‘She posted the biggest win of any party in any city’
Last Wednesday, with their pens in thousands of polling stations across South Africa, the voters delivered a stunning klap to the ruling ANC.
These local polls won outsize international attention, from affirming editorials in The New York Times to the front page of London’s Financial Times.
As the big three parties — the ANC, DA and EFF — go about the business of absorbing their election wins and defeats and building coalition governments, they should contemplate two historic statements from a duo of 20th-century giants.
Winston Churchill remarked: “The longer you look back, the further you can look forward.” And President John F Kennedy wryly observed: “Victory has a hundred fathers; defeat is an orphan.”
To borrow from current events in Rio, the metro winner of the gold was undoubtedly Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille and her DA team there.
By winning more than 66% of the votes last week, she posted the biggest win of any party in any city.
But, using Churchill’s frame, just consider this: 10 years ago the DA barely edged into power with just over 41% of the vote — a plurality win which required mayor Helen Zille to build a ramshackle coalition with seven other minor parties.
There are many ironies in that story. At that stage, De Lille aligned unsuccessfully with the ANC to stop the DA.
She later folded her tent into Zille’s coalition and stands today as the top woman in the party, heading the province which provided the blue team with the most gold medals.
The second takeaway from a decade ago in the Mother City has lessons aplenty across the country. Just 10 years of good and stable government there, aided by a hapless ANC, which does far worse in opposition than it does in government, meant that a bare plurality could be converted into an impregnable majority.
Last week, the DA, with 46% of the vote, posted a much better result in Nelson Mandela Bay than it achieved in Cape Town in 2006.
That gives hope to Athol Trollip and his team that, with a relative easy coalition to form there, they can convert the Windy City into winning ground for years to come.
Trollip himself was the biggest winner for his party outside the Western Cape.
The trilingual, no-nonsense farmer from Bedford also provides a political example of what the athletes and swimmers in Rio are showing the world: the power of resilience.
He bounced back from two bruising internal defeats and a lot of more recent local party squabbling.
First he was bested by Zille in 2007 as national leader and then, four years later, was ousted by Lindiwe Mazibuko as parliamentary leader.
Now he controls a metro where his leadership is unassailable.
The EFF won the bronze in most municipalities.
But its 10%-plus vote in Johannesburg and Tshwane puts it in a powerful position.
This not insignificant achievement masks to an extent – and certainly by the lights of its vaunting ambition – what was actually a disappointing election for it.
It grew its national footprint from 6% to just over 8%, but failed to win a single municipality and very few individual wards.
However, as coalition talks resume today between it and the DA, it can certainly demand a hefty price for installing DA mayors in Tshwane and Johannesburg.
Equally, it cannot overreach itself with hopes that its opening bids — such as removing Die Stem from the national anthem — will be achieved.
On the other hand, both the EFF and the DA simply have to watch the eNCA exposé of the spending splurges and malfeasance in Tshwane – for example purchasing shoe polish at three times its retail price – to know that a lot can be done by curbing corruption.
Ray Hartley, a seasoned commentator, predicts a 45% likelihood that the parties, together with the IFP in Johannesburg, will in fact form coalitions in the two Gauteng metros.
And they certainly don’t have to surrender their national ideologies to deliver competent and service-oriented local delivery.
Simply cutting out the schemers, middlemen, skimmers and tenderpreneurs will provide a lot of bucks for their constituencies.
Removing the dead hand of cadre deployees is another point of agreement which will allow Gauteng residents to receive the sort of service excellence Capetonians take as their due.
The crowing irony is that the national gold winner of the local polls, the ANC with 54%, is, in the cities, their biggest loser.
Having started a process to remove parliament from Cape Town to Pretoria, no doubt the next idea will be to relocate it to Durban.
That’s where Kennedy’s observation on defeat being an orphan resonates.
The man at the centre of their losses, Jacob Zuma, is imperilled. But he is not yet out.
The walking wounded can still inflict a lot of pain and damage.
On the one hand, his removal will consume the ruling party in grievous infighting.
But in fact it was the lesser party fights in places like Tshwane that turned off its supporters there from going to the polls. Extrapolating that onto the national stage would close the government down for months to come.
It was Tony Blair, who won three British general elections on the trot, who reminded his fractious party: “If you look inward you lose, if you look outward you win.” Forgetting about your voters while you go about fixing top positions comes with a hefty price tag.
On the other hand, despite the considerable achievements notched up by DA leader Mmusi Maimane last week and the energies of Julius Malema and the comeback of Inkatha’s Mangosuthu Buthelezi at the polls, it can be argued that Zuma delivered big-time for the opposition.
He was the gift that kept on giving to them and the frame around which their campaigns were fought.
So the ANC is in the proverbial cleft stick.
Remove Zuma and they revive their national fortunes. But to do so will engulf his party in flames. Watch this space as these contradictions play out. — The Times
• Leon is a former leader of the opposition. Follow him on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA