SA’s broken politics leaves space for individual power grabs far beyond electoral success — here are two examples
While our fast-fracturing politics displays morbid symptoms, some are seizing this as a golden opportunity. Where no single party is able to control a council, some see this as a chance to take power for themselves, even if they lack a democratic mandate. Others may even be able to create a constituency for themselves in a broken political environment.
While there is much evidence of the service delivery and other massive problems created by broken coalitions in the City of Johannesburg and Nelson Mandela Bay (NMB), there are at least two examples of politicians who have used these situations to their advantage — and have almost flown under the radar while doing so.
The first is the city manager of NMB, Dr Noxolo Nqwazi; the second is the Speaker of Joburg, Colleen Makhubele. Both have been able to behave undemocratically and flourish because of the broken politics around them.
The behaviour of Nqwazi is easily the most egregious.
She faces corruption charges over the way she spent the metro’s money. She has refused to step down from her position despite being formally charged.
National Treasury has said it will not pay more than R800-million due to the city until steps have been taken against her.
This week, the council was due to hold a meeting to discuss her position. Then, as Daily Maverick’s Estelle Ellis reported, Nqwazi declared the positions of two councillors — the executive mayor and his MMC for safety and security — were officially “vacant”.
Her decision is based on what she says is correspondence from the party the two councillors belong to, the National Alliance (formerly known as the Northern Alliance), which has three councillors and is riven by deep divisions.
The consequence of her action is that the council will no longer vote to take action against her.
For the moment, the Electoral Commission has not officially declared the vacancies, which means that her decision to declare the vacancies may not stand.
On the face of it, this is a person who is facing serious charges finding a way to remain in office and depriving voters of being represented by the councillors they voted for.
Nqwazi is able to do this because the balance of power in NMB is so close that no one party or group of parties can control the situation.
It is also a demonstration of the broken politics within the governing party, as there is some evidence that ANC councillors want her to stay in office. This is in violation of the party’s own resolution that people who have been formally charged must step aside.
At the same time, the National Alliance is not the only small party that is divided.
A very visible Speaker
Something similar, but less serious, has happened in Joburg.
There, the Speaker, Colleen Makhubele, has been the most visible Speaker in the city’s history.
She has spent much time in Eldorado Park and has visited other communities. She has also held press conferences and issued statements.
There is nothing wrong with this, but it does appear to be part of a deliberate political campaign for her own agenda.
Makhubele is able to do this because of the peculiar position she is in.
She was the only Cope member elected to the council in Joburg in 2021, as a proportional representation councillor. Her party won a grand total of 0.22% of the vote. And, being Cope, it is split down the middle.
It seems likely that her party will not exist (at least in its current form) in the next local elections in 2026 (or even by next year’s national elections). This means that her political options are severely limited.
In short, all of this appears to be about her, rather than the residents of Joburg. She is surely trying to use her position to build up her own profile so she can run as an independent in a ward in 2026, in the absence of another choice.
And she may well be using council money to do this, as she is appearing as the council’s Speaker.
This is in keeping with her previous behaviour.
When she was elected Speaker (by members of the ANC and the EFF), she claimed it was a victory for minority parties. It may have been, but that does not mean it was a victory for democracy.
Rather, it was a victory for a small group of politicians representing a very small group of people, who were able to manoeuvre themselves into positions of power way beyond their electoral success.
Of course, Makhubele and Nqwazi are not the only people to turn our broken and fracturing politics into opportunities for themselves.
There is a collection of people who were elected mayors for the same reason, including the ATM’s mayor of Mogale City, Danny Thupane and the Al Jama-ah mayor of Joburg, Kabelo Gwamanda.
However, they are likely to become victims of this broken politics. When the taps stop flowing in Joburg, Gwamanda is immediately in the firing line.
Makhubele and Nqwazi have avoided taking full public responsibility when things go wrong.
However, that does not mean that they cannot harm the cities they work in.
In the case of Nqwazi, NMB has been denied an important amount of money. It is entirely possible that she will remain in her position for many more months. This will exacerbate the huge service delivery problems that the council already has.
In the end, it may only be a guilty verdict delivered by a court that dislodges her from her post.
As for Makhubele, she will probably be able to translate her current positioning into a bigger constituency for herself.
As more people grow disenchanted with our politics, fewer will vote, making it easier for someone like Makhubele to create their own constituency, as they will need fewer votes to win their seat.
Unfortunately, the scope for this kind of behaviour is only likely to increase. As our politics continues to fracture, it is likely that there will be more opportunities for people to create their own constituencies almost out of thin air. DM