The Democratic Alliance (DA) has been hammered in a series of municipal by-elections in 95 wards. Is this the beginning of the end for the party, or just the end of the beginning?
The eleventh day of the eleventh month in 2020 will surely mark a watershed in the history of opposition politics, since it is the eleventh hour, without doubt, for political accountability in South Africa.
But does the DA’s loss in the Super-Wednesday slew of 95 by-elections indicate an inexorable decline, or is it the last punishment it must suffer for earlier mistakes?
The African National Congress (ANC) could hardly be on a weaker footing in 2020, with over 2 million added to the unemployment line this year, expropriation without compensation soon to come, and ‘accountability’ boiled down to scapegoating Ace Magashule, while also defending him. The leading opposition could not wish for a softer target, yet it went backwards at the polls, again.
According to the Independent Electoral Commission, on Super Wednesday the ANC won 70 wards, the DA 16, and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) 5, while Al Jama-ah, the Freedom Front Plus (FF+), GOOD, and the Patriotic Alliance (PA) won 1 ward each.
Compared to previous performance, the DA lost 9 wards: 4 in Gauteng, 2 in North West, 2 in the Northern Cape, and 1 in the Western Cape. The DA’s only ward gained was in the Eastern Cape, in Walter Sisulu district, around Aliwal North.
What went wrong? Three major narratives have been advanced explain the DA’s losses.
The first is that the party is too ‘white’. Its top leaders, in terms of influence and prominence, are (from this outsider’s perspective) Gwen Ngwenya, John Steenhuisen, Ivan Meyer, Dan Plato, Alan Winde, Bongikosi Madikizela, Ghaleb Cachalia, Refiloe Nt’sekhe, and Helen Zille, to name a few.
But with a pale male at the head of the party, many pundits believe the DA can never go forward no matter how stellar its team. To people who believe this ‘too white’ theory, the loss of nine municipal wards will be proof that the DA is (white) toast.
The second major narrative has to do with policy, not personnel. The DA recently adopted ‘non-racialism’ as its official stance which in practical terms starts with opposing BEE in particular and race-based law in general.
If President Ramaphosa were to lose his job tomorrow and he applied to work for you, or to sell something to you, you would have to consider him ‘disadvantaged’, in need of especial help by law. Some South Africans laugh at the idea, others weep, but most professional political observers think it is perfectly correct and shrivel from considering any alternative.
Marianne Merten, political commentator at the Daily Maverick, thinks DA non-racialism means ‘race cannot exist‘. Steven Friedman thinks it means going ‘blind‘. Adriaan Basson thinks that it is ‘a matter of time before the rest of the DA’s black leaders jump ship.
The general consensus among the chattering classes is that the DA’s non-racialist policy is a formula to lose and these commentators will take the DA’s losses in the Super Wednesday by-elections to be evidence of just that.
The third major narrative is that the DA’s losses were not so bad after all, since on a proportional level the ANC lost even more of the vote. This matters in part because municipal councils include ward councillors (elected on a first-past-the-post basis, where the DA lost) but also some proportional representation. For a nuanced take on this, see Helen Zille’s analysis here. It would be a mistake to draw from the loss of nine wards that the DA really won.
A fourth explanation
To see the fourth explanation for the DA’s losses takes a little more time, and a little more thought. So, we are about to go on a ten-minute journey across the country to six different municipalities where the DA lost wards on Super Wednesday. If you could not travel to the heartland this year because of lockdown let this be an excuse to remember how very strange this country is.
George, Western Cape (population 193 672)
George had been running clean audits for years until the winter of 2018, when the Auditor General downgraded it to a ‘qualified’ status. Since then, George has been rated the lowest, ‘material unfavourable indicators’, in ‘procurement management’ and ‘implementing consequences’ for past mistakes.
Things also looked worrying when, around the same time in 2018, the Citizen ran the story, ‘DA to discipline George mayor for fighting ‘against what is right’.
George’s mayor at the time, George Melvin Naik (DA), expressed disapproval of the Boston Gay Choir singing songs in his area. In a Freudian slip of the tongue, he said he would stand ‘against’ rather than ‘for’ what is right.
Evidence of corruption (eventually amounting to around R90 million) was found to implicate Naik and colleagues in February this year, so the DA called for his resignation within 48 hours. Naik refused. The DA caucus voted for him to go, and the DA Federal Executive Committee, chaired by Helen Zille, suspended him from the party and as mayor.
The DA also laid criminal charges against Naik, bringing evidence to the police. Summoned by the Hawks, Naik and four of his colleagues appeared in George’s magistrates court on charges of fraud and corruption in October 2020.
This sounds like the DA cleaning house quick and smart. But back at the start of 2020, Berlina Cornelius of ward 27 in George and three others voted to retain Naik as mayor against the rest of the George DA caucus, who wanted him gone. Cornelius and the others were fired for breaking the party line. Cornelius’s ward, number 27, was won by Patricia de Lille’s ‘GOOD’ party.
The other two pro-Naik rebels vacated wards that were contested, and won, by new DA candidates. It was close, but this means the DA has 15 of the 27 wards in George municipality, making a majority in Council.
Should Naik’s replacement for mayor, Leon van Wyk (DA), prove to bring even more turmoil to George, then the DA must surely expect to lose control of the municipality entirely next year.
Alternatively, should van Wyk restore order and fiscal discipline, the DA can expect to be rewarded for overcoming past mistakes decisively.
If you don’t do your job you lose your job; that is how democracy is supposed to work.
Phokwane, Northern Cape (population 63 000)
Phokwane municipality was dominated by the ANC, which held 8 of its 9 wards before the Super Wednesday by-election. Phokwane has not completed an audit in the legally allotted period since Ramaphosa came to power.
In May, the Phokwane municipality was dissolved by the Premier’s office, triggering a by-election for all 9 of its ward seats, and put under provincial administration until the vote. Last week, the ANC won all 9 ward seats with new players in all positions. It can prove its ‘new dawn’ strategy or continue the red dawn downfall in Phokwane; we will see.
According to the DA, shortly before the by-election, Northern Cape Premier’s office handed over a ‘fleet of vehicles’ to Phokwane ‘in a desperate and costly bid to win votes from aggrieved citizens’. Did it work? Who knows?
Renosterberg, Northern Cape (population 10 978)
This is a difficult case, also in the semi-desert. Out of the four wards in Renosterberg Municipality, the DA had two and the ANC the other two. But, in total, the ANC had 4 of the 7 seats on the Municipal Council, as it won more votes overall, giving it a controlling majority.
The DA had launched formal complaints at least since 2016 against then Executive Mayor of Renosterberg Johannes Oliphant (ANC), who at the time ‘said the municipality has a plan detailing how they intend paying off the R22 million debt to Eskom but that [he] could not divulge this plan’.
Renosterberg has not completed a single audit in the legal period since Ramaphosa came to lead the ANC, and though its earlier performance was slightly better, it has not received an unqualified audit on the available record.
Things in this open financial wound started to look momentarily hopeful when, on July 20, Mayor Oliphant finally attended a council meeting. He was summarily replaced by Johannes Niklaas (ANC) as the new mayor via a DA-ANC coalition.
The DA was enthusiastic about the possibility of working together with Mayor Niklaas in resolving the area’s vexing issues, including 16-hour power cuts to paid-up ratepayers being punished for the Eskom debt they did not accrue, which now stands at almost R90 million only four years later.
But on 7 September 2020 the new Renosterberg Municipal Council was dissolved by the Premier’s office. Mayor Niklaas argued that this was illegal, on technical grounds, due to petitions for support that the municipality had launched at the Premier’s office and which the latter did not answer.
DA Member of Parliament Willem Faber reached across the aisle to say that ‘for the first time in ages the municipality [under Niklaas] succeeded in paying its outstanding Eskom debt…for the past three consecutive months. This is something the municipality failed to do under the leadership of former ANC mayor, Johannes Oliphant, and clearly shows progress within the institution.’
The dissolution of Niklaas’s administration halted this progress. Faber claims that other Northern Cape municipalities were in worse financial straits than Renosterberg but had not been dissolved, raising ‘questions’ as to motive.
The primary suspicion was that a forensic audit had been requested by the Municipal Manager ‘and supported by Council’ shortly before its dissolution, leading Faber to wonder if the Premier’s office dissolved the municipality ‘to protect the old guard from being exposed’.
On the other hand, there is Northern Cape Premier Dr Zamani Saul. He is one of Ramaphosa’s closest allies and possibly holds a record for getting the fastest apology out of the Sunday Times after it accused him of Covid-19 corruption. Premier Saul said the Renosterberg Municipality ‘vehemently refuse to cooperate, accept support and subject itself to monitoring’, forcing him to shut it down to save ‘the people’.
Since going into provincial administration, the DA claims refuse services stopped working and that municipal sewage tanks were not being emptied. The DA legally contested the Council’s dissolution, but the High Court in Kimberley ruled against its urgent application shortly before the by-election, which went ahead. The DA lost Ward 1 of Renosterberg.
Voter turnout for this election was up by 12% from 2016, while the DA’s portion dropped by half from 57% in 2016 to 25% in 2020. The EFF was the biggest grower, from 4% to 20%, while the ANC climbed from 28% to 46%, the plurality it needed to take the seat. Who knows what to make of this? If anything, the ANC seems to have taken credit for ousting Oliphant, while the EFF is winning those who think the whole story is a mess.
Perhaps most significantly, ANC ward councillors in Renosterberg have all been replaced, by other ANC members. In the next months we will see whether or not the ANC ‘old guard’ face corruption charges from its own young Turks. Do not forget that every ward in the country is up for election again in 2021.
JB Marks, North West (population 219 646)
JB Marks is a new municipality, created in 2016 by the merging of Potchefstroom and Ventersdorp.
As an aside, Marks was a leading South African communist in the 1930s, avoided execution by fleeing to Moscow and then joined the ANC, where he lost an internal party election to Nelson Mandela, arguably the memorable achievement of Marks’ political career.
JB Marks Mayor Kgotso Khumalo (ANC) was arrested by the Hawks on 23 October 2020, together with one of his senior managers, Cyril Henry, on charges of corruption.
The allegation is that R5 million was paid – by North West University and another public source – into a trust account, from which it was used to make private, undisclosed payments, including for the funeral of Duma Ndleneli (ANC) in 2018, and to Khumalo’s personal benefit.
Khumalo faced three votes of no-confidence before this, resulting from DA allegations and formal notices on the alleged crimes he is now charged with, but kept his position. The ANC expressed ‘shock’ at the allegations, upon which it promised to ‘reflect’.
The courts have forbidden Khumalo from returning to his office. With the ANC in control of the JB Marks Council, Khumalo is still mayor. ‘Reflection’ takes time.
The DA councillor of Ward 5 in this troubled municipality, Jasper Maarten Venter, died in 2020. This triggered the by-election for his former ward.
The DA put up Heinricha Hodgson to compete for Venter’s vacant seat. Hodgson is a specialist in family law, a mediator in the court, and a director of the Aardklop National Art Festival. But Hodgson lost to the FF+.
For the DA to lose a seat to the FF+ is largely seen as an indication of ‘ethnic fracture’ in South African politics. Drill into the numbers, however, and you see that the voter turnout for this election was less than half when Venter won in 2016.
Put simply, the DA got 1 420 votes in this ward in 2016 while the FF+ won with only 485 in 2020.
The DA did not lose voters to the FF+, it lost to the notorious shrug: ‘The vote was yesterday?’
This should hardly be a surprise. The DA was fighting a leadership battle until recently. Even many political commentators only realised ‘Super Wednesday’ was happening by Thursday afternoon.
Madibeng, North West (population 477 381)
This municipality borders on Gauteng’s West Rand and contains Brits and the Hartebeespoort. It has long been ANC-dominated, with 45 council seats to the DA’s 16 and the EFF’s 14.
In May 2019 the new dawn rose again as Madibeng Mayor Jostina Mothibe was suspended by the ANC. But then Mothibe was reinstated. The municipality has received red-mark audits since 2014, and is now under administration, which Mothibe is challenging in court.
The DA appears to have held a ward under Abram Dibe Ratlou in name only; he is listed as not a member of any party but merely uses DA offices. He lost his ward in the malaise … but was the DA ever really there?
JHB City Municipality (population 4 434 827)
Only a few of Joburg City’s 135 wards were up for grabs in the by-election, and the DA lost three. We will focus on one, to give you a final flavour of what really determines these elections on the ground.
Ward 68 in southern Johannesburg is centred primarily around the suburbs of Riverlea and Pennyville, but stretches to the northern edges of Soweto with a mixed black and coloured population. In 20 years this will probably be the new ‘Benoni’, a place where Americans look for movie stars and Hollywood scripts with unbelievable twists that are true.
A DA councillor was elected in 2011 to Ward 68 and performed poorly in a place that is dense, poor, and thoroughly energetic. After years of attempting to get her back on track, the party eventually fired the councillor in 2014, prompting a by-election.
The DA selected as its next candidate a curious figure, Basil Douglas. Basil worked with various struggle groups during the 1990s and was believed to use threats to enforce the 1990s rent boycotts. After 1994, Basil served as an IFP MP and then jumped ship to the ID under Patricia de Lille. When the ID merged with the DA, Basil joined the DA too.
As a final bit of background, Basil claimed repeatedly to have received military training in Taiwan during Apartheid and professed to be skilled in guerrilla warfare.
Basil won the 2014 by-election by a very narrow margin, but hopes were high that under this mercurial figure the ward could be firmly stuck in the DA’s corner. In the 2016 local government Basil fought a nail-biting campaign and won again, but by less than 500 votes.
Unfortunately for the DA, Basil soon began to fall out with the party. He was close with de Lille and when she was challenged with allegations of corruption, Basil became furious. He was often absent from community and council events.
Neighbouring DA councillors tried to cover for him, but with their own difficult wards to deal with they were unable to cover all the gaps. DA mayor Hermann Mashaba’s chaotic and delicate coalition with the EFF rendered this unravelling a low priority to all, except the residents.
Then, amazingly, DA leadership in Gauteng stopped Basil from giving a speech in Afrikaans, as the EFF did not want to hear ‘that language’ spoken in the chamber. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Basil disengaged almost entirely from the party. Unfortunately, he abandoned some of his ward too, but Basil was left nominally in his post so that the DA could avoid kowtowing to the EFF and fighting a tight by-election at the same time.
This would come back to haunt the party after Mashaba’s resignation in 2019, since Basil was one of the two DA councillors who defected and voted for the ANC mayor, thereby handing the city to the ANC. Basil was promptly fired from the DA thereafter, and joined the ANC. He passed away in 2020.
Enter Gayton Mackenzie, the former convict-turned-motivational speaker-turned politician, and his Patriotic Alliance (PA). The PA quickly deployed its recently acquired resources, which it won by going into coalition with the ANC on the ‘economic development’ portfolio, to contest Ward 68.
The PA had a potent, professional operation. Mackenzie personally paid for renovations to a home for the elderly, and a large number of activists were hired to knock on doors. This was a ‘ground game’ to trump them all.
Some voters told the DA, ‘you had your chance’. Most were too busy looking at the new exciting thing. The ward is the first in the country the PA has won.
The big picture
For pundits who like to keep their audience’s attention for as long as a soundbite, all that needs saying is that the DA lost 9 wards, and this spells doom. For an explanation, all they need do is point to Steenshuisen’s face or apartheid’s disgrace.
But scratch a little deeper and you see that the DA lost where it screwed up (George) but not so badly that it cannot fix its mess. Elsewhere it lost where it had no power to start with, or because it failed to whip the vote. In the heart of South Africa’s economy, the DA lost where it placed tragically flawed councillors.
So, the first big-picture takeaway is that the local elections show that South Africans will, imperfectly, punish the DA where it fails and reward it where it succeeds. The DA won 24 wards, retaining all those that belong to municipalities that got clean audits.
The major exception to this rule – if the DA performs, it wins and where it fails, it loses – is in the wealthier, whiter areas in and around Cape Town. There, the DA held on to its majorities but lost some voter share.
Is this a surprise? Not at all. We have long argued (on our podcast 2 Crickets in a Thorn Tree) that the DA’s opposition to racialism threatens one group of former supporters more than all others, namely, ‘white burden supremacists‘. These are mostly rich white people who cannot criticize BEE or think of the president as ‘advantaged’ because it gets in the way of advertising their self-important white guilt.
We suspect that, as with crooked councillors, so too with upside-down voters; the DA may do better by challenging rather than appeasing the deceitful and the vainglorious.
But that’s just a postulation. The only certainty is that if the DA fails to learn from this retreat, like its retreat in 2019, the ANC will face a diminishing opposition and emboldening radical faction, which the country cannot afford. The eleventh hour would be a good time to stop making interesting mistakes and get it right, now.
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 Co-author (Nicholas Lorimer) actually sat next to Basil when he was a councillor in the Joburg city council.