Jacob Zuma once famously blamed Jan van Riebeeck for creating South Africa’s problems.
On Monday, the nation watched a chaotic marathon meeting where the most glittering metro prize of all, Johannesburg, slipped from the ANC’s grasp. Now the president can go even further back in our colonial history to cast about for his party’s woes.
To borrow from the New Testament, which often peppers his speeches, the contested election of the magnificently named Vasco da Gama of the DA as the council speaker was the political equivalent of John the Baptist’s arrival. He was the herald of the change to come. In more prosaic terms, Da Gama’s win intimated the later election of Herman Mashaba as the new mayor of the most important city in the country.
Despite his name, Da Gama is not Portuguese, and certainly no colonialist but a veteran councillor with more than a decade-and-a-half of municipal service under his belt.
And just to obliterate other caricatures, he is coloured, from a working-class background and entered the DA via the now disbanded New National Party.
Da Gama’s experience will be handy for the politically inexperienced Mashaba, who now has the most important municipal administration under his control.
And uneasy lies the head that wears this particular crown, golden though it is in terms of spending power, with an annual budget of more than R56-billion and the largest metropolitan population in its jurisdiction.
Monday’s pandemonium at City Hall was a potent reminder of just how important control of Johannesburg is for the major parties. The drama – from scuffles to the sad death of an ANC councillor amid proceedings – was almost as dramatic as the power shift that followed.
While the DA will be savouring its unexpected victory here, it will be wise to remember the old martial maxim that you are often most vulnerable at the moment of your greatest triumph.
Not that Mashaba and his team will have much, if anything, of a honeymoon.
The council he leads, while the most important, is also the one in which the DA is at its weakest, with just 38% of the seats.
It won’t take too much jiggery- pokery by an implacable ANC, now in the unaccustomed seats on the opposition side of the horseshoe, to upset this precarious administration.
Mashaba, Athol Trollip in Nelson Mandela Bay, who has a proper governing coalition, and the new mayor of Tshwane, Solly Msimanga, who has more seats on his side, have to confront major challenges.
And these start long before they can showcase clean and efficient delivery to meet the raised expectations of their electorates. This requires the most intricate application of what executive coaches call “adaptive leadership”.
First they have to manage their own caucuses, now enlarged beyond even their most optimistic projections.
And for every member enthroned in a position of leadership, there will be those passed over or underpromoted who will not wait forever to register their disappointment.
Second, there is a potential conflict between the expectation of the councillors who delivered huge majorities for the DA in the suburbs and those pathfinders in the townships who delivered fewer votes but live where the future of the party lies. In terms of delivery, this will require a delicate balancing act, to put it mildly.
Third, in the party itself, the new municipalities under its control represent a real power shift: from its fortress in the Western Cape to the far more significant province of Gauteng.
The party will carry Mmusi Maimane on its shoulders for a long while. But as the parliamentary leader he will experience what one of his predecessors, Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, long ago articulated: “My gravy trein is so kort. [My gravy train is so short.]” So while Maimane is master of all he surveys in his expanded party, his actual powers of patronage and privilege are far more modest than the party’s provincial and metro barons, whose gravy train is now far longer.
But internal problems are nothing compared to the external environment the DA faces in Johannesburg and Tshwane. In both cities they depend on the maverick EFF to remain in power.
It’s true that the well is poisoned between the EFF and its mortal enemy, the ANC. But just wait for the first EFF-sponsored municipal land invasion to test the improbable alliance between the DA and EFF.
Then there is the challenge of co-operative governance, a constitutional euphemism for the fact that the provincial government holds considerable sway over the fortunes of municipal administrations. This tension between DA-led cities and ANC-controlled provinces in Gauteng and the Eastern Cape will be interesting to watch.
However, there is some precedent from Cape Town in 2006. At that time, Cape Town mayor Helen Zille’s coalition experienced much hostility from the ANC- controlled provincial government. But the then ANC premier, Ebrahim Rasool, had a good personal rapport with Zille.
More importantly, Rasool, who was eventually ousted as a consequence of it, had to deal with extreme factionalism in his own party.
Look at the ANC Zuma loyalists who are sharpening their knives to stab ANC Gauteng chairman Paul Mashatile and his provincial leadership.
This is a desperate attempt to shift the blame for the electoral debacle from Zuma himself. But if the knives are plunged too deep, it is entirely possible that the ANC provincial leaders might well find an improbable affection for the DA Gauteng mayors.
Of course, all the challenges that confront the DA in the wake of its municipal control of four of the five major metros are the consequences of success.
In my political experience, such predicaments are far better than the fallout from failure. This bleak prospect now improbably confronts the mighty ANC. Interesting times indeed. – The Times
• Leon is a former leader of the opposition. Follow him on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA