Opinionista Jordan Griffiths 9 December 2019

The battle for the heart of South Africa’s cities is only just beginning

The past week in South African local politics in some of the country’s major cities has been exceedingly turbulent with major manoeuvres by the country’s three main political parties. What follows is an attempt to explain a number of issues that have been misinterpreted or poorly reported in the media.

Coalitions

It is important to note that the Democratic Alliance (DA) was never in a formal coalition with the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) in either Tshwane or Johannesburg. The DA entered into formal coalition agreements with various minority parties, but never with the EFF.

The EFF was not represented in the political leadership of these cities, neither as Members of the Mayoral Committee (MMCs) nor as chairpersons of oversight committees. As such, the DA governed these two metropoles as a minority government. It had stronger representation in Tshwane than in Johannesburg, as in Tshwane the DA holds the greatest number of seats in council.

Where the DA did govern with a coalition of 51% of the total votes of council was in Nelson Mandela Bay (NMB). Here the DA was able to put together a multi-party coalition that excluded the ANC and EFF, a coalition that was ultimately undone by the behaviour of the United Democratic Movement (UDM) and a number of rogue DA councillors.

Thus in Nelson Mandela Bay, the DA was able to offer a far more stable level of government as it had majority control over the council chamber — unfortunately, this coalition later collapsed.

In Tshwane and Johannesburg, the situation was far trickier. With no guaranteed support from the EFF, the DA-led governments were fragile from the start and subject to whatever political whims that may have arisen. Such voting arrangements are problematic because in these instances the EFF could easily share in the DA local government victories while being able to easily distance themselves from any failings in these cities, at times even attacking the DA on some of these matters or going into communities and blaming problems on the DA.

When allegations of corruption were levelled against the EFF, as happened in Johannesburg on their fleet contract, they could also rely on the DA administration to take the hits on these matters.

Key pieces of local government legislation such as the Municipal Systems Act and the Municipal Structures Act were not drafted to prepare for these types of eventualities. The ethos of this legislation operates from the view that cities will be governed by a majority party or at least a coalition governing with a stable majority, but certainly not a minority government.

Council

Council is the highest decision-making structure that exists within local government. However, across all municipalities, the powers of council are usually decentralised from council to the executive mayor and thereon to the accounting officer/city manager. It is what is known as the delegation of powers.

Council does have specific powers that cannot be delegated away from it, such as the approval of the budget and integrated development plan (IDP), key oversight functions on particular legislated reports, the appointment of top-level managers and, of course, the election and removal of political office bearers, such as the executive mayor, speaker, chief whip and oversight committee chairpersons.

Council is administered and chaired by the speaker, a position which in the face of a minority government has become particularly significant and strategic. One of the gaps in national local government legislation is that the workings of the sittings of council are not legislated in detail.

Hence, each council for the different cities operates from a different set of rules that they have likely approved in the form of a by-law. In the City of Tshwane, for example, there is the Rules and Orders by-law which speaks uniquely to the workings of the City of Tshwane Council.

One of the rules in this by-law governs how motions should be submitted to council and gives the Speaker the power to dismiss motions that are submitted improperly or don’t align with what is required in the city’s Rules and Orders by-law.

As such, if a party were to submit a motion that requested the removal of an executive mayor, but that motion didn’t comply with the Rules and Orders, it can be dismissed before it is tabled, much to the frustration of the party that submitted it.

However, it gets more complicated, as was seen in the City of Tshwane on Thursday 5 November 2019, when a motion was submitted to remove the speaker. She recused herself to allow the deputy speaker to deal with the motion. The deputy speaker was then forcibly stopped from occupying his seat by the EFF.

The reasons for this are transparent — the EFF likely knew that the motion didn’t comply properly with the Rules and Orders by-law and that the deputy speaker would dismiss the motion. Thus they physically stopped him from taking his seat in an effort to derail the proceedings of the meeting. They attempted to install their own speaker and deal with the motions and subsequently removed the speaker and the executive mayor. However, the courts have since set these decisions aside and will hear full arguments on them in the coming week.

Without a majority party in place or a strong coalition, the work of council can also grind to a halt. Many key council decisions require a majority of the councillors to vote in favour of them.

In the City of Johannesburg, a secret ballot saw ANC councillor Geoff Makhubo elected as mayor. The ANC somehow managed to get all the minority parties, along with some rogue DA councillors, to push themselves over the line with 136 votes. However, in a subsequent vote to remove DA speaker Vasco da Gama, they only garnered 135 votes; one vote short of the majority required to remove him. Thus, the situation in Johannesburg is one with an ANC mayor and a DA speaker, which is highly unusual.

Executive mayor

The position of executive mayor is the most powerful political office that exists in local government. The executive mayor will appoint MMCs to support his/her office, but it is important to understand that all political authority remains vested in the mayor. MMCs have no authority outside what the mayor grants them — in fact, they have no real authority as prescribed by the law, either.

This is why the EFF’s calls to govern a city as mayor are highly unrealistic. The case study of Nelson Mandela Bay is a good example of this. In their desperate bid to remove Athol Trollip as mayor, the ANC, EFF, UDM and the PA created a motley coalition and promptly voted in Mongameli Bobani from the UDM as the executive mayor. This despite the fact that the UDM was one of the smallest parties in the chamber.

The parties who elected Bobani as mayor clearly did not understand the power that is invested in the executive mayor and perhaps assumed that his MMCs could keep him in check. Bobani turned out to be a one-man wrecking ball, accountable to no one. He was finally removed by a majority of the NMB Council after a year of chaos in the city.

The EFF assumption that they are in a position to negotiate to hold the position of executive mayor in one of the major metropolitans while only holding the third-highest percentage of the vote is deeply flawed. No political party would consider such a compromise.

The DA certainly would not and the ANC would likely push to have a city placed under administration rather than be beholden to the EFF, as they are currently considering in the City of Tshwane. The EFF as a brand has also become increasingly tainted, making it a high risk to be associated with.

Looking ahead, the next local government election is less than 18 months away and it is quite possible that the current voting trends in these major cities could continue unless a major political party emerges with a clear 51% majority or is able to put together a stable working coalition of other parties.

If this does not occur, it is likely that minority governments will persist, which will be accompanied by erratic and unstable voting arrangements which, of course, does not facilitate stability nor coherence in local government planning. DM

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