Tshwane protest. (Karabo Ngoepe, News24)
Johannesburg - Some years ago, ANC leaders mooted the idea of putting the cream of its leadership crop at the bottom, in local councils, because it was this level of government that could make the biggest difference to people's lives.
They shouldn't all sit up there in Parliament or Cabinet, the reasoning went.
That seemed like a great plan for the country, at least while mayors were deployed from a national level.
Then came 2007, when populist sentiment in the ANC swept former president Thabo Mbeki and his centralist grip on things out of power.
Instead of national appointing them, mayoral candidates for the ANC would now be nominated by the party's regions, just like premiers would be nominated by the provincial executive committees.
- See how the ANC has fared in previous local government elections in Tshwane
This is democratic enough, but majoritarian democracy like this always seems to break down when there are two more or less equal factions not agreeing on things, and where the party’s grip on power is weakening.
In at least two such municipalities, there is evidence that the party wants to put its best foot forward to lure back straying voters.
In Nelson Mandela Bay Metro, for instance, support for the ANC dipped below 50% in the 2014 general elections. A recent opinion poll showed that the party could yet lose its grip on the metro in the August 3 local elections, whereas previously it pulled through with the help of trade unions like the National Union of Metalworkers.
Damning auditor-general report
But these are no longer on board the tripartite alliance ship, and ANC leaders knew an urgent intervention was needed.
Efforts to appoint a compromise candidate, who rose above the fierce local faction fighting, resulted in the disaster that was the aged Ben Fihla, before well-known soccer boss Danny Jordaan was roped in.
Even though local factions were unhappy about his appointment, he seems to have done well for the city.
A damning auditor-general report released in February found that billions of rands were wasted in 2014-15 under Fihla because municipal officials were ignoring legislation and wasting money, without any consequences. The metro also fell into a budget deficit of more than R400m. After less than a year, Jordaan had it back in the black.
Behind the scenes, the agreement was that the ANC's national leaders would take care of the factional fall-out – yet this was still not enough to save it from embarrassment in April, when the party failed to fill the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth for its national manifesto launch.
ANC members might not much like Jordaan's appointment, but an Ipsos opinion poll amongst possible voters in that metro showed he was far more popular than his DA opponent, Athol Trollip, and even more popular than the ANC itself.
Putting him up as a candidate again therefore seems like a good decision.
Former minister and bright star Thoko Didiza, with her 14 years' experience in national government, seems a good choice too for Tshwane.
'Neutral' Didiza roped in
Current mayor Kgosientso "Sputla" Ramokgopa, also chairperson of his region, hasn't been great, but not a complete disaster either, and under him support for the ANC in the city kept dropping.
Despite some scandals, like a questionable electricity smart meter tender, and despite the party's loss of support in recent years in the city, the ANC hasn't before made any moves to kick him out – although dropping him might be a good pre-emptive move, seeing that the Public Protector has been investigating apparent irregularities around the smart meter tender.
Ramokgopa didn't make it to the nominations shortlist and the branches went for his deputy, Mapiti Matsena. To rise above this, ostensibly, the ANC's national leadership roped in the "neutral" Didiza, also perhaps with recent polling figures – atrocious for the ANC – in the back of their minds.
Like Jordaan, she's a high-level import into the metro, and could lure sceptical voters. Unlike Jordaan, she actually sits on the ANC's national executive committee and serves in a local branch, which could indicate that she's in touch with the issues.
Unlike Jordaan, she wasn't born in the city where she hopes to govern, but she has lived there for a while.
But why her? The story amongst analysts in the party is that Gauteng brought her in with an eye on the ANC's 2017 elective congress.
Didiza – who resigned from government when Mbeki resigned, and who only made her comeback to politics four years later – was brought in by the province, more specifically by provincial ANC chairperson Paul Mashatile.
Mashatile is a vocal critic of President Jacob Zuma.
Rising above party's interests
Mashatile is said not to want Ramokgopa, who is closer to ANC deputy provincial chairperson David Makhura (also Gauteng premier). Neither does he trust deputy ANC chairperson in Tshwane, Mapiti Matsena, who was close to Zuma in the past.
So Mashatile needs someone, like Didiza, who will strengthen his hand ahead of 2017, party analysts say.
His chosen candidate for Johannesburg, Parks Tau, is already in place, which means he has a grip on two of the three metros in the province.
Ekurhuleni, where Deputy Trade and Industry Minister Mzwandile Masina, a Zuma loyalist, is a mayoral candidate, was never going to be in his grasp.
So, given divisions in the ANC in the region, would it have been better to leave it at the choice of the branches without muddling? Would it have prevented Tshwane from burning this week anyway?
Would Matsena have saved Tshwane from an opposition coalition? Who knows?
If the decision to nominate Didiza stands, and if she wins the city for the ANC, she would have to rise above what is good only for the party – appeasing the factions by showering them with resources and deployments – and do what is good for the country, by governing the city by the book. These demands can be in conflict with each other.
On the other hand, should her candidature not bring the ANC back into power in the metro, and should it slip into opposition hands, who knows if the ANC will do what's best for the city and capitulate? Or will the disgruntled ones at the bottom do what seems to be good for the ANC, but what is really catastrophic for everyone, and push the self-destruct button?
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