Merrily frolicking in the mud
Yesterday, the legislature of the City of Joburg postponed the election of a new mayor to replace businessperson Herman Mashaba, who held the position since the 2016 local government elections until his recent resignation.
The three major political parties represented in the legislature, the African National Congress, Democratic Alliance (DA) and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) failed to reach consensus on a candidate. DA Gauteng leader John Moodey had earlier characterised the jostling for the mayoral position as a “battle of giants”.
At the same time, City of Tshwane mayor Stevens Mokgalapa was embroiled in a battle for survival following the release of an unedifying recording of a conversation – and much else besides – between him and member of the mayoral committee, Sheila Senkubuge.
Frankly, if Mokgalapa and Senkubuge’s sensibilities and civic spirit were not as rudimentary as they evidently are – in fairness, if we were not living in a laissez-faire era in terms of the values of public office – they would, by now, have saved themselves, their families and most importantly, the city’s residents, from the trauma and embarrassment of a prolonged public focus on their lapses of judgement and taken refuge in the long grass.
But, alas, we are where we are and much of what happens in the political arena is, as a friend described it earlier this week, not so much a battle of giants as “a frolic in the mud”, however the players, big and small, would like to appraise themselves and others.
With varying degrees, the parties in both Johannesburg and Tshwane seem to have reached a cul-de-sac on important issues such as the delivery of vital public services, effecting the necessary structural reversal of apartheid spatial geography, its hideous self-reproducing inequality and, above all, imagining inclusive 21st-century African cities with evolving demographics.
The governing coalitions in both cities are yet to articulate a progressive policy platform beyond rhetoric. Instead, we have witnessed departure from redistributive programmes like water subsidies for the poor and indigent in Johannesburg, a de-emphasis on other policy measures and a spike in the narrative of social polarisation in both cities and the wider national political space.
For its part, the ANC has, since 2016, found itself frozen in the headlights and the disorganising effects, so to speak, of the loss of the mandate of heaven. The party has proven unable to evolve a strategic approach as an opposition which appreciates the limits of an obstructionist posture for a governing party at the provincial and national spheres.
The irony is that save for the policy departures already pointed out, the governing coalitions have inherited a framework laid down by the ANC before the 2016 local government elections.
This must mean that obstructionism of the city governments by the ANC, or anything remotely resembling the inelegance of the uninitiated, must naturally place the party at odds with a population, which must be given credit for its ability to think and to winnow the grain. Additionally, there is a question to be posed about how much more the coalitions can do over and above their limits and possibilities relative to the constraints of the current economic climate, and those imposed by politics more broadly.
And with Mashaba’s departure, one hopes that the city will abandon his xenophobic stance which had become de facto city policy and generated much heat to the detriment of a considered solution-oriented discourse on the difficult subject of migration.
There is need for political parties, jointly and severally, to reflect on the corrosive effects of the gay frolicking in the mud; especially for our political culture in the long term. Like contact sport, politics will always invariably involve a measure of theatrical robustness. But it also requires men and women of thought, whose reflective labours and commitment to the national interest dissuades them from pursuit of power “by any means necessary” – a phrase which, incidentally, originates from Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1948 political play, Dirty Hands.
Of the many emerging trends from the cities of Tshwane and Johannesburg after the 2016 local government elections are some obvious but weighty lessons. The first – and notwithstanding its growing exaggeration in some circles lately – is the causal link between internal stability within political parties and governance. Johannesburg would have had no need to elect a mayor had Mashaba not resigned for the ructions in his own party, the DA.
The second is that coalitions do not necessarily always lead to governance stability or good governance and positive political realignment. One need look no further than the GladAfrica scandal at the City of Tshwane to appreciate this lesson, at least in part.
Those who have followed Italian politics would be familiar with the lesson and its implications. Italy has had 66 governments, nearly all of them coalitions, since the end of World War II. From 1946 to 1993, the country had 52 governments, each lasting around 10.8 months. The divisive nature of our enduring past as well as the exigencies and mutations of the present period may well conspire to ensure that we come to experience our own peculiar version of Italian politics which makes a mockery of the political process altogether.
The third is that an active citizenry has the potential to achieve more than established constitutional and legal checks and balances in the exercise of political power by individual politicians and political parties.
After all – and this argument requires further elucidation in a separate column – our system of local government is a hybrid of party proportional representation and the direct election of ward councillors. The jury is still out as to whether direct elections at the local level have necessarily led to greater or better accountability by locally elected representatives than at provincial and national levels. Surely, this has implications with respect to the ongoing debate about the electoral system as a whole.
And it begs the question: what do we do, as citizens and members of political parties alike, to rescue our politics from the mud, which arguably contributes to, or exacerbates, political apathy?
Ratshitanga is a consultant, social and political commentator ([email protected]terlinked.co.za)
Politics will involve a measure of theatrical robustness