What’s needed to fix collapsing coalitions in South Africa’s cities

Johannesburg: one of three South African cities in which coalitions have collapsed. EPA/Jon Hrusa

Three South African cities run by opposition party coalitions for the past three years have been facing tough times.

In Johannesburg, a new mayor has been elected following the resignation of Herman Mashaba from both the city and the Democratic Alliance, South Africa’s main political opposition. The mayoral election saw a shift of political alliances in the council. Smaller parties sided with the African National Congress, which has the majority of members in the council. As a result, the African National Congress’s Geoff Makhubo was elected mayor.

In Nelson Mandela Bay, the mayor Mongameli Bobani was removed from office when both the Democratic Alliance and the African National Congress voted in favour of a motion of no confidence. This followed a year of turmoil after the collapse of a Democratic Alliance-led coalition in late 2018, when that party’s Athol Trollip was removed as mayor and replaced by the United Democratic Movement’s Bobani. The main parties finally took action after Bobani’s mayorship proved a disaster for the city.

And in Tshwane, Stevens Mokgalapa was also removed in a vote of no confidence during a chaotic council meeting. He took over as mayor after the Democratic Alliance’s Solly Msimanga resigned in January 2019. But Mokgalapa’s tenure was riddled with scandal.

The drama isn’t over in South Africa’s administrative capital. The Democratic Alliance has obtained a court order that suspends Mokgalapa’s removal. And the African National Congress-led Gauteng provincial government is placing the Tshwane council under administration.

The provincial government has also said it will ask parliament to pass national legislation that governs coalition governments in South African cities.

It is difficult to imagine what such legislation would look like or how it would fit with the many laws that already regulate local government. One cannot legislate against political pettiness, which was in evidence during the derailed Tshwane council meeting and delayed Johannesburg’s mayoral election by a week.

But it may well be that some legal structures require tweaking to safeguard service delivery and good governance from volatile political coalitions.

Cooperative governance

In many cities around the world, the consequences of opposition parties winning local government elections are devastating. This is because national governments then sometimes use subversive tactics to sabotage them, like stripping opposition cities of power or starving them of resources.

The South African constitution has largely saved the country’s cities from this. It prescribes a system of cooperative government and ring-fences powers and resources for cities, no matter who runs them. Until this week’s intervention in Tshwane, national and provincial governments have mostly left opposition cities to govern without interference.

What proved far more damaging to good governance in Johannesburg, Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay has been internal coalition politics.

The political coalition partners in all three cities had little in common other than a desire to sideline the ANC. This invited instability and tension, which has threatened to compromise good governance.

But coalition politics involves more than just keeping all partners on board. The South African local government system was devised at a time when one-party dominance of municipal councils was taken for granted. It is not really designed for sharing power.

System not geared for power sharing

All three coalition cities have executive mayor systems, where decision-making power vests mostly in the mayor and the mayoral committee. Municipal councils are relegated to more of an oversight role. In practice, they have been easily sidelined by mayors keen to centralise power.

In 2002, the constitutional court found that mayoral committees did not require proportional representation. This meant mayors could freely choose councillors to appoint to committees. This made it easy to sideline political opposition. In Johannesburg, the African National Congress was excluded from the mayoral committee despite occupying most seats in the council.

But this also drives factionalism within ruling parties and lends an edge to coalitions. In Johannesburg, it was reported that some Democratic Alliance councillors were unhappy with Mashaba’s dealings with the Economic Freedom Fighters, but found themselves isolated. It is perhaps unsurprising that some Democratic Alliance councillors then voted with the African National Congress in choosing Makhubo as mayor.

Dominance of internal party politics

The over-concentration of power in the mayor’s office is further politicised by the blurred legal line between political parties and state institutions.

Party leadership exercises disproportionate influence over urban governance. And party factionalism can distract city leaders from more urgent matters. This arguably happened around Mashaba’s and Msimanga’s resignations, as well as recent mayoral resignations in Durban and Cape Town.

When combined with the lack of a clear line between cities’ political leadership and their administration, this becomes even more damaging. After the 2016 elections, all three coalition cities either purged senior administrators loyal to the African National Congress, or made their work difficult enough to persuade them to leave. Johannesburg lost skilled personnel, which affected service delivery.

Governing across divisions

A whole new law to manage coalitions would be unrealistic and unnecessary. But there are arguably aspects of South Africa’s governance system that need modification.

First, the country needs to find ways to hold executive mayors adequately accountable. It must remove the wedge between mayoral committees and municipal councils and must ensure that councils play a meaningful role in steering cities.

Secondly, the country needs to devise a stronger legal line between political parties and municipal councils. For example, law could determine that mayors can only be dismissed by councils, rather than parties.

Thirdly, there’s a need to take more concrete legal steps towards professionalising the civil service.

But successful coalition governance ultimately depends on political maturity and the ability to govern across divisions. Unfortunately, in South African opposition politics these seem sorely lacking.

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