“The Return of the Locusts” is an apt and lapidary title for the political melodrama which played out in the City Council chambers in Braamfontein, Johannesburg late last week.
In short and dramatic order, following the ouster of the Speaker of the Council, a motion of no confidence was passed against the former mayor, Mpho Palatse; thereafter the ANC succeeded, in disputed circumstances, in electing Dada Moreo as boss of the once upon a time golden city.
Now expect the patronage and tender taps, temporarily closed to the ANC these past two years, to gush forth with multiple beneficence for the cronies and the comrades. Enhanced service delivery for long suffering residents? “Ohhh, fuggedaboutit” as the mafia boss Tony Soprano once wisely advised.
And, as the old movie trailer used to proclaim, “coming to a cinema screen near you soon” is the same outcome, certainly in Ekurhuleni on the East Rand, and perhaps, though less probably, in the capital city, Pretoria in the Tshwane municipality.
At a basic lesson in ruthless political application and -talking about the mafia – a reminder of the Sicilian motto that ‘revenge is a dish best eaten cold’ you must admire the ANC’ decapitate the opposition’ strategy. The party after its humiliating ouster from the Gauteng municipal citadels just over two years ago, regrouped and found a willing accomplice in the ever-variable mood swings of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF).
In November 2021, the EFF -forever marooned by the voters in third or fourth place finishes across Gauteng, decided on a shock and awe tactic of combining with the DA breakaway party, Action SA, to foist power on the DA in Johannesburg and Ekurhuleni.
It was never in the DA playbook, as I understood it at the time, for the party to obtain the mayoralty in either city, simply because in both places it had finished some way behind the ANC, which had a poor poll, but still finished first in both places.
By voting for the DA mayoral candidates in Johannesburg and Ekurhuleni, the EFF and Action SA, ensured that unstable coalitions were formed whose only common denominator was -in the phrase of journalist Adriaan Basson – “ABC” ‘Anything but the ANC’. This notion seemed to chime with voter sentiment which in the polls which produced such uncertain outcomes had seen the once mighty ANC humbled to below 50% nationally and a dismal 33% in Johannesburg and 38% in Ekurhuleni.
The EFF, enjoying its role in usurping power, but forever refusing to make the compromises required on its attainment, sat outside the coalition arrangements, and continued, with zero benefit to its voters, to threaten future disruption. On which promise it has now duly delivered.
The DA-led coalition in Johannesburg, decided its stability would be cemented, and here even a mafia movie scriptwriter would be hard pressed to include this scene, by including a party, Patriotic Alliance, led by Gayton Mackenzie, described in one bio as ‘a former convicted South African criminal, bank robber, gangster, businessman, motivational speaker…” This proved to be both misplaced and forlorn as both his party and the ever-changeable EFF backed the ANC in recent council votes thus allowing its return to power.
The ANC will relish the triumph of its revenge dish being ladled out on a table decked for it by its former nemeses, the EFF and PA; the residents of Johannesburg and elsewhere will ‘suffer as they must’ and the gaze of disillusioned opposition voters will fall on the parties whose co-operation locally they, wrongly, assumed would presage a national coalition to take out the rotten ANC national government in 2024.
Precisely to win the narrative of ‘who lost Johannesburg?’ a vicious war of words has broken out between the DA and Action SA, each blaming the other for the demise of opposition rule in Johannesburg.
The detail of the dispute is of little interest to the average voter or opposition supporter if one was to hazard a guess. A reworking of the old Henry Newbolt poem suggests the lines “Play up! Play up and play the game! It matters not who won or lost but where you place the blame.”
Yet other than the ANC which emerges from the recent Johannesburg car crash as the triple winner ( gets the mayoralty, gets back the tender taps and demoralises opposition voters), the precise point seems that for other players tactics have trumped strategy.
It might seem tactically smart for the EFF and PA, for example, to flex their muscles in council and play the so-called kingmaker roles. But how does it help (assuming either party has any grand design beyond the impulses of their cultish leaders) their supporters make sense of their claims that the ANC is politically prime evil. What offer, in two years’ time, do they make to the voters? Other than to be on hand to prop up a floundering ANC when it tanks in the national polls in 2024 as seems likely.
Another opposition party which seems mesmerised by short term tactics over long term strategy is Action SA.
The party has managed in Gauteng urban centres if nowhere else of significance to date, to draw sizable votes from the ANC in the townships and some suburban support from the DA. But the party with the vitriol it unleashes by the bucketload on the DA while simultaneously vowing it will never coalesce with the ANC (the only opposition party so to declare) seems to be driven by these twin impulses almost to the point of incoherence.
Action SA’s Herman Mashaba correctly speaks for most opposition voters by suggesting that ridding the country of the ANC is the prime purpose of political endeavour. Logic then suggests that given the fact that at best his outfit stands a distant third behind the ANC and DA, he should assist the latter to help remove the former?
Yet instead of this, voters are treated to an arcane explanation of how DA ‘arrogance’ and inflexibility and power dynamics resulted in the coalition failure, apparently because the DA declined to make way for the Inkatha Freedom Party to appoint the council, Speaker.
This argument, even if entirely true, is irrelevant to voters who struggle with a lack of electricity, a cost-of-living crisis, a declining economy and galloping corruption. All of which will gather pace without a change of government. Action SA has signalled in Johannesburg that this remains a distant prospect.
The DA response to this mess is to invoke the law of contract: an agreement divvying up the council posts was inked in 2021, and any ad hoc changes to it to meet current circumstances, will be, in the party’s view, the thin edge of a very sticky wedge: after all, the reasoning goes, if the Speakership changes, next the Mayor’s post will be on the coalition chopping block, and the largest opposition party could be on the losing end.
Once again, even if the logic is impeccable, the mayoralty in Joburg has been lost anyway (unless changed by the courts) and opposition supporters have been left to count the cost in the dark, literally.
But the task, which falls most heavily on the DA as the lead opposition party in the country, is to make sense of this mess to its supporters, current and potential. The loss of power, I know from bitter experience in the Western Cape, two decades back, is not easy to explain however impeccable or even just the reasoning. And the party needs urgently to devise a credible strategy for a national coalition roadmap which will survive contact with political reality better than its Johannesburg arrangements did.
Part of the explanatory narrative will be, of course, that small parties are cultish, unreliable and enhance instability and land up keeping -or returning – the ANC in power. But even though events have proven this to be entirely correct, in the absence of two major parties jostling for power (even in its worst performance, in 2021, the ANC was 23 points ahead of the DA) the electoral arithmetic here suggests that the only realistic non-ANC government will comprise multiple opposition parties.
As Liz Truss is hoping in Britain after a disastrous month in office and two excruciating U-turns this week on her flagship economic policy, voters might forget the current fiasco when they vote again in two years’ time. A lot can and will happen in 24 months.
SA elections are also in 2024. Perhaps sooner rather than later, cool heads in the opposition leadership can regroup and chart a more credible and durable path to the polls well before then. Otherwise, the next movie on our national screens will be a double feature, “Armageddon” plus “Titanic”- and neither ends happily.
Tony Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications. @TonyLeonSA