PATRICK BULGER | No refusing these marriages of inconvenience to uninvited suitors

Coalitions will be with us for some time and, who knows, they might just serve us better than what’s gone before

25 November 2021 - 20:10
Buy-in is a two-way street -- the DA will need Julius Malema's EFF on certain issues, but then he'll also need John Steenhuisen's party in coalition areas.
OPEN ARMS Buy-in is a two-way street -- the DA will need Julius Malema's EFF on certain issues, but then he'll also need John Steenhuisen's party in coalition areas.
Image: Antonio Muchave

We all know about political impostors. Now meet the imposers, a new parasite that thrives in the neck of the experimental local-government hybrid the political parties have spawned after weeks of grandstanding and talks. Forget the commitment and the aligning of principles once thought necessary for a durable coalition deal. Thanks to the imposers, the outcome of our political dating game is that Johannesburg and Ekurhuleni especially will henceforth be run as forced marriages of inconvenience.

Even in Tshwane, where the DA has firmer loyalties, but no love, divorce is a constant threat. Is it possible these awkward coalitions of the unwilling are the results of the one-night stands DA leader John Steenhuisen warned us about before the elections?

We’re in high-gangster territory here, in the way that the EFF and ActionSA plotted to give DA mayors a victory against the ANC, but without having been asked to do so. It’s like a friend giving you a Rottweiler for a birthday present and you’re not sure how grateful you should be, if at all.

Little wonder Helen Zille was “surprised’’, but not obviously delighted, when the EFF in Johannesburg “imposed’’ itself (in the words of an EFF “insider’’, to quote a TimesLIVE report) and voted for the DA’s Mpho Phalatse, a medical doctor from Alexandra and a political novice, to become mayor of Africa’s richest city. “Effectively you have to renegotiate a coalition before every single meeting,’’ Zille moaned. Same thing happened in Ekurhuleni, where the DA’s Tania Campbell (you couldn’t make this up) became mayor. Aren’t these precisely the unstable coalitions Steenhuisen was disavowing live on TV last week?

As an EFF “insider’’ observed: “We are voting with the DA and we don’t want Helen Zille’s permission. We are voting for her by force. We don’t even speak to her and we don’t want an impression that we will want something from her or anyone. We are playing our political game; we are imposing ourselves on her.’’

If Zille proved to be a sore winner, Ekurhuleni’s outgoing ANC mayor, Mzwandile Masina, one of the RET gang’s loudest and boldest, proved that even in defeat there is honour yet in the ANC. His promise of a “peaceful transition’’ was a huge relief, beyond Edenvale and Brakpan, and even if it does seem a delusion of grandeur on his part, it is nonetheless good practice for ANC luminaries as the party awaits in grim anticipation its fate in 2024.

The new era of 'imposed' coalitions offers an opportunity for a rebirth in debate and argument, of the quarrelsome variety if needs be, and an airing of views that were not necessarily encouraged by the conventional discourse.

It’s instructive that only two key parties — three if you include Philani Mavundla’s Abantu Batho Congress (ABC) in eThekwini — offered themselves as potential partners to the ANC in these talks. The IFP pretended to hold its nose and agree to “pacts’’, not coalitions, with the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal’s hung municipalities. Strongman Gayton McKenzie’s Patriotic Alliance got a convicted rapist into the mayoralty in the Cape backwater of Kannaland, the price the ANC would pay to retain a foothold (any foothold) in that province, which is now about as far removed, psychologically and politically, from ANC rule as Belgium is.

The manner of the ANC’s “victory’’ in eThekwini suggests a great fall. Not only did it require a suspicious electricity blackout at the venue and a convenient postponement of proceedings, but the party needed the help of Mavundla, a breakaway former ANC mayor of Greytown who formed the ABC to take on the ANC he once served. This self-declared financial benefactor of former president Jacob Zuma got deputy mayor. And spare a thought for the city when you consider the mayor is Mxolisi Kaunda, who tweeted while the place burnt during the July riots: “We are Msholozi, and Msholozi is us. #FreeZuma.’’

If Zille is right and coalitions have to be settled at every meeting, the carefree spending of our money could become a more sporadic and conditional affair. How can it harm if this is accompanied by more strategic and focused oversight and scrutiny, and indeed actual thought, when public monies are so generously allocated? Can it be a bad thing if spending is subjected to real accountability, and not of the soft-soaping variety by pliant party members?  Who can doubt more eyes, and minds not corralled by party whips, will help prevent the ludicrous sort of decisions by bankrupt councils to blow millions on “sports stadiums’’, rather than on things a broader section of the population needs if only someone spoke up for them?

Efficiency in government, and especially its political processes, is overrated and can breed conformity and lazy compliance. The new era of “imposed’’ coalitions offers an opportunity for a rebirth in debate and argument, of the quarrelsome variety if needs be, and an airing of views that were not necessarily encouraged by the conventional discourse. How safe will secrets be?

And what of service delivery? Will Johannesburg be able to tar a road in the super-privileged northern suburbs without getting Julius Malema’s buy-in? Or making sure it’s the road he lives on? Can a bridge be built (or burnt) without Floyd Shivambu’s assent? Will Ekurhuleni be able to buy new cars for the bosses without ActionSA’s Herman Mashaba fitting cheaper sound systems?

But if the EFF’s or ActionSA’s votes are needed on certain items, then conversely their goals, too, can presumably only be accomplished by cooperation with the majority party, in this case the DA. It’s not necessarily a one-way street.

Coalition governments will be our future for years to come, even as memories of the easier gains of liberation fade and the thankless and prosaic task of governing the unwilling is thrust upon the willing. If makeshift coalitions help revive the lost art and goal of competitive governance, namely the wisest division of public funds, will the broadest public interest not be better served? Can it be served any worse than it has been up to now?

subscribe

Would you like to comment on this article or view other readers' comments? Register (it’s quick and free) or sign in now.

Speech Bubbles

Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.