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Mashaba’s exit cast the die for DA’s gut-wrenching loss of Jo’burg

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Geordin Hill-Lewis is an MP and the DA’s shadow minister for finance.

Politics is about coalitions, which are unstable, difficult and unwieldy. As leaders come and go, and voters’ tastes change, the DA will remain committed to being a party worthy of voters’ trust.

All serious political parties exist to win state power so that they can realise their values and programme in government. If you’re not in it to win it, you’re just a pressure group. So it is seldom welcome to lose the chance to govern. This is especially true for the Democratic Alliance, because our role as a party of government is still relatively recently established and because executive power in South Africa has been so concentrated in one party for so long. That’s why it came as a blow to see the ANC returning to office in Johannesburg this week, bringing to an end three years of a DA-led coalition government.

The scale of the rot in Jo’burg was worse than anyone in the DA could have imagined and, in truth, it will take a decade of good government to put the city back on solid footing. Despite the mess, our coalition government was making progress, which will now be stopped in its tracks as ANC Mayor Geoff Makhubo, of state capture infamy, takes the helm.

So why did we lose Jo’burg? We lost because Herman Mashaba resigned the mayoralty, allegedly in protest against the results of recent internal DA elections. He has tried to establish cause and effect between these two events, and many of the “analysts”, with their usual facile grasp, have bought it. Even worse, they are now blaming either the voters, or the winning candidates in that internal election for the fall of the coalition government. That is a kind of mental gymnastics that can only be wilful.

The facts are that he was not “forced out”, there was no “imminent move” against him, and the report of the DA’s internal election review did not recommend that we voluntarily leave government. All of these arguments are mobilised now to offer an ex post facto rationalisation for Mashaba’s reckless resignation.

Resignation is a valid form of protest, of course. Mashaba chose to resign and that was his prerogative. But it was his choice and his alone. He is responsible for that choice and history will judge him for it.

He certainly had his fair share of detractors inside the DA. There were many in his own team who expressed great frustration on behalf of residents whose patience for any sign of improved delivery was wearing thin. While I admired his chutzpah, I could never abide Mashaba’s views of foreign immigrants and he got far too close to the looting EFF.

But the point is, every single person in any position of leadership in politics has internal opponents. So what? That’s politics. A thick skin and broad shoulders are basic requirements for the job. You also have to learn to handle defeat. If you lose the argument in politics, you can either leave, or you can regroup and make your case more persuasively next time. No victory is ever final and no defeat is ever fatal.

Whatever his real reasons for resigning, and time will tell what they really were, his choice cast the die. The DA was then faced with an impossible dilemma. Do we do a deal with the ANC, which we have rightly described as a criminal syndicate posing as a political party, or do we do a deal with the EFF, to whom that same description doubly applies?

In the end, it didn’t matter. The ANC won the vote for the mayoralty in the first round of voting and Makhuba was installed as mayor.

As gut-wrenching as it may be, we also better get used to this kind of tumult. Coalitions are going to be an increasingly common feature of South African politics as the ANC continues its slow but inexorable decline. And coalitions are by nature unstable, difficult and unwieldy. Parties shift, leaders come and go, voters’ tastes change. What will not change is the DA’s commitment to be a party worthy of government and worthy of voters’ trust. That’s how we will bounce back from this blow and win Jo’burg back in time. DM

Geordin Hill-Lewis is a DA MP

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