Mer­rily frol­ick­ing in the mud

The Citizen (KZN) - - Opinion - Mukoni Rat­shi­tanga

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

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