He had hoped the same would happen in Joburg.
In the end, it appears ANC Secretary-General Fikile Mbalula was called in to mediate some form of solution. Considering that both he and Lesufi have said publicly the ANC would work with the EFF, it came as no surprise that in the end another minority party mayor was elected by councillors from both of these parties.
But that does not mean that all of the ANC’s councillors in Joburg are happy with how things have turned out. They must now explain to their constituencies why they voted this way, when it turned out so badly in the form of Tapelo Amad the last time.
They might complain that, initially, the ANC NEC’s relevant committee proposed a set of principles demanding that the party with the biggest share of the vote should choose the mayor, and then their own secretary-general told them to go another way.
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In short, it appears the secretary-general of the ANC told councillors to ignore the NEC.
All of this poses more risks for the ANC. It has already seen councillor rebellions in places like Tlokwe, Lephalale, and more recently, Mangaung.
The Mangaung example is crucial. It shows that some ANC councillors were happy to vote for a DA speaker, simply because they refused to accept orders imposed on them by national and provincial leaders.
It is surely not too far of a stretch to suggest that the same set of issues could soon plague the ANC in a Gauteng metro.
This gets to the heart of the tensions between the national ANC, the provincial ANC and the local councillors.
Analyst Levy Ndou has suggested that these rebellions happen because the ANC is ignoring local dynamics. He believes that the ANC could save itself a lot of this trouble if it allowed its leaders on the ground, in regions and councils, to make their own decisions.
It is certainly true that local leaders have rebelled against the national ANC in the past.
Perhaps the most fractious example was in Tshwane in 2016, when violent protests broke out between ANC factions after Luthuli House tried to impose Thoko Didiza as a mayoral candidate in a bid to break an impasse.
However, there are many risks lurking in the shadows, should local ANC leaders be given power to make these decisions.
It is clear that the ANC is not united in the decision to work with the EFF. While Lesufi and Mbalula clearly support such collaboration, others do not. At least one ANC leader, Veterans’ League convenor Snuki Zikalala, has said publicly he would prefer the ANC to work with the DA. While he is probably not in the majority, it’s unlikely he would be speaking out if there was no agreement from others.
Regionalisation of the ANC
These tensions could be reflected in how different regions make decisions. For example, the ANC in one Joburg metro could form a coalition with the EFF and the others could join forces with the DA, which could also lead them to vote for different policies just to keep the coalitions going.
Imagine, for example, if ANC councillors in Ekurhuleni voted to insource workers while ANC councillors in Joburg voted to outsource workers? This would render the ANC more of a collection of regional parties than a cohesive and coherent political party in itself, making it almost impossible to manage.
Worse, it could even lead to a process of “regionalisation” in the ANC, where different regions stand for entirely different things.
But this is not nearly the end of it.
Matter of principles
It is not clear that in bigger regions there will not be differences of opinion on what to do, as we have seen among ANC councillors in Joburg.
If there are no principles to follow, or if those principles will be ignored, then how can disputes within regions be settled?
In the Joburg case, and this may be a vital point, the ANC NEC adopted principles and then the secretary-general effectively told councillors to ignore them.
In future, should there be a dispute between councillors, what principles would Mbalula follow to resolve it? He has already shown that the NEC’s principles can be ignored, so, in future, councillors could possibly ignore him too.
With no principles to follow, the disputes within regions could become impossible to resolve. It would become but a test of strength, of numbers, that could go on and on.
Amad did not last long as mayor of Joburg – and new Mayor Kabelo Gwamande may not last much longer. There is a reason why smaller parties do not do well in elections, and that may be related to their human resources.
It could be relatively soon that the ANC’s Joburg caucus is again called on to vote for a new mayor. And while it may have been relatively easy for Mbalula and Luthuli House to resolve the dispute this time, the way in which they have managed it will probably make it harder the next time.
In politics, principles do matter. Without them, there is no guide, no way to resolve disputes.
But also, there is nothing to offer voters. As parties find it harder to differentiate themselves from one another, and to form cohesive political identities, this process of disregarding principles mere days after adopting them is likely to make it harder for the ANC to attract voters.
It also suggests that the party is falling prey to extreme short-termism while creating much bigger longer-term problems with reckless abandon. DM