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The DA’s dilemma — its unholy alliances in local government could lead to dirty deal demands

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David Lewis is executive director of Corruption Watch.

The DA has made much of its opposition to corruption. But what if the demands made by its new, unlikely partners in local government involve potential corruption? What if the EFF demands access to public tenders in exchange for maintaining the DA in power? What if the DA’s partners insist on the appointment of candidates with dodgy ethical records?

The mould-shattering development that has seen the Democratic Alliance (DA) take control of Gauteng’s metros will have widespread implications for the country’s governance, including implications for the struggle against corruption.

With the exception of Cape Town, in each of those metros which the DA now governs, it is a minority party. In each of those metros, it will hang on to power at the pleasure of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), a party whose policies and conduct it loathes. The EFF is equally contemptuous of the DA. This sounds like a recipe for instability and well it might be, an unholy — and very likely temporary — alliance whose sole aim is to keep the ANC from office.

Inherently unstable alliances (I use “alliance” to distinguish these arrangements from coalitions that seem to require some degree of governing agreement) — by which I mean cooperation arrangements between parties that have manifestly little in common — do not portend well for the fight against corruption.

What might well happen is that the members of the alliance may view it as “their turn to eat” and seek to exchange their crucial votes, votes that are necessary to keep the unholy alliance in power for access to public resources. It is frequently alleged that this is precisely how the erstwhile DA-led coalition that governed Johannesburg managed to retain power — in exchange for their votes, the Mashaba-led government allegedly handed out lucrative tenders to the EFF and its cronies and agreed to the employment of ethically challenged EFF deployees in posts that commanded significant procurement budgets.

Is this the likely mode of governance in those metros that the DA now, to its palpable surprise, finds itself controlling? The DA has made it clear that it will not support demands from its alliance partners that it deems unreasonable and contrary to its principles. It has said that in the event that its effective partners insist that it adopts policy positions that offend its principles, it will simply relinquish power — which it never sought in the first place — and it will no doubt seek to place the blame for the resultant instability squarely on the shoulders of the EFF and ActionSA, the two largest parties responsible for securing support for DA leadership of the metros.

But the DA will need to tread carefully. If there is public support for demands from its partners which DA-led councils reject, then the DA’s rejection and the resultant instability in the metro concerned will be laid firmly at its door. For example, if the experience of Cape Town is anything to go by, the DA could do with pressure from its partners to shift more resources from the suburbs to the townships and the informal settlements. Its overwhelmingly white leadership could do with rethinking the disparaging manner in which they appear to treat their own black leaders and aspiring black leaders. Demands of this nature will be ignored by the DA at its peril.

But what if the demands made by its partners involve potential corruption? What if the EFF demands access to public tenders for itself and its cronies in exchange for maintaining the DA in power? What if the DA’s partners insist on the appointment of candidates with dodgy ethical records to key positions? The DA has made much of its opposition to corruption. But resisting abuse of public power — in a word, corruption — is easy when you don’t have access to power. Faced with the choice of having to relinquish power or pragmatically accede to a “little” corruption, it may well find that its newly empowered mayors, speakers, city managers and councillors will not want to relinquish their newly acquired power as easily as some in its leadership suggest.

And the DA leadership at all levels may start to tell itself that giving away a tender worth a couple of million rands is worth it if it maintains in power a government superior to the alternatives on offer and certainly superior to the chaos that will follow a collapse of their government. They may even tell themselves that governing large metros imposes costs on the party and so giving away access to public resources in exchange for a kickback may also start to be rationalised as a necessary price for maintaining a “superior” party in power.

The DA’s commitment to fighting corruption may be put to the test again as soon as they acquire power. By many accounts, the Mashaba-led DA government of Johannesburg failed this test.

The DA metro leaders would do themselves and the country a favour by rejecting demands to engage in corruption in exchange for continued political power. It would serve the country even better if it dealt with these instances of attempted corruption transparently, should they arise, by publicly reporting every such demand made of it. It would expose the true motives of those who have put it in power; it would concretely demonstrate its opposition to corruption and it would act as a salutary lesson to other public officeholders.

This would broaden its support base by drawing in those opposed to corruption and narrow the support base of its partners to those seeking patronage.

What of the hapless ANC? It has been thoroughly outmanoeuvred by the cunning, opportunistic, nimble tacticians of the EFF. President Cyril Ramaphosa has been gracious in defeat, as have several other ANC leaders. In those metros in which it has lost power, its response should be to take on the mantle of loyal opposition. It needs to demonstrate that it is willing and able to assume this role by encouraging and facilitating good governance and service delivery, while at the same time robustly holding the new holders of power to account.

If, on the other hand, the ANC attempts to use its still huge power base in each metro and in each council to render the metros ungovernable — we have already seen the ANC disrupting electoral proceedings in eThekwini — it will continue to haemorrhage support. This is clearly demonstrated by the ANC’s experience in Nelson Mandela Bay. With just under 47% of the vote in 2016, it was forced into opposition by a coalition of the DA and several opposition parties. It set about rendering the metro ungovernable as was most graphically illustrated when the thuggish Andile Lungisa smashed a water jug on the head of one of his DA opponents during a council meeting. Its actions were wholly destructive. For its pains, its share of the vote in 2021 was just over 39%, a drop of approximately 8% (representing approximately 145,000 votes) from the 2016 elections.

But the ANC has to do much more than accept the loss of the country’s key metros. It has to demonstrate that in the governments that it still controls — many local governments, the national government and eight of nine provincial governments — it can run clean, efficient administrations.

This is maybe the longest shot of them all. Not only are huge and complex public institutions in disarray and incapable of delivering the basic services for which they are responsible, but in order to commence setting state institutions to rights it has to deal with continued corruption in those institutions. And it has to deal with searing corruption in its own ranks. If it is unable to do this then it will suffer the same fate in the 2024 national elections as it did in the recent local government elections — its vote will fall below 50% and a similar coalition of the excluded could oust it again.

The outcome of the local government election offers opportunity. It offers the EFF the opportunity to demonstrate that it can be part of responsible, responsive and stable government and to reduce its racist rhetoric and practice; it offers the DA the opportunity to show that it can serve the majority of South Africans and not only the suburbs; and it offers the ANC the opportunity to demonstrate that it can run clean, efficient, people-centred government. This may just turn out to be the realignment of party politics that South Africa needs.

The odds are very long. The EFF is a byword for race (and not a little corruption); the DA is the suburbs; and the ANC is submerged in corruption and chaos. But elections tend to concentrate the minds of political parties and they have strong centripetal force. That is to say, they tend to bring the contending parties towards the centre of the political spectrum. Fringe parties don’t win elections.

And as much as these alliances appear to have given the EFF and the DA some unexpected power, they remain large parties closer to the fringe than the centre, and may well have reached the limits of their electoral support. This will remain the case for as long as they refuse to move to the centre, ground occupied by the still much larger ANC.

If the parties do not grasp the opportunity each is presented with, the “alternative”, as one late unlamented South African President once said, “is too ghastly to contemplate”.

At the very least it is the ungovernability of all of our major metros and the continued decline in the quality of governance in our small towns, our provinces and our country. DM

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  • Is the DA leadership listening? A powerful and effective opposition would benefit these metros more than a party whose tenuous hold on power is their prime objective, sacrificing its principles of ethical governance in the process.

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