NMB reminds us why coalitions are unstable

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Mayor Athol Trollip. PHOTO: lulama zenzile
Mayor Athol Trollip. PHOTO: lulama zenzile

Proceedings at Nelson Mandela Bay (NMB) Metro in the Eastern Cape affirmed what we’ve come to know about coalition governments: they’re unstable. Thursday’s meeting was plagued by the same ructions we witnessed the last time a motion of no confidence in Mayor Athol Trollip was tabled. But this time voting on the mayor did not happen. Instead it was rescheduled because of a disagreement about the schedule and items on the agenda.

It may well be that the disagreement was feigned to collapse the meeting, called specifically to vote on the motions of no confidence in the mayor and speaker Jonathan Lamack. The sponsors of the motions, led by the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), which wanted the council meeting to start with the vote to remove the speaker. But the DA and its allies objected, saying the motion was sixth on the agenda.

The first item of business, they insisted, was the vote on the mayor. The speaker casts a deciding vote if there is a tie. And a tie was a likely outcome of the vote on the motion of no confidence in the mayor. That’s why the EFF and its allies wanted to start with the vote on the speaker, hoping they would then elect their own candidate, who would, in turn, cast the deciding vote in their favour if there was a tie.

Besides the manoeuvres, the squabble over the order of items on the agenda is quite revealing of the levels of trust among the supposed allies.

Based on public commitments made by Congress of the People (Cope), the African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP), the Patriotic Alliance (PA) and the African Independent Congress (AIC) prior to the vote on Wednesday, the DA seemed poised to secure a majority of 61 votes in a council of 120 seats. Yet, it would not agree to start with the vote on the speaker. This suggests uncertainty about some allies, who might not have followed through on their promises. Had the DA been confident, there would have been no reason to resist the vote on the speaker, as Lamack would have retained his position.

If the AIC is really sincere in its claim that it will vote with the DA, then the ANC faces a possible precarious future in Ekurhuleni, Gauteng. The party leads a coalition government there that is held together by the AIC. This support is based on the promise that the ANC will redraw provincial boundaries to relocate Matatiele back into KwaZulu-Natal from the Eastern Cape. That promise has not materialised yet. The AIC is understandably unhappy, which is why it has taken to threating the ANC to pull out of the coalition in Ekurhuleni.

Frankly, the ANC’s problem is much bigger than the loss of power. There is a possibility of it not returning to power in the metros it lost. The cause of its defeat in 2016, a dysfunctional party, hasn’t disappeared. In the NMB, factionalism and self-interest resulted in the ANC sabotaging its own mayoral candidate Danny Jordaan. That’s why all the right-minded comrades advised that the priority, in the aftermath of its defeat, should be rebuilding the party. A reformed party increases its prospects of not only returning to power, but also offering ethical and efficient municipal leadership.

The party remains in disarray more than a year after it committed itself to rebuilding. Roughly half the branches are in good standing and the regional executive committee is hardly functional. There have even been rumours it could be disbanded.

The ANC was forced to reconsider taking the EFF’s offer when Mcebisi Jonas declined to stand as a candidate. Julius Malema’s support was conditional on the ANC proposing Jonas, or someone of his calibre, as the candidate. Malema preferred Jonas because of his ethical stance.

Jonas was the first to go public on the Gupta corruption, indirectly implicating Jacob Zuma, knowing that the then president could fire him. And he was fired. Jonas declined Malema’s offer perhaps because he is earmarked for national office.

Jonas’ decision to decline meant the ANC had to propose someone else. And it does not seem to have found them.

Malema said: “They even looked under the bed, but couldn’t find a corruption-free person.” Speaking to his supporters at Nangoza Jebe Hall in New Brighton on Wednesday night, Malema pointed to this failure as indicative of the depth of corruption in the ANC.

This is precisely what makes his offer to return the ANC to power puzzling. Jonas wouldn’t have assumed power alone, but would have brought along the entire unreformed ANC. That would have meant returning a corrupt ANC to power.

Thus the EFF proposal wasn’t entirely popular in the NMB and within his own ranks. He admitted as much on Wednesday night, saying some of his members were “angry and irritated” at the intention to vote with the ANC. They were not convinced it was a good decision. For Malema though, the important thing was “using Nelson Mandela Bay to show our seriousness about the land issue”. He told his members to stop being local in their approach, but to focus on broader national issues. Removing the DA, he said, was punishment for its not supporting expropriation of land without compensation, especially as Trollip was part of the DA leadership that took the decision.

Prioritising national over local issues is consistent with the nature of the party. It is nationally oriented. That’s why its work in Parliament and litigation over national issues receives more prominence than anything locally. The strategy is that those national gains will translate into local support. But, sacrificing local benefits for a distant gain would not have had the same effect. Voters are selfish and live in the here and now. They hardly vote on the promise of the future, but base their voting choices on their present-day experience.

That is why the EFF, though Malema vowed not to vote for the DA’s budget, ultimately voted for the motion to readjust the budget.

The adjustments included in-sourcing security guards at the municipality. Had the motion not passed on Thursday, those people would have been retrenched and the EFF alliance would have shouldered the blame. That would not have augured well for a party that claims to work for security guards.

Local experiences of people matter. The best formula for the EFF is fusing the national focus with local sensitivity. In the meantime, the NMB and other coalition municipalities will continue to be tested. That’s the nature of the beast.

- Ndletyana is associate professor of politics at the University of Johannesburg

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