It is August 22, 2016. The Johannesburg City Hall is abuzz with activity, despite the hour and the already forgotten sunset.
Economic Freedom Fighters deputy president Floyd Shivambu is front and centre in the starkly lit hall, assessing each councillor as they cast their vote for the new mayor of Johannesburg.
No one predicted that the ANC’s electoral bloodletting under former president Jacob Zuma would lead to this: the party’s loss of the City of Gold, the crown jewel, the wealthiest city on the African continent.
But it happened and one Herman Mashaba, businessman and newcomer to the political space, was the man of the moment, the Democratic Alliance’s mayoral candidate set to ascend to the post of executive mayor.
The electorate denied the ANC an outright victory, with the party receiving only 45% of the vote to the DA’s 38%, a huge rise for the official opposition.
Mashaba was the mayor who was not meant to be, but was.
DA federal chairman James Selfe told the Mail & Guardian this week that he had warned three years ago that the minority government arrangement for a city the size of Johannesburg would not be easy.
Three years to the day that the reluctant support of the EFF handed the Jo’burg council to the DA, the third motion of no confidence against Mashaba, the flamboyant former Black Like Me business tycoon, was brought by the ANC on Thursday.
Ahead of the motion, the DA was worried. It was unsure of the support of its key partner, the EFF and even whether its own councillors would vote against Mashaba.
Mashaba’s luck held — at the last minute the ANC withdrew the motion.
The ANC withdrew the motion because it needed more time to negotiate with the IFP for its vote. It is understood that during overnight talks, the IFP placed a demand for the ANC’s support in a council in KwaZulu-Natal, which the ANC could not immediately agree on.
It was a risky move to bring the motion, but the ANC was emboldened by three factors: its performance in key by-elections in the preceding weeks; its desire to weaken the EFF, the opponent whom it perceives as its largest electoral threat; and its winning over of some smaller parties within the council, such as the IFP.
The ANC snatched ward 109 in Midrand from the DA last month, which emboldened it to bring the motion. It has also been cosying up to the IFP, handing the party the chair of the standing committee on public accounts in Parliament.
ANC Johannesburg leader Geoff Makhubu said in an interview that the ANC had been increasing its popularity in the city since 2016, indicating that in the 2019 general elections, its support swelled to 53% from 45% in 2016, whereas the DA slipped from its 38% high in 2016 to 29% in 2019.
Events in both Jo’burg and in embattled Tshwane show that parties are positioning themselves ahead of the 2021 local government elections, which are less than two years away.
The ANC moved for the motion to expose the contradictions in the EFF and exploit the divisions in the DA — brought on mainly by Mashaba’s pandering to Julius Malema’s red berets.
In council on Thursday, the ANC councillor handed Mashaba an EFF beret and T-shirt, with his face imprinted on it. The EFF’s initial support for Mashaba was indeed reluctant — among its conditions to agree to vote DA mayors into power was for Mashaba to step aside. In the end it reluctantly agreed, only for Mashaba to become its favourite mayor and the most beneficial to its own political project, much to the chagrin of some traditional DA councillors and, more worrying for the party, voters.
In July, at a media briefing, Malema proclaimed that the
EFF’s dalliance with the DA was over and it would no longer vote with the official opposition in “all municipalities”. This marked an opportunity for the ANC and another complication for the DA.
The ANC sought to test the EFF’s political resolve to abstain from voting for the DA — even though there are reports that the party wields significant support in Mashaba’s administration, so much so that it has alienated some DA councillors.
According to insiders in the ANC, the party was aware that it stood an optimistic 30% chance of success in the motion against Mashaba. The EFF voting to retain Mashaba would, however, deepen its reputation of being “flip-floppers” and illustrate that the party cannot be held to its word.
This would become a critical factor in the 2021 local government elections when governments in municipalities across the country would be formed through coalitions.
Selfe told the M&G that, by Wednesday morning, the party had not met the EFF to discuss the motion against Mashaba and was not planning on doing so because of the contradictory public position of the fledgling party.
A senior source in the council, however, said that the EFF was close to Mashaba himself — who just last week fulfilled a key promise made to the party to insource cleaning staff in the metro. This move was welcomed by the EFF in a statement.
Late on Wednesday evening, parties scrambled to caucus with their members.
A senior DA source said it was nervous about its own councillors voting against Mashaba in certain wards where expectations of delivery by a DA-led government had not been met in the past three years. Selfe said that he had brought the caucus together “as much as possible”.
The unity of the DA caucus was not tested after the motion’s withdrawal.
A further complication for the DA ahead of the 2021 polls is the announcement by Gauteng local government MEC Lebogang Maile of a “committee of inquiry” to probe allegations of corruption and irregularities in municipalities in the province.
Selfe said it was an overtly political move aimed at DA-run councils and his party could challenge it in court.
Maile, however, said that it was not a political move, but rather intended to address the problems in Gauteng municipalities highlighted in the auditor general’s latest report. He said the province went so far as to include former DA MPL, Glenda Steyn, in the committee to ensure that it was “independent”.
Gauteng municipalities are fast becoming a key site of the struggle for power between political parties. This contestation is set to come to a head in 2021 when the local government elections will indicate whether the ANC finally loses control of the country’s richest province.