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Johannesburg mayor Mpho Phalatse. Picture: VELI NHLAPO
Johannesburg mayor Mpho Phalatse. Picture: VELI NHLAPO

At the time of writing, 33 local, district and metropolitan municipalities across SA had DA mayors, and this could go up to 35 in the next couple of days, with Metsimaholo and Overberg still in the balance. This list spans seven different provinces and includes places where the DA has never been in government before — places such as KwaZulu-Natal’s Umngeni and the Eastern Cape’s Beyers Naudé Municipality.

Our mayors are as diverse a bunch of people as you could hope to find, and there is a wonderful blend of youth and experience. Having spent last Friday in a governance workshop with them, I have absolute confidence in their abilities to govern, and govern well.

However, what also has to be said is that these local governments differ greatly from each other in terms of their stability — both politically and financially — and the challenges faced by these mayors could not be more different. Twelve of these municipalities have outright DA majorities, and many of them have had such majorities for multiple consecutive terms. These are the places where we have the freedom and the financial stability to implement our bold vision. These also just happen to be the places that consistently top all the good governance rankings and achieve regular clean audits.

The remaining municipalities either have reasonably stable majority coalitions or they have minority governments, where no majority coalition could be formed and where each council vote is decided on an ad hoc basis. These are clearly the most unstable and vulnerable governments of all, and pose an entirely different set of challenges to those you’ll encounter in multiple-term, DA-majority governments like Cape Town, Midvaal, Kouga or Mossel Bay, or even stable majority coalitions such as Saldanha Bay or Breede Valley.

In the past couple of weeks there has been much talk in the media of how these minority governments came to be — who masterminded the situation, who pulled the strings, who betrayed whom, who walked into a trap. There have been dozens of pieces written and almost as many theories put forward. Depending on which publication you read, the story was either that Action SA brought everyone together, or that the FF+ orchestrated a last-minute minority party pact, or that the EFF played everyone from the start.

Plenty of column inches have also been devoted to the “impossible bind” the DA now finds itself in, and how it ended up in a governing arrangement it never wanted. But what very few of these pieces said was this simple truth: all along — before the elections, during the elections and throughout the post-election process of coalition negotiations — the DA stood firm on its promise to voters. We said we would not seek to be part of a government in which we were expected to compromise on our core principles or give in to unreasonable or unethical demands from parties or individuals just to remain in power. If that was the price of being in government, we were not prepared to pay it.

We singled out the EFF in this regard because we’ve learnt hard lessons from our previous attempt at governing Johannesburg with their hands on the steering wheel. But also because we know that they stand diametrically opposed to almost every core principle and value of ours. This makes finding common ground, in service of the people, extremely difficult if not impossible. That is why we said we would not vote for a governing arrangement that relied on their support.

None of this has changed. We are still 100% committed to clean, accountable governance in service of the people wherever we play a role in government, and for however long we remain in government. Our only priority is to serve the people of these towns and cities, and we will do our best whatever the governing circumstances might be. But we will certainly not allow any party or individual to hold a gun to our head. Should this ever happen in any of these governments, we would sooner take up our positions in the opposition benches and serve the people from there — unencumbered and uncompromised — than repeat our mistakes of 2016.

What we couldn’t do, however, was control how others used their votes. And when the other parties stood together to support our candidates in several metros and municipalities to topple the ANC, we ended up in the unique position of having a mayor, a speaker or both in municipalities where we had already resigned ourselves to the opposition benches. To paraphrase Shakespeare, some achieve coalitions, others have coalitions thrust upon them. In several municipalities, including the metros of Johannesburg and Ekurhuleni, the DA now finds itself at the heart of such minority coalitions. It’s not a situation we anticipated and it’s not an outcome we petitioned others to support.

But here’s the silver lining: we wouldn’t have decided to field mayoral candidates in any of these metros and municipalities if we did not have candidates we trust entirely to do a great job. We put their names forward because we know they are capable and committed public servants. And, as the second largest party in most of these municipalities, we have a duty to our voters to represent them with the best DA candidates. Now these 33 men and women find themselves in a situation where they could make history.

As I said last week when we introduced our mayors to the media, whether we end up serving in these minority governments for five years or five days, we will work tirelessly at improving the lives of the residents in these towns and cities. We will seek out allies in this mission among our co-governing parties as well as beyond politics — in nongovernmental organisations (NGOs), civil society, organised labour, churches and educators. We will do everything in our power to make it work.

I can assure you that these DA mayors will be better supported by their party than any other mayors in the country. The DA has a dedicated governance unit whose sole purpose is to ensure that DA governments live up to the high standards we set for ourselves. This unit has spent years compiling a comprehensive “ready to govern” guide, which deals in detail with every aspect of governance, and which every DA mayor now has in his or her possession.

What I can also assure you is that the DA will not stop working at turning these unstable minority governments into stable majority coalitions. Our talks with other parties are ongoing. Within the framework of our non-negotiable governing principles, we are prepared to sign coalition agreements with any party that has the interests of the people at heart and that shares our vision for improving the lives of South Africans, and particularly the poor and the vulnerable in our society.

If we can find a majority that cares about those same things — and I believe there is such a majority — then we have every reason to succeed.

• Steenhuisen is DA leader.


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