South Africa’s bold but clumsy experimentation with coalitions suffered a dramatic blow last week.
Remember those intense days in August 2016?
Winter was in its dying throes, but the atmosphere was as hot as could be.
The results of the local government elections shocked the nation and seemed to herald a new era in South Africa’s political landscape.
Legions of disgruntled ANC voters had shown their disgust regarding Jacob Zuma’s corrupt and inept tenure by punishing the party at municipal level, turning that election into a national rather than a local poll.
Some deserted to the opposition, while others registered their disapproval by staying away.
The result was that powerful metros and smaller municipalities had hung councils and would be forced into coalitions.
Those heady days of negotiations still rank as some of the most momentous in the democratic era.
They saw the EFF flex its newly acquired status of kingmaker by making the ANC beg and dance.
Long story short, the EFF backed the DA, its ideological foe, leading to the ANC being ousted from power in Tshwane, Nelson Mandela Bay and in this bewitchingly beautiful City of Gold that is God’s artistic masterpiece.
The next three years were to be the most unstable in the history of our democratic local governments.
The ANC, unused to being out of power and still feeling entitled to office, refused to internalise the idea of being an opposition party.
It resorted to the tactics of disruption and subterfuge, bringing forth pointless motions of no confidence and mobilising mobs to protest against incumbent mayors.
The DA appeared totally unprepared for office.
While it had for years projected itself as the alternative government – and messaged this line during the campaign – the party seemed shocked that power was in its reach when the moment came.
It had little capacity to fill the powerful positions now in its hands, had little clue about the rules regarding recruiting key bureaucrats, and many of its political office bearers were at sea in the portfolios they occupied.
As a result of this ineptitude on the part of the DA’s deployees and the ANC’s obstructionist tactics, it is difficult to claim that the party governed better than its foe.
Only Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba’s non-politician traits and natural hard-headedness seemed to be reaping results.
He may not have been the most likeable guy, but even many of the ANC’s most loyal members concede that he ran a good ship and would have left a legacy had he been able to finish his term, and perhaps get a second.
The most enigmatic player in this drama has been the EFF, whose principles and tactics changed on the hop.
The EFF has enjoyed the luxury of being in office without being in office.
Because it wielded power over a DA that badly needed its protection from the ANC and allies, it allowed the smaller party to dictate to it.
The tail wagged the dog and the EFF was able to get away with implementing its designs without having to take responsibility for anything.
The EFF also displayed chameleon-like tendencies.
Having said that occupying office would be a betrayal of the wishes of the electorate that had indicated their preference for the ANC and the DA, the 10% EFF now wanted to use its kingmaker position to bargain and take the mayorship of Tshwane.
Ultimately, it was the loss of the EFF’s backing that made the DA vulnerable in the three cities.
The smaller parties were prepared to be pawns in the bigger games being played. In return for a position here and a favour there, they went with the sweetest deal.
So much so that the long suffering people of Nelson Mandela Bay had to endure 14 months under the mayorship of the United Democratic Movement’s Mongameli Bobani, a man who suffers from severe cognitive impairment.
In 1952, educationist Robert J Havighurst mainstreamed the educational concept of the “teachable moment”, which is still widely used.
He wrote: “A developmental task is a task which is learnt at a specific point and which makes achievement of succeeding tasks possible. When the timing is right, the ability to learn a particular task will be possible. This is referred to as a ‘teachable moment’. It is important to keep in mind that, unless the time is right, learning will not occur.”
The current turmoil in the metro governments should be – but won’t be – that teachable moment for South Africa’s political formations.
This should be the perfect time for politicians and their respective parties to pause and reflect on why they are part of politics in the first place.
Politics may be about seeking power, but it should never be about power for the sake of it – it should be about bettering the lives of people or holding to account those who are mandated and took an oath to do so.
Being in power should not be about marginalising those on the outside.
Likewise, being in opposition should not be about disrupting or sabotaging those in office – they do not need to be civil to each other, but they should be constructive in their robustness.
The end objective of battle, no matter how heated or rough, should be a better governance product.
The current circumstances are perfect for us to begin our teachable moment and emerge more mature.
Alas, this moment will pass us by.