Herman Mashaba. Picture: SOWETAN
Herman Mashaba. Picture: SOWETAN

As Herman Mashaba’s tenure as Johannesburg mayor comes to an end a little more than three years after he was elected to lead the hung council of SA’s biggest municipality, the DA faces losing both metros it governs via a coalition in Gauteng.

It has been more than a month since Mashaba dramatically announced his resignation from the DA and as mayor at a media conference where he trashed the party. He did what few SA politicians dare do: walk away from an extremely powerful position based, at least at face value, on principle.

While the DA’s focus was initially on the election of Mashaba’s successor at a Johannesburg council meeting on Thursday, the wheels came off in Tshwane, the capital city, as new mayor Stevens Mokgalapa was embroiled in a sex scandal and placed on special leave. 

Mokgalapa will face an urgent motion of no confidence, also on Thursday, which could see the DA losing its second mayor in Tshwane since 2016. Its first mayor, Solly Msimanga, resigned earlier in 2019 to focus on what became his unsuccessful bid to become the DA’s first premier in Gauteng. 

It is set to be a tense day in the two councils for the DA, as there are no guarantees it will hold on to both mayoral positions.   

Out of the three hung metros it took control of through coalition agreements after the 2016 local government elections, Tshwane and Johannesburg remained in its grip. The DA lost control of Nelson Mandela Bay in the Eastern Cape in 2018 after former mayor Athol Trollip was voted out in a motion of no confidence.

Mashaba’s resignation from both the DA and his job — which took effect on Wednesday — has thrown a spanner in the works for the party. His legacy includes the metro’s insourcing of workers and the administration’s focus on revitalising the inner city by, among other things, opening up high-rise buildings for private-sector development. But one of the issues that has been plaguing the city of Johannesburg, namely the billing system, remains a headache.

Mashaba played a key role in holding together a fragile coalition arrangement in Johannesburg, as the DA and its coalition partners did not have enough seats to pass basic decisions in council and were dependent on the votes of the EFF.

The EFF, which never entered into a formal coalition with the other parties, supported the DA on an “issue by issue” basis, which started off with Mashaba’s election in August 2016. At around 10%, the EFF has taken on the position of kingmaker in both metros, punching far above its electoral weight.

The importance of keeping together a coalition in a multiparty government was underscored by Mashaba himself in his last statement as mayor when he said the delivery of many projects during his tenure would not have been possible if not for a multiparty government.  

Getting together different parties to support the DA, three years on, will once again be critical for the party, given that no single party has a majority in Johannesburg and it is not a certainty the DA will retain the mayoralty.

The election is scheduled to take place at 10am, after which the council’s regular business is set to continue, which seems unlikely if the meeting takes as long as the marathon one that saw Mashaba elected by secret ballot in 2016. The DA will field Funzela Ngobeni,  Mashaba’s finance MMC, to take over as mayor.

But it is highly unlikely Ngobeni will stand unopposed.

The EFF has indicated it will field its own candidate — caucus leader Musa Novela — to contest the mayor’s job, making it the first time the party is fielding its own mayoral candidate in Johannesburg. 

The ANC, which is aiming to win back Johannesburg in the 2021 local government elections, has also said it will field a candidate, though it is not yet known who it will be.

Given the drama in Tshwane, with the motion of no confidence taking place at the same time as Johannesburg votes for a new mayor, the city could end up being a bargaining chip in the fight for power in the SA’s economic heart.

EFF leader Julius Malema reportedly said last week his party’s candidate should be supported in Johannesburg, which will result in the EFF — also a kingmaker in Tshwane  — supporting the party that hedges their bets with them in Joburg, getting its support in the capital city.

In the end, however, it will be a pure numbers game. There are many scenarios that could easily affect the election.

But for the moment, nothing is cast in stone after Mashaba’s departure. 

Political parties were lobbying each other until late on Wednesday and are likely to continue up until the council doors are closed for the vote on Thursday. 

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