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Nelson Mandela Bay executive Mayor Eugene Johnson. Picture: WERNER HILLS
Nelson Mandela Bay executive Mayor Eugene Johnson. Picture: WERNER HILLS

The dust has settled on the coalition formations in all of SA’s hung councils and there has been much anticipation and speculation as to the makeup and longevity of each of these governments. The ANC and the DA were the big winners in the metropolitan municipalities, scoring the executive mayor position in all eight of them.

With everything said and done in terms of the composition of the coalitions, we now need to look at the institutional arrangements which are starting to surface and try to deduce from these what the next five years in local government politics will look like. 

The Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality is perhaps the most peculiar of all the coalitions. Executive mayor Eugene Johnson was voted into power by a margin of one vote. Johnson managed to garner the votes of nine other political parties in her municipality,but so precarious was this victory that most will reasonably assume Johnson’s government will be more susceptible to turbulence and perhaps more likely to collapse. Editorial opinion pieces on Johnson’s government reserved analysis because, as one publication put it, “the situation is too fluid in that municipality”. 

Further afield Mpho Phalatse and Tania Campbell of the DA gained the mayoral position in the cities of Johannesburg and Ekurhuleni, respectively, propped up by the FF-Plus, ACDP, COPE, and an unlikely sponsor, the EFF. Both Phalatse and Campbell were pleasantly surprised by the EFF’s support, especially as the DA national leadership unequivocally stated that it would under no circumstances form a government with the EFF because “they stand diametrically opposed to almost every core principle and value of ours”.

How do the Nelson Mandela Bay and the DA-led Ekurhuleni and Johannesburg metros compare in the makeup of their coalition government and what can we possibly expect from the type of local governance from the three coalitions?

Coalitions are institutional arrangements of governance, implying that every party to such a  government functions under written and unwritten rules. These arrangements help for the smoother functioning of coalition formation and management of fallouts. But even having a long-established institutional arrangement does not always guarantee that coalitions will work. It is a truism that such arrangements are difficult to manage and their operations are cumbersome.

Take for example the recent Dutch national election and the coalition formation experience in that country. It took nine months for the current government to form a coalition after the March 2020 elections. This was after three of the four coalition partners took about eight-and-a-half months to form a government in the previous elections. In 2011 the Belgians took 541 days to settle on a coalition. 

The impasse during negotiations has clear implications for governance and service delivery. As municipalities struggle with infrastructure and public health problems, such as the water and electricity crises and the Covid-19 pandemic, there is a pressing need to have uninterrupted functioning governments. In this regard, coalitions can pose a problem.

In Nelson Mandela Bay, Johnson, however, announced her coalition and 12 members of the mayoral council (MMCs) on the day she was elected. She said on eNCA the following day she “had plans” and she would deliver a comprehensive 100-day plan within seven days. This was an ambitious time frame for any coalition, not to mention one made up of that many parties.

Remarkably, Johnson delivered, going on live television outlining her plans for the next 100 days. The plans were detailed, comprehensive and covered all 12 of the city’s directorates. 

Johnson promised to cut reconnection fees for households who have had their electricity and water services cut off by the municipality. She also promised a one-off amnesty for those households who owed the municipality in excess of R10,000 and who were unable to pay. In addition, she will extend her municipality's Access to the Poor grant facility to more indigent households. By a conservative calculation, Johnson’s plans will cost her municipality hundreds of millions of rand by the end of 2022 as more than half of the residents of Nelson Mandela Bay can’t make ends meet without a government grant.

In Johannesburg and Ekurhuleni, Phalatse and Campbell took nearly a month to elect and assemble their respective MMCs and neither of the two was able to lay out their government’s plans in the time frame afforded to Johnson. 

How then did Johnson manage to pull off what should be nearly impossible? The answer lies in the institutional arrangements which have started to appear in her political landscape. For starters, the ANC was able to align smaller political parties in the municipality which all had the same pro-poor agenda. Johnson was able to spend lavishly without her coalition partners experiencing much consternation.

Second, the partners drafted an agreement and had all coalition partners sign it, committing themselves to five years of governing as a collective. In a grand show, the coalition partners all signed a pledge to serve the city’s citizens on live television.  

Third, the coalition government formed a “political management committee” which will manage any upsets among partners. For example when word first appeared that the FF-Plus will submit a motion for a vote of no confidence in Johnson at the first council meeting, the management committee held a press conference in defence of Johnson’s government. The DA on the other hand had none of these institutional arrangements, and its leadership, rather than committing themselves to keep their coalition governments together, has promised its constituents that they “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”.

Institutional arrangements are not only important for keeping coalition governments in power, but they also have far-reaching implications for service delivery and any prospect for local economic development. The jury is still out on how many of Johnson’s plans will be achieved in the next hundred days. However, the fact that she provided certainty and gave direction to where the municipality is heading is a prized position to be in. Next to trust, certainty is perhaps one of the most important currencies in economic affairs.

*Dusty is a Masters candidate in finance and economics at the School of Oriental & African Studies, University of London.

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