Three metros do not a summer make

Jeremy Gordin writes on the meaning of the DA's surprise victories in the mayoral elections

On November 18, Politicsweb editor/publisher James Myburgh wrote an article titled “The slow demise of the ANC” (see here), in which he argued that “[w]hat has been shattered in [these local government elections] then is the expectation that the ANC will ‘govern until Jesus comes back [erstwhile president Jacob Zuma’s felicitous phrase],’ [and this is] likely to further strengthen democratic contestation going into 2024”.

He did note, however, that “the problem now is the degree to which ANC dominance continues to live on outside of the party itself; in a judiciary increasingly dominated by Comrade Judges, an English-language media and academia that remains ideologically committed to transformationism, and in offshoot parties (such as the EFF and Patriotic Alliance) which have adopted [the ANC’s] racial ideology and/or its corrupt, patronage-based mode of operation”.

The desires of those, like me, who hope but are unsure that Myburgh has it right, were further buoyed up in the last three days by the Democratic Alliance’s unexpected and largely “uncontested” winning of the mayoralties in the major “hung” metros of Ekurhuleni (the East Rand region, east of Johannesburg) by Tania Campbell; in Johannesburg by Mpho Phalatse; and in Tshwane (northern Gauteng province, encompassing Pretoria) by Randall Williams.

Cape Town was already pretty much in the bag – and, until yesterday, it looked as though the DA might also nab the mayoralty in eThekwini (the municipality including Durban and surrounding towns).

What happened in eThekwini is not yet patently clear. But it seems the ANC – aided (or not?) by the bizarrely botched “election day” on Monday – indulged in some nifty last-minute horse trading that brought in its candidate Mxolisi Kaunda by 113 votes to the 104 achieved by the DA’s caucus leader, Nicole Graham, with two votes spoilt. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Let’s hope DA KZN chairperson Dean Macpherson, who told the media that the ANC had swung the mayoral election by calling on its eThekwini “tenderpreneurs” to collect money for bribing voters, got it right. If he was incorrect, it’s going to be more embarrassing than the “inflammatory” Phoenix election posters, to put it mildly. (The ANC and its members are guilty of so much malfeasance, it’s a mistake to wet your powder by accusing them of things of which they might not be guilty.)

As for the Nelson Mandela Bay metro (comprising Gqeberha [Port Elizabeth], the nearby towns of Uitenhage and Despatch, and the surrounding rural area), the DA’s Retief Odendaal was absent from the mayoral election – for reasons we know not, and which, according to one news channel, meant that the mayoral chain was “all but handed to an ANC-led coalition” [i].

But now back to Ekurhuleni, Johannesburg, and Tshwane.

Besides the unbridled joy felt by the likes of me at seeing many, mostly younger, members of the media having to gag on their humble pie, as they looked for words to deal with the DA sweeping in to these three mayoralties, there are, it seems to me, at least three questions that we young consumers and voters need to explore.

First, what happened? Second, what does this mean about the future of governance in these metros? And third, what does this suggest about Myburgh’s thesis – i.e., will the latest events in the metros (as well the recent local government elections) increase “democratic contestation”?

So, what happened? Did the EFF, ActionSA, and others have a Damascene moment? Did they decide to it was time to put on long trousers and to think of their fellow South Africans? Did the EFF, ActionSA, etc. contrive a cunning plan to get the DA into mayoral power just so that they could later punish the DA?

Nope. In fact, if I might put it this way, the EFF, ActionSA et al blinked first – because the DA was not budging about refusing to cooperate with the ANC (sometimes having principles, and sticking to them, is, mirabile dictu, a good thing) – and it was suddenly borne in on the EFF and ActionSA that if they did not throw in their lot with the DA, the ANC could in fact take the mayoralties – because if the DA saw it did not have a fighting chance at victory, it was poised to withdraw its candidates.

In short, the overriding dictum of the main “opposition” parties was this: whatever the cost (to us), the ANC must be crushed; and it was a decision they made quickly, which is why even John Steenhuisen and others in the DA were, as Steenhuisen said, “surprised”. (Actually, it seems they were actually stupefied.) Well, crushing the ANC at all costs sounds like the beginning of wisdom to me (as in Proverbs 9:10, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”).

What then of the future in Ekurhuleni, Johannesburg, and Tshwane? Well, the EFF, ActionSA, etc., especially the EFF, could still – no question – cause big trouble for the DA mayors in the months to come.

Still, if Campbell, Phalatse, and Williams hang tough (which is not the same as being arrogant and silly), stick to the DA playbook, don’t get overcome by the blandishments of power, and keep their eyes on what really needs to be done, by e.g., and inter alia, “making use” of people such as Lael Bethlehem [ii] and other so-called technocrats, they stand a chance of achieving some success [iii].

Still, a senior DA person said to me today that on one day he thinks these fragile DA metros will last for a maximum of three months only but on the next day (like today) he thinks they might just fly for longer – the major problem being the EFF’s remarkable penchant for wholesale flip-flopping at the drop of a beret.

To be sure, crushing the ANC and its patronage system is not going to be all sweetness and light. But I’m a glass-half-full kind of guy: things couldn’t be much worse in the metros than they are now, could they?

Finally, what about greater democratic contestation? Well, we’ve already had that for a couple of weeks, but could it continue into the future? Could it even result is some sort of ANC implosion?

I suggested some time ago that Cyril Ramaphosa might well be punished by the ANC for the ANC’s (relatively) miserable performance in the local elections – but better men than I have pointed out that this is unlikely, if only because Ramaphosa’s personal popularity is about the only thing that ANC has going for it at the moment.

Still, as Yuval Noah Harari of the Hebrew University apparently remarked, “we should never underestimate human stupidity,” and as Jeremy Gordin once remarked, “we should never underestimate ANC stupidity”.

Might the so-called RET faction, aided and abetted by the EFF, drive an implosion of the ANC – resulting in Ramaphosa breaking away and forming a centrist-type coalition with the DA?

A fellow can dream, can’t he? Or should I go easy on those painkillers and stop thinking that three DA metro mayors make a summer?


[i] The ANC’s NMB metro winner is one Eugene Johnson, about whom no one seems to know much other than that she was a councillor from 2005 to 2010; holds a certificate in public administration from the University of Fort Hare; is a consultant on urban development to the Swedish-funded non-profit organisation, Ubutyebi Trust; and, above all, was obviously one of the few candidates the ANC could find in the area who does not have even “smallanyana” skeletons in her closet. (See “The ANC mayoral candidates, NEC,” see here.) Her last qualification is pretty impressive.

[ii] See Bethlehem’s “Joburg needs a mayor who can tackle these 12 pressing tasks,”  .

[iii] And talking of being an “old soldier,” did you know that after matriculating Williams joined the French Foreign Legion in the 1980s for a period of six years? Surely, this can only stand him in good stead.