Can the DA and EFF share a bed?

2016-05-12 07:32

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Melanie Verwoerd

The late politician and political analyst Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert once said that the moment of greatest danger for any new-born African state is not its moment of independence, but when the party of liberation first faces the prospect of defeat.

Although the ANC is not close to losing its majority nationally, all indicators point to substantial losses at local government level.

Many who want to see President Jacob Zuma replaced as president are welcoming this prediction. But since it doesn’t look as though he is willing to go of his own accord, it seems some catalytic event or series of events will be necessary for the ANC to ask him to leave or have him voted out.

The president has seemed fairly bullet proof until now, surviving one scandal after another, but some feel that dramatic losses at the polling booths in August (assuming the elections go ahead despite the voters’ roll issues) will change that. So every opinion poll suggesting the ANC will lose its majorities in the big metropolitan councils is generating optimism.

Despite endless assurances to the contrary by ANC spin doctors, it seems the ANC will almost certainly lose its majorities in at least some of the metros.

Trouble for ANC metros

The most likely casualty is Nelson Mandela Bay municipality (Port Elizabeth/Uitenhage). In the last local government elections in 2011 the ANC scraped in with 51.9% support. In the 2014 national elections that dropped to 49.2%.

In Tshwane the ANC had 55% in 2011, but similarly in the 2014 national election support there dipped to 49.3%. Greater Johannesburg was a bit more secure for the ANC with 58.6% in 2011, but warning lights flashed when its support slipped to 52.3% in 2014.

It is important to remember that the EFF did not exist during the previous local government elections. Some analysts suggest that they might get up to 30% of the vote, but let’s assume for argument’s sake that they get only 6%, as they did nationally, and that those would be mostly former ANC votes. This spells trouble for the ANC in those three metros.

There are also other factors, such as the huge presence of the metal workers’ unions around Port Elizabeth, the passivity of middle class voters in Tshwane and service delivery issues in Johannesburg.

It will be a major blow for the ANC if they lose their majority in these three metros. It can be argued that Nelson Mandela Bay is largely symbolic for the ANC, but the same can’t be said for Tshwane and Johannesburg. In this scenario it will mean that the ANC has lost control of the legislative capital (Cape Town), the financial capital (Johannesburg) and the administrative capital (Tshwane). And yes, I think it is pretty certain that the ANC in such a case will either move the national conference a year or more earlier, or that the top six will have the uncomfortable “it’s you, not us” conversation with the president.

And then? As I warned at the time of the celebrations following former president Thabo Mbeki’s departure, be careful what you wish for. Of course there is the question of who will come next. But that is for another day. What worries me far more at the moment is: what will happen at a local level, especially at the metros?

Coalition governments tricky and fractious

Although it seems likely that the ANC will lose its overall majority, it is also unlikely that any other party will get an overall majority. Thus we shall enter a period of coalition governments – which many argue is a good, gentle transition from the erstwhile liberation party’s control to a more diverse democracy. But coalition governments are by nature extremely tricky and fractious.

They are difficult to form and even more difficult to keep together. Ask any of the many European countries who have to deal with this. At local level it is even harder, because it is so much more personal. I once was present during a debate in a medium size municipality where a councillor voted against a proposal of another councillor, because “he had slept with my sister”.

And let’s face it, our national Parliament is not a shining light of cooperation and tolerance.

Independents can play a crucial role – if the 50% mark is narrowly missed. However, it is very likely that some coalitions will involve talks with the EFF. The EFF originally said they would never go into a coalition with the ANC, then also not with the DA. Now they are talking of coalitions of a special kind.

From what I understand, they will have an agreement with another party that, should that party allow the EFF to govern in one municipality, the EFF in turn will let the other party govern in another municipality. Call me crazy, but I can’t see parties ever agreeing to this. Frankly, I have learned not to pay any attention to these declarations before an election. The allure of power usually changes everything.

Strange bedfellows

The DA seems to be divided about whether they will enter into coalitions with the EFF. Helen Zille said last year that she could not see a coalition between the two parties. Mmusi Maimane seems to be thinking differently, and I am guessing that his view would hold sway.

Politics does make for strange bed fellows, but it is hard to imagine anything stranger than this. Can any two parties be further apart on economic issues – which is at the heart of service delivery – than the DA and the EFF? It is difficult to see how this would last beyond the first week.

And if there is one thing we can’t afford, it is for local government and especially the metros (which combined account for 70% of our gross domestic product) to grind to a halt like our national parliament. This will inevitably happen if the coalition parties can’t get along. It is true that coalition governments can be a way of easing the transition from the control of the ANC to another party or parties, but I am doubtful that any of the current political role players will have the graciousness and maturity to make that work.

*Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland.

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Read more on:    da  |  anc  |  eff  |  local elections 2016

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