I often feel offended when I come across popular rhetoric that compares the administration of local government to that of a circus.
Circus acts are a well-coordinated orchestra of talented individuals, each of whom understands the importance of their role and responsibilities in performing the act and creating value for its spectators.
The fulcrum of the overall piece is the playmaker: a guiding figure who synchronizes the singular and smaller elements with a steady hand, quickly dealing with issues when they arise and ensuring that – at least for the audience – the process goes smoothly.
On the performance spectrum, a sideshow is poles apart from local government management, and even further from the situation key metropolises find themselves in now – and arguably always – as a result of voting trends in past municipal elections.
A cursory glance at South Africa’s track record of local government coalitions paints a picture of flimsy agreements tossed about carelessly and short-sighted, self-serving agendas – left susceptible to attitudes and egos of party leaders who reverse the scenario on a political whim.
Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality after 2016 is a prime example – the DA’s relationship of convenience with the UDM crumbled when the Movement’s deputy mayor, Mongameli Bobani, was removed from office over corruption allegations, leaving the EFF free to pull the trigger when it felt the DA needed a hiding place on its land policy. What followed was a rapid turnover of mayoral hats, first for the UDM, then the ANC, and again at the DA.
The result: a municipality seen as one of the country’s biggest contributors to wasteful, wasteful and irregular spending (over R1 billion in total) while its residents suffered from leaking sewers, burst pipes and power outages.
The municipality of Metsimaholo found itself under administration after infighting between coalition partners, the ANC and the SACP, led to disruptions in important meetings aimed at resolving service delivery issues. In Rustenburg, a coalition between the ANC and the Botho Community Movement (BCM) collapsed – and again in Nama Khoi between the ANC and the Khoisan Revolution Party; and again at Beaufort West between the DA and the Karoo Democratic Force; and again in Laingsburg between the DA and the Karoo Development Party (KOP); and again in Prince Albert between the DA and the Karoo Gemeenskap Party.
The inevitable severance of relations between the DA and the EFF in Tshwane and Johannesburg is also well documented.
Johannesburg’s first city council meeting of the year came to an abrupt end after debate descended into madness over how to vote for the President of Presidents. The meeting that followed was no better, characterized by delays and an organized walkout by the ANC, EFF and smaller parties.
Undoubtedly, South Africans, by their vote, expressed an appetite for coalition governance. After the 2021 local government elections, 70 suspended councils were recorded compared to 27 in 2016, an increase of 61.42%.
But to avoid the same pitfalls we have fallen into before, more needs to be done to safeguard the future of communities tied to coalition governments. It has to start at the top, with the Constitution.
It must have been difficult for the architects of our Constitution to imagine a day when a coalition government, rather than an absolute majority government, would come into effect. So difficult in fact that there are no stated provisions to guide how a coalition government should be held accountable, managed and monitored.
It is therefore appropriate to anticipate a number of amendments, firstly, to open the door to behind-the-scenes negotiations between the parties who are negotiating for an agreement. This bargaining should be subject to public scrutiny, leaving it up to the voter to decide whether such an arrangement fits with the mandate they have given their party.
Second, the end of the friends-with-benefits attitude; it’s either you’re in or you’re not – put a ring on it. Formal agreements – which outline power-sharing arrangements and decision-making processes – should be a prerequisite before handing over the keys to the city.
This will put an end to the tiptoeing of some parties around their constituencies through confidence and supply agreements with parties that share a directly opposing ideological point of view.
And finally, some sort of independent tribunal should be established to mitigate disputes between coalition parties and hold those parties to their formal agreements — with consequences for those who get it wrong.
The above may not be a one-size-fits-all solution, but serves as a starting point to ensure stability within local governance for at least the five five-year terms, in the hope that one day be, the local government will behave like a circus.
Amil Umraw is a SABC Specialist Researcher