Wednesday 17 April 2019

Politics in Flux

As we brace ourselves for what is shaping up to be rough and wild national election, I thought it interesting to reflect on where these major sea-changes originated, with the rise of the Chinese-funded, black-chauvinist, right-populist EFF to kingmaker status in several metro municipalities back in the local government elections of October 2016. This was a cover story in the black woman's magazine Destiny, “Inside Our Fiery City Councils,” Johannesburg, December 2016.

Michael Schmidt

As the brutalist apartheid architecture of the Joburg Metro’s Council building, its narrow windows looking down like gun-ports, gives way to its replacement, a giant R280-million drum-round lekgotla structure with huge transparent windows emphasising openness, so tight one-party dominance in the country’s heartland has given way to dynamically shifting coalitions.
At the second sitting of the new Council – still in the old chamber, now filled to bursting as it has expanded dramatically from the apartheid era’s 50 councillor’s seats to 270 seats – proceedings on 13 September were more polite than in the National Assembly the same week, but the country’s new opposition-in-waiting, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) provided most of the expected colour, in their red overalls and doeke or construction helmets, in their stand-up comedy, and in their jiving dances.
The week before the meeting, large-framed Protocol Officer Frans Sheleng, who was a council labourer under apartheid before rising up through the ranks, had told me: “We took advice from Parliament on disciplinary issues and dress code. Those hardhats they [the EFF] have, they throw, and people could get hurt. We have to supply water bottles, but they throw those also. We are considering whether we need a sergeant-at-arms… but we don’t want to go that route.”
Yet the mercurial nature of the second sitting gave fair warning that politics will hereafter be as unpredictable as Joburg’s formerly regular-as-clockwork weather. This is especially so because the unseated African National Congress (ANC) seemed unable to reconcile to the fact that although it is the largest party with 121 seats, it has no clear majority and is now easily outvoted by the ruling Democratic Alliance (DA) with its 104 seats, its one-seat-each coalition partners, the African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP), Congress of the People (COPE), United Democratic Movement (UDM), and Freedom Front Plus (FF+), with its separate agreement with the five-seat Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) – but only when given the tactical support of the 30-seat EFF king-makers.
Perhaps the locations of the main parties’ Joburg offices are telling: the DA sits on a leafy block of Rissik Street downtown; the ANC is wedged between fast food outlets on Gandhi Square; while the EFF is located on De Korte Street, in the hipster boondocks of Braamfontein. With a whopping 49% of Johannesburg’s residents under the age of 34, this is a distinctly young city and the EFF seems to understand that more than most.
A Fighters song rhyming Mandela with Malema got a few in the DA seats grooving, but left the ANC bloc very unimpressed; while another song, sung after the EFF forced the DA to receive a delegation of its own employees, aggrieved at not having been paid for elections services (including one of whom had allegedly been run over by a DA councillor’s car), had some in the ANC jolling along delightedly. 
Although the DA and ANC religiously applauded their own speakers, the EFF and minority parties readily shifted their praise to whomsoever seemed most deserving, so the red bloc clapped when DA Speaker Vasco da Gama (freighted with history, as his namesake was the first European to round the Cape in 1497) shut down one of his own party’s councillors who had not properly asked to be recognised.
After his acceptance speech – delayed to the second sitting in respect for ANC councillor Nonhlanhla Mthembu who died during the first sitting – the DA’s new Executive Mayor, bald hair-products king Herman Mashaba, chided the ANC, sitting grumpily in the opposition seats for the first time since democracy came in 1994, for quibbling about not being in power. Veteran municipal journalist Anna Cox of The Star said that previously, the ANC had always jeered at the opposition after it effortlessly steamrollered policies over the DA, so it would be fascinating to see how the parties behaved now the tables were turned.
ANC caucus leader Geoffrey Makhubo, who surrendered his finance seat on the Metro Council after the elections, responded with umbrage to Mashaba’s characterisation of the “World Class City” as one in decay, saying “The ANC built this city into what it is today… It attracts 10,000 people a month looking for opportunities – and the mayor calls this decay.” He then went on to grumble about the ANC being, as he incorrectly put it, the “majority” party. Mashaba drolly riposted that Makhubo “seems to need more time to accept the result of the election. We hope he accepts it by 2021,” he said, meaning the end of his own five-year term. 
The EFF’s witty Silumko Mabona jibed the mayor, in reference to his cosmetics empire, asking him, “What is Black Like Me in your programme? We elected you beyond political and racial lines but it seems you are sleeping on the job.” He then claimed that the DA leader’s emphasis on resolving the housing crisis in the city was borrowed directly from the EFF’s election platform – and yet he received DA applause. The EFF’s councillor for Alexandra, Musa Novela, had a go at the ANC, quipping that “we must thank the Son of God for visiting Joburg,” a reference to the frequent pre-election ANC boast that the party would “rule until Jesus returns.”
The Johannesburg over which the DA coalition now rules is a metropolis with all the hubris and squalour of a frontier town, ranging from the poplar-lined avenues of Houghton, one of the continent’s wealthiest enclaves, to the dregs of an inner city that reeks of urine like an elephant house at a zoo. Yet this powerhouse of the African economy, with a population close to 4,5-million (three quarters of them black), generates 16.5% of the country's wealth and employs 12% of the national workforce.
Its Metro controls a R45,3-billion operational expenditure budget and a R9,5-billion capital expenditure budget over 2016/2017 – and Mashaba has already worked out ways to spend what remains.
The DA played a slick game, with Mashaba spelling out a policy that attempted to balance an anti-graft, clean city, pro-business approach with poverty alleviation. 
But a woman leader who knows poverty intimately and looks set to become one of the most strident voices in the chamber is the Patriotic Alliance’s sole councillor, Leanne Williams. Hailing from Eldorado Park, Williams is the child of a father who ran off when she was five, and fell pregnant at 19 – but at 24 she decided to turn her life around; today she has three degrees, and prior to joining the PA was head of risk at a leading bank. 
In the chamber, she told the councillors that the DA’s economics seemed “more like witchcraft” when they failed to address backyard dwellers, pit toilets and the scourge of drugs. To wild EFF and ANC applause, she said “Some of us are here to represent the marginalised – and not white privilege!”
She told Destiny later: “My ambition is not to become a politician when it is about seat-warming.” Dismissive of the three mainstream parties, which she predicted had already peaked, she said the new coalition politics, far from being indicative of political maturity, was a sign of decay, citing “the DA-EFF Kardashian marriage,” and the lack of focus on empowering the marginalised, especially women who in the Metro were mostly reduced to backbenchers. 
One woman who is not a backbencher the DA’s MMC for Community Development Nonhlanhla Sifumba. Born and still living in Orlando West, home of Winnie Mandela, Sifumba described herself to Destiny as liberal-minded and insatiably curious. Although she grew up in a politically-charged environment of regular protests which she participated in as a child, she embarked on a bewildering array of jobs before cutting her teeth in politics proper with the Independent Electoral Commission in 2006, and enlisted as a DA councilor in 2011.
Asked whether she saw her portfolio, which covers sports and recreation, libraries and information services, arts, culture and heritage, city parks, zoos and cemeteries, as a soft portfolio, Sifumba said, “No: this social part is critical to people’s life; it’s the heart of the city. People want to live in a beautiful city, so actually I am the MMC for Happiness.”
A half-hour trip by Gautrain to the north, Tshwane may be the country’s executive capital, but despite its population of around 3-million (also three quarters black, but with a larger white percentage than Joburg), and its R28,3-billion opex and R4,5-billion capex budgets, its Metro is altogether more modest than Joburg’s. Its offices are currently situated in the four-storey Sammy Marks shopping mall, which is half a construction site, overlooking two other diggings, that of the chamber’s new home (a prosaic purple-trimmed concrete block), and that of the new Women’s Monument at Lilian Ngoyi Square which commemorates the 1956 women’s march on the Union Buildings. 
Metro Executive Mayor “Just call me Solly” Msimanga of the DA scored points with his new electorate by outlawing the hated “blue light” convoys in the capital – except for those of President Zuma and his Cabinet – and courted controversy by instituting forensic audits into what he claimed was capital overspend by the previous ANC administration. 
The balance of power in Tshwane – where the security fencing around the Paul Kruger statue gives notice of a divided city – is only slightly in the DA’s favour – with 93 seats to the ANC’s 89 which, while still not a majority, gives the ruling alliance of the DA, ACDP, and FF+ together 98 seats, meaning again, the 25-seater EFF holds the swing vote. 
ANC Tshwane caucus leader Mapiti Matsena complained at the first sitting on 30 August – at which unpopular ANC mayoral candidate Thoko Didiza was noticeably absent – that “mayoral council does not represent the demography of the City of Tshwane… it is without women...” But this is patently untrue – and one of the most powerful elected women in the country is now Tshwane Metro Speaker Katlego Rachel Mathebe. 
Born in Kimberley but raised in Mabopane in then Bophuthatswana, she was politicised in Shoshanguve as a member of UDF affiliate Young Christian Students, and on graduating in Port Elizabeth, worked for a wide range of entities mostly as a financial officer. When Thabo Mbeki was ousted, she joined COPE, becoming a Tshwane councillor for the party in 2001, then joining the DA.
Mathebe told Destiny that her election as speaker came as no surprise because “as a young girl, I had the conviction that I cannot tolerate injustice… and what was happening in Tshwane, this was not what I fought for: I fought for liberation as in the right to vote, but also for a classless society… to reduce the difference between poor and rich… I cannot fold my arms and see the country going the wrong way, especially with the levels of looting.”
Mathebe was forced to adjourn the chamber at the first sitting after the EFF and ANC scuffled over black hairstyles at the Pretoria School for Girls. She stated that racism in the city was derived from economic inequality, which the DA has sworn to address by reducing unemployment and by tackling the city’s racialised spatial planning – which the ANC had failed to address. While she believed she had the respect and support of all the parties, ANC and EFF backbenchers holding on to past grudges kept provoking each other, so Tshwane was going to bring in EthicsSA to train councillors in civic virtues.
The unelected officials I spoke to seemed comfortable with DA assurances that, bar a little tweaking of priorities, the ANC-set long-term strategies for the cities – Tshwane Vision 2055, and Joburg’s Growth & Development Strategy 2040 – would remain largely unchanged, while their integrated development plans (IDPs) would by law have to take guidance from ward level every year. But Anna Cox told me she’d heard dark mutterings in the hallways of sabotage along the lines of “we don’t work for the DA,” and said there had even been rumours of an attempt to bug Mashaba’s office. Time will tell if the ANC’s assiduous cadre deployment over the past two decades works for or against democracy in future.