In the greater scheme of electoral hustle and bustle in our democracy, the by-election in the small Free State municipality of Metsimaholo is not remarkable.
Other local councils elected on August 3 2016, have collapsed in the last 15 months since that seismic event and by-elections have come and gone without fanfare.
But the by-election taking place on Wednesday in the Free State’s second largest economy deserves another look and, years from now, could even be considered to have been a historic watershed.
A delicately balanced coalition collapsed in July after the Democratic Alliance (DA), Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), Freedom Front Plus and the Metsimaholo Civic Association — all partners in the coalition government — failed to pass a budget.
As many as 16 parties are now contesting to take over governance of the municipality, from the ANC to the little known Forum 4 Service Delivery and the Congress of the People to an outfit called Power of African Unity, a Cope breakaway.
One contestant, however, sets the Metsimaholo election apart from, say, the by-election in Libode in the Eastern Cape or Eshowe in KwaZulu-Natal.
In this unremarkable, faded industrial town suspended between the northern Free State and the nether reaches of Gauteng, the South African Communist Party (SACP) has decided to flex its muscles, or at least investigate whether it has any muscle.
The party, following a resolution from its July congress so controversial that there are still competing interpretations about its meaning, is fielding candidates in all 21 wards of the municipality. It is a decision that has led to much recrimination and gnashing of teeth in the tripartite alliance, and the ANC has not left many stops unpulled in its attempts to get its alliance partner to change its mind.
Structures that were long thought dormant — such as the Alliance Political Council — suddenly kicked into frenetic activity. The ANC’s top leadership from across the factional divides of the ruling party have sent emissaries, visited and pleaded with both local and national SACP bosses to reconsider.
It must be a strange new feeling for the SACP, having the ANC over a barrel and being taken this seriously. Even in a council meeting as recent as late October, delegates from the SACP and union federation Cosatu left still feeling that their senior alliance partner was not taking their concerns — and even their threats — seriously enough, according to senior party insiders.
Talk of “reconfiguring the alliance” — the SACP’s preferred term for an arrangement in which it contests — was dismissed and deferred to a later meeting in November. But by November, the party’s Metsimaholo structures, under pressure from local residents, had convinced the SACP’s politburo to allow them to use this by-election as a “test case” of the party’s appeal to the electorate.
And there appears no appetite to turn back, regardless of the implications for the alliance.
“We are making history,” said Pakie Letsie, the SACP’s district elections convener who co-ordinates the party’s election campaign. “And we feel fortunate that it happens here in Metsimaholo. We are very aware of the implication of what is happening, both for the party and the alliance. But we are still in it and in it independently. It has been good to go around door to door, entering people’s homes and talking to them about the programme of the SACP to change their lives.”
Whereas the SACP believes that big private companies such as Sasol need to be more involved in upliftment in the area and that the creation of co-ops will go some way to creating jobs, the DA says joblessness will remain as long it is not made attractive to investors.
The district is plagued with high levels of unemployment, crumbling infrastructure and municipal corruption.
Patricia Kopane, the DA’s Free State leader, believes that residents have had enough of the ANC’s poor mismanagement of the district, and that her party is in this by-election to win.
“The ANC has lost power. Residents no longer have any hope and they have lost trust in the ANC,” she said.
She is also dismissive of the chances of the new kid on the block.
“The only true contestants in this by-election are the DA, EFF and the ANC. The SACP doesn’t stand a chance because it has never been in government. The DA has a track record in government and where we govern, unemployment rates drop.”
She said that to create a conducive environment for private sector investment to reduce the area’s 40% unemployment rate, the DA would invest in roads, water and electricity among other infrastructure.
Corruption would also have to come to an end, she said.
For its part, the ANC — despite the bitter experience of August 2016 and being abandoned by its partner — is still confident, even combative.
“I can tell you without any fear that this municipality collapsed because the ANC was not in government,” said the party’s provincial spokesperson, Thabo Meeko.
He was scathing of the SACP’s challenge to its alliance partner. “We are still insisting that the SACP must reverse that decision. It has the potential to be the beginning of the end of the alliance.”
But despite the acrimony over the SACP’s new direction, Meeko insisted the ruling party would work with the communists in coalition should it be necessary to form a new municipal government. In fact, he said, the ANC does not rule out working with anyone — on one condition.
“We are willing to work in coalition with anybody, if only they accept the basic premise that radical economic transformation is our point of departure.”
Vukani Mde and Amy Musgrave are founding partners at LEFTHOOK, a Johannesburg-based research and strategy consultancy