Cape Town turmoil: Province steps in

The Western Cape government is taking seriously a request by African National Congress councillors to have Cape Town placed under provincial government administration and is forcing Democratic Alliance mayor Helen Zille to account for the continuing political strife in the council.

Local government and housing provincial minister Richard Dyantyi gave Zille until Wednesday to present her side of the wrangling over Wallace Mgoqi’s contract as city manager, after a petition by the ANC last week.

Zille has accused Mgoqi of undermining her administration and of conducting ”a guerrilla war”, after removing him as manager on grounds that his contract was illegally extended by the previous mayor, Nomaindia Mfeketu.

The demand for an official report has been described as a first step. Meetings have also been mooted between Dyantyi, Zille and Premier Ebrahim Rasool to resolve tensions. It is understood that Rasool has been briefed.

The ANC appeal to Dyantyi is addressed: ”Dear Comrade Minister”. Coming from party comrades, it could place provincial government in a difficult position.

”It is clear that your intervention to regularise the current state of chaos at the City of Cape Town is imperative,” wrote ANC chief whip Peter Gabriel. ”Due to the dispute around the validity of the contract of the city manager, Dr Wallace Mgoqi, among others, there can be no certainty about the election and appointment of any of the current office bearers.”

The special council meeting of Monday April 10 — described in the ANC letter as ”nothing more than an apartheid-style kangaroo court” — was meant to end the month-long dispute by revoking the one-year extension of Mgoqi’s contract just before the municipal poll. However, the meeting’s validity will be challenged by Mgoqi in court on May 9. If he succeeds, the special council decision will be void.

While the ANC letter does not expressly say it, the requested intervention is in terms of Section 139 of the Constitution. This allows the province to dissolve the council and appoint an administrator until a new council is elected. Section 139 also allows provincial authorities to issue a directive to council ”stating any steps required to meet its obligations” or assume responsibility for the council to ”maintain essential national standards” or prevent prejudice to another council or the province.

Jaap de Visser of the Community Law Centre at the University of the Western Cape described the request as unprecedented and a key test of the power relations between the city and the province.

”Appointing an administrator has happened across the country, but in really poor, weak and under-capacitated councils in rural areas and councils like Mthatha and Mafikeng. The City of Cape Town is a strong council.”

Zille told the Mail & Guardian that ”absolutely none” of the conditions contemplated in the Constitution applied to Cape Town. ”The ANC cannot accept being in opposition. [It] is trying to undermine the council. But it is business as usual.”

Dyantyi’s spokesperson, Vusi Tshose, said the provincial minister was ”concerned”, but did not elaborate on what steps would be taken. ”Service delivery may suffer because people are focused on the dispute,” he added.

The ANC defended its appeal to the provincial authorities. ”What has she [Zille] done for the people of Cape Town? All that she’s doing is purging, purging,” said provincial ANC chairperson James Ngculu. He dismissed the possibility of negative party-political repercussions.

The city has two managers — Mgoqi, who continued to report for work this week, and Achmat Ebrahim, in an acting capacity. Zille has sought further legal advice to break the stalemate.

This week Mgoqi asserted his contested authority by reporting two vacancies on the council to the Independent Electoral Commission at the request of one faction of the Africa Muslim Party (AMP), which claimed two of its councillors had been fired from the party.

This could have tilted the balance of power. The AMP holds three crucial seats in the ruling DA-led coalition, which has a one-vote majority over the ANC-Independent Democrats alliance.

However, in a swift move two disgruntled AMP members were expelled on Tuesday night. One had been given inducements by the ANC and ID, said AMP leader Wasfie Hassiem.

The political wrangling over Mgoqi’s contract is headed for the Cape High Court on May 9. This was the ”clarion date” to resolve the dispute, said Mgoqi’s lawyer, Clem Druker, adding that while there was no aversion to a settlement, Zille had never made a written offer. ”With goodwill, this could have been settled. All this publicity … that is demonising my client … is an embarrassment to the citizens of Cape Town.” This week Zille launched a counter application for the court to rule at the same hearing on the validity of Mgoqi’s contract.

‘I’m a survivor’

Achmat Ebrahim finds himself in a curious position: he is Cape Town’s acting city manager, while the previous incumbent, Wallace Mgoqi, continues to come to work.

But he remains stoical: the political situation is out of his control and the appointment is a temporary one. ”I’m a people’s person,” he said this week. ”I work with and through people.”

Ebrahim is a survivor of political upheavals. Appointed by the Democratic Alliance as executive director of community services after the December 2000 municipal poll, he was one of the two top managers kept on when the African National Congress took over after floor-crossing in late 2002.

One of nine siblings, Ebrahim (50) grew up in the Bo-Kaap, where his father was an imam. Family remains key for the married father of four.

He is a council veteran, having joined the city administration in 1977 and risen through the ranks from clerk, to administrator, to executive director of protection, health and trading in the former Cape Metropolitan Council.

One council insider says that Ebrahim has a reputation for playing it safe and ”letting the political overlords make decisions”. However, he is widely respected for his knowledge of local government. For seven years he lectured on local government and administration at the former Peninsula Technikon. — Marianne Merten

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Marianne Merten
Guest Author

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