/ 28 August 2022

Metro municipalities in South Africa cannot function, they must switch to a relevant model

Graphic Tl Qobo Coalitions Twitter
(John McCann/M&G)

Just as the metropolitan councils were commencing their inaugural term, before the close of the year 2000, the newly elected councillors were given a choice of the executive model. They had to vote either for an executive mayor or an executive committee. 

Previously, under apartheid and during the first five years of democratic municipalities, mayors had ceremonial powers. Councillors were part-time in council and had full-time jobs elsewhere. For attending to council business, they simply earned a stipend to cover their expenses. Town clerks, today’s city managers, were all-powerful figures that effectively ran the municipalities.

Confronted with the apartheid legacy, the new lawmakers believed that the backlog and urgency of changing the face of South Africa’s townships required a mixed model. A lot had to be done — from tarring roads to installing water taps and providing electricity — within a short space of time. This required quick decision-making, which would be easier to do under an executive mayor model. Decision-making was to rest with the mayor, who would delegate execution to members of the mayoral committee. And, it stood to help a great deal if the mayor was a decisive and inspiring figure to fire up the administration and his team. 

The executive committee model did not promise to be as quick in decision-making as the executive mayor. Authority would be distributed equally among members of the executive and would have to be quorate before a decision was taken. Even though one of them would be elected mayor, the position would be ceremonial. The executive committee model seemed unsuited for the task of speedily improving infrastructure in the townships. But it would enable diverse representation, because members of the committee would be drawn from the various political parties that make up the council. 

The contrasting models sought to address the various concerns that troubled the newly democratised country. South Africa exhibited highly unequal living standards and was also still in conflict with herself. Some feared retribution for the horrors of the past. 

The models on offer were to enable peace, healing and social improvements, albeit to varying degrees. Each metro was to choose what was most suited for its circumstances. 

And, so it was that in 2000 eThekwini in KwaZulu-Natal became the only metropolitan municipality to use the executive committee model. The rest — Joburg, Tshwane, Cape Town, eKurhuleni and Nelson Mandela Bay — opted for the mayoral committee model. 

Unlike the other provinces, KwaZulu-Natal had not become entirely peaceful. Visible signs of collaboration were necessary to bolster the message of peace, that the ANC and the Inkatha Freedom Party were no longer enemies but partners in rebuilding the province. 

Legislators proposed a variety of institutional arrangements to address the complexity of the country’s challenges. The rationale for such arrangements begins with an acceptance that, although mouthing commitment to one thing, politicians are quite capable of acting in the opposite manner, detrimental to the public good. To realise their (noble) intentions, they need to be encouraged. Institutional configuration, therefore, channels their behaviour towards the desired outcome, whose benefits go beyond the individual politicians to the rest of society. 

Time may have passed but the dynamics that drive today’s society are no different from those in 2000. Today’s South Africa grapples with different challenges, yet the lawmakers still have to ask themselves the same question as back then: are our institutions fit to meet the challenges of the moment? The answer is: not quite. 

New political dynamics have lessened their performance at a time they’re required to function optimally. An increasing number of councils (72), for instance, are no longer led by majority parties. There are now more parties represented in those hung councils. Where there was formerly a mayor, with a mayoral committee made of party colleagues, who took quick and firm decisions, now parties are having to cobble together a coalition of multiple parties. This is a demanding and tension-ridden task that takes a considerable period of time.      

Even after politicians have concluded a coalition pact and made statements committing to prioritise public interests, those coalitions are more than likely to be unstable. This is because politicians are inherently selfish, constantly figuring out how to outsmart the other. It’s a constant competition to gain an advantage to receive more votes at the polls. When taking decisions, therefore, the focus is not solely on the immediate matter at hand, but also on how it’s going to benefit the party in the long-term, at the polls.

Consider, for instance, what has been happening at Nelson Mandela Bay metro. The two biggest parties with 48 seats each — the ANC and the Democratic Alliance — can easily form a two-party, dominant coalition with 96 seats in the 120-seat size council. But the DA has refused to enter into a coalition with the ANC, leaving the latter in a fragile coalition of 60 seats. 

That coalition has been at loggerheads for the most of this year, largely because of the ANC’s shenanigans. They not only wanted to shield the acting city manager, Noxolo Nqwazi, from an investigation but their mayor, Eugene Johnson, abused her powers by appointing Nqwazi the city manager without council approval. 

This abuse of power, to shield possible corruption, turned coalition partners against the ANC. They’ve now signed a coalition agreement with the DA and are planning to vote the ANC out of the mayoralty. In the meantime, because of the ensuing tension, the mayoral committee seldom meets to take executive decisions and some of its members complain of being marginalised.  

But small parties switching over to the DA doesn’t guarantee the Nelson Mandela Bay metro a stable government. Small parties are simply hopping from one fragile coalition to another. The proposed DA-led coalition has about 58 seats — three seats short of a majority. The Good and Patriotic Alliance, with three seats combined, could get the proposed coalition elected but they have vowed not to work with the DA. 

That leaves the proposed DA-led coalition with the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), which had also expressed some intention to vote out the ANC in favour of the DA-led coalition. But the DA didn’t reciprocate with an expression of gratitude. Whether the EFF supported it, the party maintained, was entirely up to the EFF, and the DA was not about to beg them for their support. 

Craving for recognition as king-makers, the EFF was hurt by the DA’s indifference. They insisted on respect. Instead of unconditional support, as initially promised, now the EFF made the support conditional on the DA making the formal request. The DA wouldn’t budge. The disrespect was too much for the EFF. 

It is now flirting with the idea of supporting the ANC to remain in power, provided the party changes the mayor. 

Not long ago the EFF had vowed “never to work with the corrupt ANC”. What matters to the EFF is not so much who is in power, or the state of governance, but what it gets. The party is determined to be the kingmaker in South Africa politics. This status embellishes its influence. What the EFF does or who it partners with is immaterial so long as it achieves that status.

The EFF may well go back on its word and partner with the ANC to retain it in power. But the support will not be without strings attached. The EFF now wants security personnel to be in-sourced. This has been tried before. Athol Trollip, the DA mayor at the time, acceded to the demand to secure EFF votes. 

This imposed a financial toll on the metro, because it was never budgeted for, which increased with the outbreak of Covid-19. The in-sourced security simply went missing, leaving public buildings unguarded. They were vandalised and the municipality was left with a repairs bill of almost R1-billion. Furious at the incompetence of the in-sourced security, the council returned to out-sourcing. Out-sourced security worked a lot more efficiently. 

The adverse effect of the in-sourced security on the overall municipality is immaterial to the EFF. What matters to them is that they can claim it as their own deliverable to voters. The in-sourced security is unlikely to be the party’s only demand. Determined to maintain the appearance that it calls the shots, the EFF is likely to wake up tomorrow with a different demand altogether. If it’s not met, the party will be more than willing to collapse that coalition and go with someone else. 

There’s nothing inherently defective about the EFF’s behaviour. That’s what parties do, all the time. The current institutional configuration also allows them to behave in the manner they do. For that behaviour to change, and to maximise the effectiveness of councils, the institution must be reconfigured. 

Legislators should force parties to opt for the executive committee — especially where there’s a hung council. The new conditions have rendered the executive mayor option obsolete. It is no longer fit for purpose. 

Mcebisi Ndletyana is a professor of political science at the University of Johannesburg and co-author of a forthcoming book on the centenary history of Fort Hare University.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.