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City of Johannesburg. Picture: ALON SKUY
City of Johannesburg. Picture: ALON SKUY

On Friday, Johannesburg’s DA mayor, Mpho Phalatse, was ousted through a vote of no confidence. The ANC, the biggest party in the city, chose not to field a candidate. This paved the path for Thapelo Amad from a little-known, three-seat party in the council, Al Jama-ah, to be elected mayor of the city that still symbolises all the possibilities of endeavour and hustle in SA.

With its dominant role in SA’s economy, Johannesburg can reasonably be accused of hogging the limelight when concerns are aired about the malodorous drift of municipal dysfunction. However, many hung municipalities in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng now face similarly turbulent futures after the weekend decision by Julius Malema’s EFF to pull out all of its deputy mayors in councils that are run by the IFP.

Amad is the third individual since the 2021 local government elections to don the mayoral chain, which may soon need  refurbishment due to overuse. Before him, the ANC’s Dada Morero served for a number of weeks before being removed after a high court found the removal-before-last of Phalatse to have been unlawful.

Regrettably, this instability in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal is likely to continue into the foreseeable future. The principal driver is the posture of the ANC and EFF. After almost three decades of failing to deliver services adequately in most metros, secondary cities and rural councils, the ANC is facing competition from a growing political opposition, mainly the DA and IFP.

The EFF, on the other hand, is changing its stance. Ahead of the 2024 general election, in which the ANC is likely to lose its majority in the National Assembly, Malema’s party now wants to have a go at showing it can do more than disrupt. With a post-2024 national coalition government on the cards, the EFF’s long-standing anti-ANC stance is also showing signs of softening. In coming months we can expect to see more marriages of convenience to achieve the ANC’s objective of staying in power and the EFF’s desire to govern.

Coalitions are not bad per se. Many established democracies are successfully run by coalition governments and consider the horse trading required to run them to be entirely ordinary. They are a sign of our maturing democracy and an increasingly discerning electorate. 

But as a relatively new phenomenon in SA, our coalitions are going through severe growing pains at a time when the cities they oversee are in urgent need of attention. We need coalitions that are based on a clear set of principles instead of gross political expedience. Until now, coalitions have largely been motivated by a desire to remove the ANC from power. That may play well with an angry urban electorate in the short term, but it does not make for good governance.

At the centre of future coalitions must be the voices of voters and — in the case of local government — residents and ratepayers. Most party manifestos promise to prioritise the interests of the party’s voters. Coalitions will require these parties to drop the performative hostility and get into the difficult discussions about trade-offs between manifestos and the resources available to achieve the aspirations of the electorate. 

Once agreements are reached, they should be shared with voters so that politicians can be held to account. In this, voters will also need to demonstrate a new democratic maturity and understand that in a coalition their party of choice will not always get its way. This isn’t always easy for an electorate used to single-party governments.

In many ways our electoral system is no longer fit for purpose. We therefore welcome the move to allow individuals to stand for election in the forthcoming general election. This will enhance the accountability of representatives to voters. At a local government level, two things are becoming clearer: the provision for motions of no confidence is subject to abuse, and the threshold for passing these motions is too low, making it easier to change administrations and contributing to instability and the collapse of services. 

It would be inappropriate to change the rules in the middle of an election cycle. Voters have spoken for now and their choice has to be respected. However, it is time to start thinking about a regime that would stabilise our local governments.  A new electoral regime should make it mandatory for motions of no confidence to be based on substantive grounds rather than spurious cases of non-delivery of services, and the threshold needs to be raised without making it as cumbersome as it is to remove a president. 

We urge the new mayor of Johannesburg to govern with great vigour on behalf of all the city’s people — and remind him he does so at their pleasure and nobody else’s, whatever some may say.

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