Defend Truth

ROAD TO 2024 ELECTIONS

Former mayor Mpho Phalatse shares lessons from Joburg’s most self-destructive coalition

Former mayor Mpho Phalatse shares lessons from Joburg’s most self-destructive coalition
Former Johannesburg Mayor Dr Mpho Phalatse sat down with Daily Maverick senior political journalist Queenin Masuabi to unpack the challenges and opportunities associated with coalitions. (Photo: Supplied)

The Friedrich Naumann Foundation hosted its Freedom Dialogue on Wednesday, where former Johannesburg mayor Mpho Phalatse unpacked the challenges and opportunities facing coalitions with Daily Maverick senior journalist Queenin Masuabi.

Battles for power, an air of mistrust and factionalism within coalitions were discussed at the Friedrich Naumann Foundation’s Freedom Dialogue with former Johannesburg mayor Dr Mpho Phalatse and Daily Maverick senior journalist Queenin Masuabi on Wednesday, 6 March.

In a conversation moderated by Masuabi, Phalatse regaled a room of concerned citizens, members of civil society and political leaders with her experience of leading the largest coalition in the City of Johannesburg’s history and being the first female mayor of the metro.

phalatse joburg coalition

The Friederich Nauman Foundation hosted a freedom dialogue about coalitions with Dr Mpho Phalatse and Daily Maverick senior journalist Queenin Masuabi on Wednesday, 6 March. (Photo: Supplied)

“Ideally, you need an administration that can be insulated from political instability. You need technocrats in the city to carry on the work of delivering services regardless of what is happening at the political level. Often, that’s not what happens,” Phalatse said.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Elections 2024

She was the executive mayor of Johannesburg in a DA-led coalition from November 2021 to January 2023. The coalition crashed and burned when Phalatse was ousted in a vote of no confidence on 26 January 2023, the second vote of no confidence that passed during her mayorship.

Read more in Daily Maverick: How the Multi-Party Charter could make history at the 2024 polls

Phalatse said her ousting served to highlight just how unstable coalition governments can be.

“A good example is when I was [first] ousted in September for 25 days,” Phalatse said.

“At the time, another mayor [the ANC’s Dada Morero] came in, but during a mayoral committee meeting, they received news that my ousting was illegal.”

Phalatse was reinstated, but the damage had already been done. When stepping down as mayor, Morero said to officials, “I’ll be back next week.”

“You put yourself in the shoes of those officials. So, a lot of officials started calculating what was likely to happen. He said he’d be back. [The ANC] has the numbers. [They] don’t see the DA and their partners having a strategy, so [they] … play it safe,” Phalatse said.

“Unfortunately, because of that, the city gets affected, service delivery gets affected, people start dragging their feet and there is sabotage.” 

Phalatse saw at first-hand how messy coalition politics can be and her experience begs the question: Is South Africa ready for a coalition government on the national level?

Multiple polls have projected that a national coalition may be in the future of South African politics after the general election on 29 May. That prospect comes with governance concerns after voters witnessed coalition after coalition crumble when political parties put power before the people.

“This is why it is important for us to continue these conversations around coalitions because this is what we’re potentially facing after May 29th — coalition government at provincial, and possibly, national level,” Masuabi said.

Hostile negotiations and worthless coalition agreements

Signs that the City of Johannesburg coalition was doomed were already evident long before Phalatse’s dramatic ousting. According to Phalatse, the DA’s road to building the coalition was fraught with mistrust, dishonesty and hostile negotiations. 

The DA went into the coalition negotiations that took place after the 2021 local elections expecting that because it won 71 seats, its voice would be the strongest in the coalition.

“This caused a lot of discontent from other parties. There was disagreement on whether our voices are the same irrespective of the number of seats we bring to the coalition.”

Despite the constant engagement, Phalatse said that on the day she was elected mayor, 22 November 2022, the DA had no coalition partner. 

“I recall that the morning of the press briefing when we were to announce the coalition … we actually had no coalition. We met online until very late at night, and we still ended up with no coalition. There were no agreements on which portfolios should go to the political parties.”  

Describing the negotiations as antagonistic, Phalatse said there was a lot of horse-trading and a coalition was finally formed, with the DA dominating.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Stable coalitions depend on politicians and political parties being honest and principled

Masuabi highlighted concerns over political parties placing emphasis on what position each party would get rather than focusing on ensuring Johannesburg residents were served by the most qualified candidates.

Phalatse responded: “You are absolutely right. However, those initial negotiations were not really based on what position people were getting. But there was gross mistrust.

“So if, for instance, you have the mayorship and you don’t have the speaker’s position, you’re left in a vulnerable position. As you saw what played out, Vasco da Gama [from the DA] was ousted as speaker, and Colleen Makhubele [from Cope] came in. It was easy to oust me as mayor,” Phalatse said.

When crafting the coalition agreement, Phalatse said the party learnt from the DA-led coalition of 2016, which ultimately fell apart under Herman Mashaba, who was mayor at the time. The party drew up a coalition agreement ahead of the 2021 election, but “that agreement was not worth the paper it was written on. It was not enforceable. It had many gaps. A lot of the gaps we could discount if we were dealing with reasonable people,” Phalatse said.

She added that one issue with coalition agreements is that they are not legally binding and parties can walk away from them without recourse.

Trouble with ActionSA

Phalatse revealed that ActionSA, which won the third-largest number of votes in the 2021 election, emerged as a rival in the coalition government.

“The history between the DA and ActionSA is noteworthy and is not to be taken lightly. Herman Mashaba, the founder of ActionSA, was a DA mayor. When he left the Democratic Alliance, he was disgruntled. He felt he was pushed out of the DA.”

Phalatse recalled an incident at a Youth Day event when ActionSA held a demonstration just as she was set to give an address at the Hector Pieterson Memorial.

“At the time, we were already in coalition with ActionSA. Just at the time I was supposed to give my address, as is tradition every year, they surrounded the place and started singing and dancing for me not to give the address.”

Phalatse said she often felt undermined and unsupported by ActionSA in the coalition government, and that the party felt it had to disassociate itself from the “DA lite” moniker it had been given by the public.

“They needed to outdo the DA. They were not supportive of me as mayor and often undermined my authority. They did not allow me to do oversight over their work and did not really work well transversely with other portfolios outside of ActionSA. So, by far, they were the most difficult coalition partners to work with.”  

While the DA had fairly good working relationships with the IFP, FF+ and ACDP, which had portfolios in the coalition, there was heavy opposition from smaller parties like Cope, which made governing the metro difficult, she said.

ActionSA national chairperson Michael Beaumont told Daily Maverick Phalatse’s comments were “regrettable and revisionist, especially given that ActionSA did more to protect her mayoralty than her own party did.

“Like many in the DA, Dr Phalatse viewed the role of coalition partners [was] to cheerlead mediocrity unconditionally. 

“The truth is that the DA were the toughest opponents of Dr Phalatse’s tenure as mayor which, by all accounts, did not deliver any remarkable legacy to the residents of Johannesburg other than being short-lived and unstable.”

Beaumont referred to the dispute between ActionSA and the DA over the proposed appointment of Johann Mettler as city manager in 2022, noting that Phalatse had met him prior to his interview, risking the appointment being overturned in court. The DA at the time accused ActionSA of undermining its coalition partner.

“Phalatse calls this undermining, most would see this as good governance through coalition partners who hold one another to account,” said Beaumont.

According to an amaBhungane report at the time, the then-mayor’s spokesperson denied having a preferred candidate for the position.

“In order to get the most competitive field for the strongest city manager possible, Mpho’s office reached out to many people besides Johann Mettler… There is nothing wrong with a meeting,” a DA insider said.

Creating stability in coalitions

Despite her experience, Phalatse does believe there are ways to remedy the issues facing coalition governments.

She said the DA had invested in research and looked at best international practice in Denmark, Germany and Kenya, where coalition politics is already in play on the national level.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Coalition building is no easy task, South Africa should look carefully at success stories like Finland

The party had developed a private member’s bill that proposes five points.

The first was the introduction of a percentage threshold for every seat to ensure that smaller parties did not dominate negotiations. 

“Denmark has it, Germany has it, but we don’t have it here. That’s why Al Jama-ah has the mayorship of Johannesburg with three seats when the ANC has 91,” Phalatse said.

Second, the DA proposed ensuring that coalition agreements were enforceable and legally binding.  

“The third one is to have an independent registrar of political parties, who will be the secretary for coalition agreements, publicise them and hold political parties accountable. I think that’s a really good one,” said Phalatse. 

Fourth, “the Democratic Alliance has also proposed increasing the negotiation time between the election outcomes and the formation of government”.

Last, the DA wanted to reduce the frequency of motions of no confidence. Phalatse faced three failed motions of no confidence before she was finally ousted.

“There was a motion every month. There was no limit. It’s ridiculous and it doesn’t bode well for service delivery.”  

The ANC is working on developing a framework to better enable coalitions, which Phalatse said shared similarities with the DA’s proposals.

Read more in Daily Maverick: DA’s constitutional amendment proposal to limit coalition instability after 2024 election met with lukewarm reception

“The question is, are [these frameworks] going to be as good as the paper they are written on, or are they just going to be another paper that they’re not able to implement at the end of the day?” Phalatse asked.

Thirty years of democracy

Reflecting on 30 years of democracy, Phalatse ruminated on what South Africa had in 1994 that it didn’t have now.

“Here’s what I see. We had unity as South Africans, but we have great fragmentation now. We had the Freedom Charter as a vision that we all bought into, but we also had leadership. We had elders.

“There was an ability to rally parties together and leaders of different groupings to say, how do we transition together without going into civil war, without going into chaos? We don’t have that kind of leadership, unfortunately, today. It’s every man for himself.”

She said that while South Africa had many different political parties, many of which differed ideologically, they were basically advocating the same policies and principles.

“I look forward to a time when we start to unify again and we start to consolidate.” DM

Gallery

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Bernhard Scheffler says:

    Most important. The DA proposals set forth above appear sound and essential. And if necessary may be modified in light of experience elsewhere (or here).

    Most of us agree that the anc cannot be allowed to continue destroying South Africa. But that will be of little use if coalitions like that now in Joburg are allowed to destroy our beloved country.

  • James Fulton Fulton says:

    Coalitions don’t work in SA it seems
    It requires incumbents to deliver services balance books appoint the right people to run the city
    This is not happening and as infrastructure crumbles the same people get elected
    The mantra is that the people get the government they deserve
    When will the electorate wake up to this ???

    • ST ST says:

      Agree that coalitions don’t seem to work in SA. Case in point the 300+ parties. Everyone think they have a ‘unique bright idea’. Coalitions are not easy thing’s anywhere. UK tried it.

      Like any successful partnership, coalitions need high intellectual capabilities (in logic and reasoning) but also emotional and social IQs. Willingness to learn, listen, see others point of view even if in disagreement is essential. This is addition to having a clear understanding of why you’re there to begin with; excellent service provision to the constituents.

      In other words, one must be a well rounded grown up. Clearly most of SA party leaders and members lack these attributes. For those who have them, trying to create a shared vision with those who lack them is a tall order. It must like trying to get a child to make grown up decisions. No disrespect.

  • District Six says:

    “It’s every man [sic] for himself.” Voters already know this. It is why all political parties have a trust deficit with the electorate and is likely to entrench voter apathy. The more voters stay away from voting the less likely the election outcome will change. The 2024 election could be a game-changer, or it could encourage non-voting.

  • District Six says:

    It seems all too clear that political parties are just not offering anything that speaks to our national crisis beyond the normal negative electioneering.

    Point in case. The EFF arrived on the scene, somewhat negatively, with Malema being kicked out of the ANC. The EFF was a real disruptor. They fired up the SONA at a time when the ANC were blatantly lying to the public (knowingly, as Mbalula has now admitted). The EFF new-comers did what the DA has no vision to do.
    But then, the EFF simply followed the same playbook, the tired and lame game plan that is by now merely disruptive rather than being a political disruptor. Yawn, EFF.

    This illustrates well the lack of vision of our current political parties. Much of it is the politics of revenge. EFF, DA, COPE, … Much as I hate to say it, the IFP seems to have actually matured the most as a party, from the days of the IFP-ANC war in the Midlands during the 80s and 90s.

    The DA too, is much focussed on the ANC, and yet has failed in successive elections to increase its ballot. The ANC is such a disaster, why can’t the DA gain votes off it?
    What does that tell one? It tells me that the narrow white base of the DA cannot grow the party. It is just mathematical: they have reached their ceiling of 20% off 8% of the demographic.
    Now we face the real spectre of national coalitions. Eish.

    • Hidden Name says:

      The simple reason the DA cannot grow enough (and btw, it has pretty sizeable non-white support as well) is the fact that the perception is constantly enforced that it IS a whites only party who only favours policies which support white people etc. Obviously, this isn’t true – but it doesn’t stop the other parties (and the media) from implying it and supporting the narrative, which is a pretty dicey thing to do. Proof is in the pudding as they say – and its incontrovertible that the areas which have been governed stably by the DA are far better off than anywhere else. But of course, its easy to race bait and deflect the conversation elsewhere.

  • District Six says:

    It seems all too clear that political parties are just not offering anything that speaks to our national crisis beyond the normal negative electioneering.

    Point in case. The EFF arrived on the scene, somewhat negatively, with Malema being kicked out of the ANC. The EFF was a real disruptor. They fired up the SONA at a time when the ANC were blatantly lying to the public (knowingly, as Mbalula has now admitted). The EFF new-comers did what the DA has no vision to do.
    But then, the EFF simply followed the same playbook, the tired and lame game plan that is by now merely disruptive rather than being a political disruptor. Yawn, EFF.

    This illustrates well the lack of vision of our current political parties. Much of it is the politics of revenge. EFF, DA, COPE, … Much as I hate to say it, the IFP seems to have actually matured the most as a party, from the days of the IFP-ANC war in the Midlands during the 80s and 90s.

    The DA too, is much focussed on the ANC, and yet has failed in successive elections to increase its ballot. The ANC is such a disaster, why can’t the DA gain votes off it?
    What does that tell one? It tells me that the narrow white base of the DA cannot grow the party. It is just mathematical: they have reached their ceiling of 20% off 8% of the demographic.
    Now we face the real spectre of national coalitions. Eish.

  • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

    Please come back Mpho – South Africa needs you. Our people need you.

  • ST ST says:

    Perhaps, since coalitions appear inevitable in SA’s journey to finding a clear handful of strong political contenders…I wonder if candidates should be interviewed for positions in a coalition government. Constituents as employers need to know a persons ability to be creative/innovative, flexible, adaptable etc. We all have to do it for our jobs. Why not them?

    Infact even a US style assessment of presidential candidates may help weed out the weed (liars, incompetents etc). There are so many parties because people know that they don’t have to prove anything to get the job. Other than how to fill in the docs required to form a party. Very low bar…

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

X

This article is free to read.

Sign up for free or sign in to continue reading.

Unlike our competitors, we don’t force you to pay to read the news but we do need your email address to make your experience better.


Nearly there! Create a password to finish signing up with us:

Please enter your password or get a sign in link if you’ve forgotten

Open Sesame! Thanks for signing up.

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

Daily Maverick Elections Toolbox

Feeling powerless in politics?

Equip yourself with the tools you need for an informed decision this election. Get the Elections Toolbox with shareable party manifesto guide.