Thoko Didiza for Tshwane Mayor?

2016-06-20 19:59

On Sunday 19 June 2016, the ANC national executive committee announced the list of mayoral candidates for municipalities around the country following a technical and political vetting process. The media and analysts focused on the candidate mayors for major metropolitan municipalities, mainly the hotly contested Johannesburg, Nelson Mandela, eThekwini and Tshwane.

But the name of the candidate for Tshwane was withheld pending consultations with the Tshwane region of the ANC, sparking a speculation that there were divisions over the choice.

We already knew then that there was a large support for the chairperson of the ANC Tshwane region and current executive mayor, Kgosientso Ramogopa, to continue as mayor and a large support for his replacement by his deputy in the ANC, Mapiti Matsena, causing a big rift in the ANC's Tshwane region. The threat to ANC powerbase in a city the DA and the EFF were earmarking for a major electoral challenge was major.

In no time, the rumour mill grew as also tensions between the two factions - one for the current mayor and another for Mapiti- also exploded into violence. The rumour picked up that the ANC NEC had accepted the Provincial Executive Committee (PEC) view that neither of the two needed to be endorsed as candidates because this would simply deepen the tensions and further divide the ANC vote. This was a bold and risky suggestion on the part of the PEC because it made the PEC and its suggestion the focus of scorn and dismay by both sides of the Tshwane divide, posing an even more deadly political risk for the ANC in Tshwane.

It was clear that the PEC view would need the proposal of a strong alternative candidate to sustain. Such a candidate could be a unifier in the region, but also a name that can rise above the power struggle mentioned above. Yet, such candidate would need to come from the region itself or nearby regions like Mogale City or Ekurhuleni, with risks of being rejected on the grounds of regionalism, a rising demon in ANC politics alongside tribalism, male chauvinism and such.

Then, the ANC finally announced Thokozile Didiza as the consensus candidate today (20 June 2016). The public opinion was divided with a group calling itself friends of Mapiti calling this a parachuting of a celebrity politician and elements among those declaring openly in the media that their opposition was founded on tribalism, saying Thoko Didiza was born in KwaZulu-Natal. Of course, this group ignored her long experience in grassroots activism.

Others led by the current mayor have accepted this NEC decisions and have called for a united campaign for the ANC in the city. The PEC is also happy that it got its way and saved Tshwane from a "civil strife" , while the ANC's national officials pay themselves on the back for choosing one of the most experienced and dedicated politician. They feel that this would be good for building upon the respectable performance of the council under the energetic Ramogopa.

The anger will die down and the campaign to reverse this decision will fizzle out. What then should we make of the Didiza phenomenon in Tshwane? We would like to suggest three ways of looking at it.

The first is to dismiss it as a good move made too late in the turn of events. It can therefore be seen as papering over cracks because she will have to contend with governing through a heavily divided regional leadership. But this has nothing to do with her own abilities and competence, but the regional politics themselves, a challenge she must be aware of as an active branch member in the region, we are told. The division's can be de-emphasized by a huge focus on delivering on the priorities Ramagopa so eloquently outlined in his last state of the city address: housing, jobs, entrepreurship; infrastructure and economic growth; etc.

The second is to decry the implications of this move on the grounds of effect on internal popular democracy. It is possible to say that the move weakens the power of branches to choose leaders because their three candidates have been cast side and a fourth one has been brought in from the top. This argument belongs to that messy area of debate about the meaning of democratic centralism and the idealism of democracy of masses. It is a big debate that confronts the whole ANC, in every province. She might be the name around which such a debate will be conducted, but she is ultimately responsible for it or for solution of this. Ultimately, the performance of the ANC in elections and in power will cause many to focus on measuring democracy not just on voting but on efficacy of leadership and quality of life in the city.

The third way of looking at it is to appreciate the dilemma faced first by the PEC on factionalism in the region and then by the NEC on what would the endorsement of one of the two names in the tough power struggle would mean to the ANC first and the stability of the council after elections. The ANC opted for stability and predictability over unbridled popular democracy. Such stability is welcome broadly when it refocuses the council on the people of the city.

Whichever way one looks at it, the ANC has a lot of work to do to unite the city, deal harshly with violent factionalism that has already claimed one life and reach out to the disgruntled to reasonable degree. It has to present to the voters the commitment to build further and faster upon a solid work of the current council leadership. The party has to present a united front in the face of stiff competition from other parties and growing perceptions of division. It has to focus on the commitments it wants to make to residents of this city of great diversity. This is the city of wealthy areas that are growing as a part of the spatial expansion of the city, but poor areas battling poverty and attendant ills like drug and alcohol abuse. Parts of the inner city need further attention in areas ranging from cleanliness to transport arrangements. The city is growing economically, but a population that is facing greater difficulties to find jobs an entrepreneurial opportunities. The city that has in the past few years been well run, but one that is also battling issues of quality of life; and so forth.

Didiza must be very aware of these complexities and will have to work hard to unite the city leadership around the campaign not just for elections, but for faster and better service delivery. She will be well advised to prepare in a short time a message crafted around her party's manifestos that has been overshadowed by the clutter and factionalism in regional politics, a message of hope, determination and firm commitments.

Time will tell whether this bold move is one that will unite the ANC on principles and compliments to publics rather than divisions around personalities, whether it will focus on service delivery or it deepen factionalism.

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