/ 21 June 2019

DA admits to governance balls-ups

On the spot: James Selfe
On the spot: James Selfe (centre) has been tasked with cleaning up errant municipalities. (Themba Makofane/Gallo Images/Daily Sun)

The Democratic Alliance has admitted to dropping the ball in governance, saying that, in some cases, municipalities run by the party are “indistinguishable” from the way they were run by the ANC.

READ MORE: 2021: ANC, DA could lose metros

The DA is in the process of deep introspection after its decline in electoral support in the 2019 elections. Its initial assessment is that it has to up its game on governance in DA-run municipalities.

Good governance has traditionally been the strongest message emerging from the DA, but as the party expanded and it governed in more places it has seemed unable to keep its eye on the ball. In a step towards fixing this, it has appointed long-serving federal executive chairman James Selfe as the head of its governance unit.

In a frank interview with the Mail & Guardian, Selfe cites the George municipality in the Western Cape as among those that are plagued by problems.

READ MORE: W. Cape ANC will use dismal showing to launch 2021 municipal fight back

He admits that his is a mammoth task, but one which is essential to turning around the DA’s electoral fortunes. “It is the hardest job. It is something the party has done in a rather unco-ordinated way until now and the result is that some of our governments have not performed optimally. And, to be perfectly frank with you, some of them are indistinguishable from the ANC.

“Now that’s very bad for our brand because our brand is that where we govern we govern in a corruption-free way, in the interests of all voters, not some, and so my first job is to identify those problems and rectify them.”

George is among the most “troublesome” of his examples: the Hawks are investigating serious allegations of corruption, there is factionalism in the caucus and there are allegations that the expanded public works programme is being used to garner political favour.

At the same time, Selfe says there are municipalities run by the DA in which it is governing exceptionally well, but there is a failure to communicate these successes to the public.

“A press statement does not cut it. You have to walk people through what you are doing and take them along. For instance, there is a R190-billion infrastructure backlog in the City of Johannesburg. The bridges you drive on there are not safe due to a lack of maintenance and mayor [Herman] Mashaba is tackling that,” he said.

Although coalitions have put the DA in power in many municipalities, they also place the party in an uncomfortable position with its own constituency.

For instance, there is a brewing revolt in the City of Tshwane’s DA caucus. Selfe admits to this, saying mayor Stevens Mokgalapa has informed him that he spends more time consulting the coalition partners than he does his own constituency.

“Some caucuses need particular care, but it is possible to defuse this tension … it requires internal political management. Mayors also need to spend as much time with their own caucus as they do consulting coalition partners.”

It is this dynamic that has also culminated in criticism of Mashaba, with allegations by opposition parties in Johannesburg that he “panders” to the Economic Freedom Fighters.

The EFF has indicated that it wants to change the basis of its co-operation with the DA in the municipalities, in Gauteng in particular. It is the EFF’s informal co-operation that allowed the DA to run Johannesburg and Tshwane. But this may change, with a series of meetings held between the DA and its formal coalition partners, as well as the EFF, in recent weeks.

These talks may ring in far-reaching changes. Selfe indicates that the DA is willing to take up the opposition benches once again, if demands from its coalition partners would lead to the further erosion of its brand.

As the DA moves to reorientate itself after a jarring election, its own internal dynamics are also set to come to the fore. Selfe’s post as federal executive chairman will be up for grabs later this year and there are indications that chief whip John Steenhuisen and former Nelson Mandela Bay Metro mayor Athol Trollip are among the front-runners for the post.

See “DA in want of leadership and an identity”, Page 27