DEVON STEENKAMP, the DA caucus spokesperson in the City of Johannesburg, put out a media release on Tuesday announcing the retirement from local politics of former mayor Dr Mpho Phalatse. In it, her praises were sung as a person, but there was no mention of her role in the DA or her contribution as the executive mayor of Johannesburg.
The release, under the heading “Resignation of Dr Mpho Phalatse", devoted two paragraphs to her departure, but in the last three paragraphs raised a seemingly unrelated political problem: the contentious issue of the motion to dissolve the metro council.
It's not clear why Steenkamp, out of respect for Phalatse, did not deal with the two issues in separate releases, but he did manage to link two issues that the DA's federal council in Cape Town would have wanted to keep separate.
The reason for the silence about Phalatse's political role is probably the tension between her and the federal council. Phalatse has always been a supporter of a political deal with the Patriotic Alliance's Gayton McKenzie that could remove the ANC and EFF from power in Johannesburg. By contrast, John Steenhuisen, Helen Zille, Thomas Walters and Leon Schreiber have consistently made it clear that cooperation agreements with other parties are the responsibility of the federal council rather than local politicians. Twice over the past few months, the centralisation of this policy prevented Phalatse from becoming mayor of Johannesburg again.
Phalatse made a point of referring to her continued membership of the party in her resignation letter to the DA, but there was also an important sentence confirming that she does not see the resignation as the end of her political career. In fact, rumour has it that she plans to join ActionSA when the time is ripe.
Phalatse's resignation should be seen in the context of the events of the past week, with ActionSA having to withdraw its motion of no confidence in Al Jama-ah mayor Kabelo Gwamanda after the DA made it clear it would not support the motion if it meant working with the PA. During a recent discussion in Cape Town with Corné Mulder of the Freedom Front Plus and Walters, there was no doubt in my mind that the DA is not prepared to have any further formal discussions with McKenzie.
The price that Johannesburgers and eventually other Gautengers will pay for this is astronomical. Not only does the ANC remain at the helm of the city, the party's leaders will certainly also try to use Johannesburg's budget to ensure the ANC and the EFF retain control of Gauteng after next year's elections. In defiance of Cyril Ramaphosa's outspoken opinion that Dada Morero should be the executive mayor, premier Panyaza Lesufi is steadfastly sticking to the agreement with the EFF that a smaller party should hold the mayoral post.
Unlike the DA's federal council, Lesufi realises the value of the metro as a power base for the 2024 elections. While the DA is willing to sacrifice Johannesburg for the sake of its “political values", there is a good chance that this decision will also make the ANC and the EFF's position in Gauteng significantly stronger after the elections.
Instead of ActionSA's no-confidence motion, the DA wants to call for the dissolution of the Johannesburg council in November. The Local Government: Municipal Structures Act does not leave room for the dissolution of a metro council within two years after a local election, hence the proposal to do so in November. But opposition parties see this proposal as a Trojan horse because a two-thirds majority is unlikely. It is currently not even possible to achieve a 51% majority without the support of McKenzie's PA.
Yet the DA's position may not be totally irrational. At the heart of it is McKenzie's growing support among coloured voters, an issue that could gain momentum if the DA's relationship with the PA normalises. Currently, it is the DA's strategy to demonise McKenzie and the PA, something that will be difficult to maintain if the PA becomes part of the Multi-Party Charter for South Africa.
Clearly, McKenzie is preoccupied with an opportunistic power play, making him an unreliable political partner. But that's how coalitions work; political agreements are often a choice between the devil and the deep blue sea, and require dynamic and pragmatic leadership. As ActionSA's Michael Beaumont quite rightly noted recently, if trust between political parties was a requirement for coalitions to form, there would be no coalitions in South Africa.
The conversation this past week between Schreiber and McKenzie on X is emblematic of the DA's strategy against the PA. Schreiber to McKenzie: “This loser spends all night begging to be let into a party he was never invited to. After the whole street laughs at him, he comes out the next day and says he never wanted to go to the party in the first place. Go play with your ANC buddies and stay away, scumbag (vuilgoed)!"
To which McKenzie replies: “This is the baasskap mentality we have to work with, despite never asking us to join this pact. It's just so discouraging."
This loser spends all night begging to be let into a party he was never invited to. After the whole street laughs at him, he comes out the next day and says he never wanted to go to the party in the first place 🤣 Gaan speel met jou ANC maatjies en bly weg, vuilgoed! pic.twitter.com/fkkLqhzrIg— Leon Schreiber (@Leon_Schreib) August 29, 2023
I can't think of circumstances under which Schreiber would say such a thing to a white politician. It is too recently that black South Africans were described as “vuilgoed” for Schreiber to use such a word.
Some of the DA leadership's other habits on social media are also causing tremendous damage are among the reasons why the DA lost about 1.5-million votes between the local elections of 2016 under Mmusi Maimane and 2021 under Steenhuisen.
Schreiber likewise leaves behind him a minefield of destruction, and hopefully at some point he will be spoken to about this by the DA's federal council.
The reality is that the Mulder of the FF+ and Herman Mashaba of ActionSA — with Phalatse's quiet encouragement — held discussions with McKenzie in an attempt to make him part of a deal that could politically remove the ANC from the Johannesburg metro.
The centripetal forces within the Multi-Party Charter, a coalition of seven parties, are potentially destructive for agreements aimed at uprooting the ANC in the 2024 provincial and national elections. The IFP has already revealed in statements that it does not necessarily share a vision for the charter with the DA, and ActionSA's relationship with the DA is also in murky waters. Even the FF+ regards some of the ways the DA goes about things as subversive rather than pragmatic and constructive.
Perhaps it's better that the DA contests next year's election outside of the Multi-Party Charter, because the party's way of doing things often puts untenable pressure on the agreement on which the coalition was built. ActionSA, the IFP, the FF+, the ACDP and the PA are all politically closer to each other than to the DA. In fact, apart from the IFP, all of these parties are trying to take at least a part of the DA's support base for themselves.
Ultimately, interest groups and political parties looking to remove the ANC from power in 2024 will use at least three distinct strategies: First, that of the DA, which manages elections effectively and will once again attract 20% of the votes cast, thanks to the white liberal vote as well as a significant coloured support base, mainly in the Western Cape.
Second, the Multiparty Charter, which includes the FF+ and the PA, and which can use the significant consensus between them to unite approximately 15% of voters behind them.
Third, there is the political agenda of Rise Mzansi, which focuses on a broad spectrum of community interests and which does not want to enter into an agreement with other political parties before the elections. Songezo Zibi and his comrades will have to bring in more than 20% of the additional support for the opposition if there is to be any hope of removing the ANC from the Union Buildings.
All very theoretical, but let it be so.
♦ VWB ♦
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