Opinionista Andrew Ihsaan Gasnolar 5 December 2019

Joburg’s mayoral election shows up the toxic nature of SA coalition politics

As 2019 closes, South Africans need to honestly and robustly confront the toxic nature of our party-political environment.

I will not miss the diatribes and often xenophobic utterances of former Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba, but this moment (especially as South Africa heads to the local election polls in the next 18 months) requires us to consider how politics serves South Africa badly.

The outcomes of the mayoral vote in Johannesburg should not surprise South Africans. The “new dawn”, to a large extent, has been circumvented by the slow pace of justice. Charges that hang in the air, but are never articulated or pressed home against those implicated in the commission of State Capture and the treasonous conduct of lining one’s own pocket at the expense of the republic.

Geoff Makhubo will now lead the country’s largest metropolitan centre and a city that should be a key driver for growth and opportunity in a South Africa that desperately needs it. The success of the African National Congress in Johannesburg is simply through their efforts to out-manoeuvre the Democratic Alliance and to have the ability to commit and provide incentives so that smaller political parties would align themselves with the ANC instead of the DA.

There will be lofty claims that coalition politics was the victor here, demonstrating wide support for Makhubo. However, the simple truth is that the ANC had more to offer its “coalition partners”, and was able to make the necessary assurances to those political parties. The internal challenges within the DA have not assisted in this negotiating game after the resignation of its own mayor, its leader and its national chairperson and the ensuing election of what many perceive to be the conservative guard within DA structures.

The realignment of South African politics has been a talking point for many pundits as well as certain former political leaders (and now federal executive chairpersons) of the country’s official opposition. The hope, I fear, was that talk of realignment would lead to some type of momentum encouraging political leaders and critically the electorate to consider that there was, in fact, an alternative solution and offering to the ANC. However, the talk was just that, and its fatal flaw is that realignment does not factor in or importantly confront the realities of the South African party-political environment. The narrative that South Africa and its politics is undergoing a realignment remains flawed as the structural realities have not changed.

The voting public has not been empowered, civic education has remained suppressed, under-resourced and disregarded while political party bosses remain able to determine the candidates that it offers, and the consequences that should be meted out to those delinquents that claim to serve the public. The result is that real power within a political context remains far removed from the voting public, who continue to feel that they been sidelined and disregarded by a “ruling elite” focused on eating at the trough instead of service. The culture in our political parties is both toxic and damaging, not only to the individuals involved, but to the country as well, and the failure to address this has resulted in a series of crises across multiple sectors.

Simply adopting a different governance framework will remain insufficient to deal with this pervasive and systemic culture that peddles in deceit, power, money (often dark money), criminality and self-interest. The outcomes of the council votes in Nelson Mandela Bay, and recently in Johannesburg, are very obvious examples of a country that is being consumed by its “ruling elite” instead of being served by that machinery. The focus of that machinery is about ego – ego which is not focused on collaboration, doing the right thing or partnership but rather about holding on to power.

South Africa is undergoing a reckoning not because the party-political machinery has realised that it is both flawed and damaging, but rather as a result that the fiscal environment is unravelling and collapsing, which is now applying real pressure to the manner in which South Africa functions. South Africa has been unable to build a developmental state that is able to respond to the needs and aspirations of its people.

We are able to see this failure through the stubbornly high unemployment figures, the pervasive and entrenched growing inequality and the debt-to-GDP ratio, which continues to climb at an alarming rate. The consequence of this fiscal dilemma is that our various spheres of government can no longer plaster over their inaction and inability to deliver. The fiscal challenges continue to reveal the factional and divisive nature of our politics, but critically remind millions of South Africans that their involvement or exclusion counts for very little.

Makhubo is a man with many questionable attributes, some of which allegedly include malfeasance, corruption and capture. Yet, someone like Makhubo has risen to the office of executive mayor, and this is true for many parliamentarians who now head up either key agencies or Parliamentary portfolio committee positions. The personal flaws of the “ruling elite” continue to cost South Africa the promise of a better tomorrow. They steal the opportunity for services to be rendered. They steal the option of decent housing, education and healthcare from those most vulnerable. They continue to unravel the already frayed and collapsing social compact.

As 2019 closes, South Africans need to honestly and robustly confront the toxic nature of our party-political environment. Coalition politics can only meaningfully work in South Africa if the party-political bosses have less power, the electorate is more empowered, and those seeking public office are actually rooted in the service of people. Politics will continue to fail us for as long as we avoid these difficult issues within our governing ecosystem. The costs we are currently experiencing are indicative of what happens when we outsource our democracy to deranged individuals who are solely focused on retaining power with no real goal in sight. DM

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