We’re four months into new governments in some of the key cities of our country. And after more than 120 days of the trial run of post-ANC governance, the average South African can be excused for asking “Is this it?”

In Tshwane, where the chances of a stable, functional multi-party government looked brightest in the aftermath of the November 2021 elections, voters see the chaos of parties unable to pass a budget without threatening the existence of the government. Passing a budget with a majority in the relevant legislative chamber should be a cakewalk. In building the basic structure of a government, three things are non-negotiable: electing an executive leader, electing a Speaker, and passing a budget. For the coalition in Tshwane to dodder close to failing at this low bar for government formation is troubling.

However, it is in Johannesburg where the astute will look to assess the ability of political parties to show the vision and strategic insight needed to form a post-ANC government at provincial and national level in the near future.

It’s not a sight that should fill those eager for a new post-ANC era of governance with confidence.

The undignified spectacle of coalition partners unable to make the key appointment of a city manager speaks volumes. And the stink surrounding the whole story of this position is enough to make even the most ardent believer, like myself, in the wild dog future governments of South Africa, question our most fundamental assumption: that politicians and political parties, at heart, desire to act in the interest of the people and the country.

A municipal or city manager serves, in simple terms, as the chief operating officer of local government. It is a position of immense importance. If passing a budget is the third box to tick for any aspirant government to show its most basic competence, the appointment of a municipal manager, essentially representing the issue of competent civil and administrative governance, has a good claim to be the fourth box.

Currently filling the position in an acting capacity in Johannesburg is Floyd Brink, who is also one of the candidates to fill the position through official appointment.

That a person like Brink can fill a position like that of city manager under a post-ANC government is more than enough to send a shiver down every spine – not that it seems spines are something many politicians in key areas are overly familiar with.

Brink is a somewhat questionable character.  This goes beyond his penchant for Prohibition-era gangster attire. Linked to the EFF and arrested in 2013 in an extensive corruption investigation, though acquitted on trial, Brink brings to the current government of Johannesburg little in the line of governmental integrity, especially in light of the more substantial and recent allegations against him regarding the procurement of CCTV equipment and security devices. An independent report on this issue states that Brink’s action in the affair “appears to constitute a gross dereliction of duty”, and recommends sanction steps against the self-described “administrator of note”. The report should make uncomfortable reading for Brink and his supporters, among them the EFF and Herman Mashaba and his party, ActionSA. The acquittal of Brink after his earlier arrest does little to address the stink clinging to him from these more recent allegations of serious impropriety. 

Yet, despite serious allegations of near-criminal activities, Brink is being considered, alongside Johann Mettler, for permanent appointment as city manager. 

Mettler as a candidate has much to recommend him and is the preferred candidate of the DA leadership in Johannesburg. Considered by many in government something of a ‘fixer’ due to his time as city manager of Nelson Mandela Bay, where he earned a reputation for integrity and efficiency, Mettler is a civil servant in demand. According to insiders, the City of Cape Town has also been eyeing him for appointment. Pravin Gordhan and Tito Mboweni have turned to Mettler in the past when local government failures necessitated intervention by national government. It is also rumoured that national government is interested in recruiting him to a key portfolio department.

ActionSA is vehemently opposed to the appointment of Mettler, citing improper behaviour. Now, the most significant allegation of wrongful behaviour made against Mettler is that he is alleged to have met for lunch with now mayor of Johannesburg, Mpho Phalatse. That is the extent of the impropriety that has divided the coalition governing Johannesburg. ActionSA and Mashaba, responsible to a significant extent for Brink holding his current position of influence, seem intent on ignoring the serious issues with Brink, equating (somewhat feebly) Mettler’s lunch with Phalatse with Brink’s distinctly fishier record. (Lunches with potential political and bureaucratic collaborators are a relatively common occurrence.)

Saddled by the electorate with the barest numbers to achieve the barest trappings of government, the coalition in Johannesburg seem to be stumbling over this matter of civil service integrity. If one of the great ills of ANC rule has been corruption and a tainted civil service, is it really too much to expect of political parties that at the very least they keep people as toxic as Brink as far away from government as possible? 

Yet we have a heated stalemate over an issue which should be a no-brainer.

It is at this point perhaps prudent to connect the dots emerging from the coalition chaos in Tshwane and Johannesburg.

ActionSA’s shenanigans surrounding the passing of the Tshwane budget align with uncanny precision to the timing of the Brink-Mettler matter heating up in Johannesburg. If deliberate, it’s a political stroke of some ingenuity. At the perfect moment, it diverted attention away from a troubling and dangerous association of ActionSA with suspicious activities not at all proper for any post-ANC government.

The loyalty of Mashaba and ActionSA to Brink is perplexing, but explicable if a few possibilities are weighed.

Firstly, it is possible that the corruption rot of the EFF has rubbed off on ActionSA. Over the last five years, roughly since 2017, the relationship between Mashaba (and his coterie that would eventually become the leadership of ActionSA)  and the EFF has become closer. Mashaba’s dependence on the EFF to remain in the mayor’s office of Johannesburg started out as a pragmatic political move, but grew into becoming something else entirely. A timeline of events tracing the attitude of Mashaba towards his erstwhile DA colleagues becomes interesting right around the time when the relationship between Mashaba and the EFF strengthened dramatically, incidentally coinciding with Brink emerging as a significant player in the office of city manager.

It is entirely possible that the willingness of the EFF to engage in ANC-style looting tempted some around Mashaba into similar indulgence, and that Brink has acted or could act as an accomplice or enabler in such pursuits. The EFF, after all, is a party the leadership of which has no moral qualms about leaving socio-economically vulnerable pensioners to lose everything, only to ensure that the well-connected political elites can capture their share to live large. Which politician in close proximity to such ruthless self-enrichment would be able to resist the temptation to inhale?

The willingness of Mashaba and ActionSA to back a blatantly compromised candidate like Brink might simply be the EFF rot sinking in, fed by the belief that turns at the trough of public money should be taken as part of the game.

Secondly, it is possible that Mashaba understands that his reputation, and in turn that of his party, is squarely founded on his years in the Johannesburg mayoralty and the carefully cultivated perception that he was a mayor on the verge of greatness, stymied by vested interests and what we might consider ‘The Swamp’. Whether this reputation is well-deserved or not can be put aside for a moment.

If Phalatse remains locked in office with a city manager that neither she nor her party wants in the position, it significantly compromises her ability to govern. No executive can hope for success without the bureaucracy of the civil service as a constructive collaborator. Should the DA leadership in Johannesburg succeed in having Mettler appointed, Phalatse would be in a position to, perhaps at last, get somewhere in terms of making progress in the clean-up of Johannesburg’s local government.

To Mashaba and ActionSA, this would be a political threat of some significance. If Phalatse manages to outshine Mashaba in the office that launched his political career and paved the way for the formation of his party, he and ActionSA are in trouble. If it is shown that Mashaba as mayor and his allies fed rather than fought The Swamp by inserting into Johannesburg’s ecosystem the toxicity of a man like Brink, and that Phalatse in collaboration with Mettler can achieve success, voters are likely to cool on a vital part of the Mashaba-ActionSA offering. Were Phalatse, on the other hand, to be saddled with Brink as city manager, failure of her mayoralty is likely. Inversely correlated to the success of the DA in Johannesburg would be the preservation of Mashaba’s political reputation and brand. 2024 might then look a bit rosier for ActionSA – rosier, at least, than the low single digits Mashaba’s team is currently polling at.

Thirdly, it is possible that Mashaba is so motivated by hatred of his former party, (one he once had open ambitions to lead into the Union Buildings,) that his new party would rather have the DA-led Johannesburg government fail than have the coalition government succeed for the sake of Johannesburg’s inhabitants.

Perverse as this may sound, especially since ActionSA is at least a nominal member of the coalition government arrangements in places like Tshwane and Johannesburg, people outside of politics should not underestimate the cynical opportunism that eats away at a political system left only to politicians. That ActionSA is led by a politician scorned is no secret. And an honest appraisal of ActionSA’s top leadership at national and provincial levels shows that bitterness and undisguised antagonism towards the DA is in no short supply.

Mashaba’s own relationship with the DA hardly needs to be considered here anew – the timeline of the erosion is splattered across the pages of many newspapers since the first cracks started showing a few years ago. Most illustrative of this is the relationship between Mashaba and Helen Zille. It’s hard to think of a more blatant political volte-face – Mashaba going from praising Zille effusively, arm in arm in photos at DA events, to attacking her as a far-right racist within a matter of two to three years. Few u-turns in South African party politics have been so significant.

Beyond Mashaba, one can look at his right-hand man and ActionSA national chairman, Michael Beaumont. One should always be cautious to descend into the sordid and, to those involved, painful world of personal relationships, but when so deeply entwined with political reality, at least mention of these matters is unavoidable.

It is no secret that DA leader John Steenhuisen’s extramarital affair of some years ago with Beaumont’s then wife, who later married Steenhuisen, was a matter of deep hurt. Dwelling on this is unnecessary. But the fact that understandable personal animus aligns significantly with Beaumont’s political ambitions of having ActionSA supplant first the DA in opposition and then the ANC in government is noteworthy.

Further, one should consider John Moodey, former leader of the DA in Gauteng. Moodey left the DA under a cloud of controversy, with internal proceedings pending against him for his alleged involvement in a blackmailing plot against a political opponent. Moodey was accused of offering beneficial election list positions for parliamentary and provincial legislature seats to younger party members were they to accuse an opponent of Moodey of sexual misconduct. It is understood that Moodey left the DA before internal proceedings could finger him.

Then there’s Athol Trollip, one of the whiter participants in the DA’s alleged ‘black exodus’. Trollip, perhaps unlike most political defectors, did quite clearly not leave his previous party for lack of accomplishment. He was an able parliamentarian and mayor of Nelson Mandela Bay – where, ironically, he benefited from the appointment of Johann Mettler as city manager. One wonders what he will make, as both a senior leader in ActionSA and a previous champion for Mettler, of his new party’s disdain for his political judgement with regard to the appointment of Mettler during his mayorship.

Yet, Trollip too can be, without hyperbole or leaps of logic or imagination, camped in with the DA despisers in ActionSA’s top ranks.

Trollip stood unsuccessfully for party leader, parliamentary caucus leader, and chairperson of the federal council of the DA. His loss to Lindiwe Mazibuko for leader of the DA in Parliament, at the time when he was the incumbent, must have perhaps stung the most, especially in light of the eventual ignominious end of Mazibuko’s tenure in that position. It’s difficult, looking back, to come to a conclusion other than that Trollip lost to Mazibuko because she was young, black, and a woman, and he wasn’t. The DA at the time was in the starting phase of the ultimately failed experiment of identity over excellence, microwaving, as put so brilliantly by Samadoda Fikeni, young, black leaders into positions of leadership before giving them the opportunity to mature naturally into such roles.

Rejected by the DA three times at the ballot box, despite loyal and constructive service to the party and the public, Trollip might understandably hold feelings somewhat short of fondness towards his former party. 

The point of these biographical notes is simply to illustrate that personal and political animosity towards the DA and some measure of personal investment in its political failure are not beyond the realm of possibility in explaining why Mashaba and ActionSA are in favour of Brink’s permanent appointment. Saddling a DA mayor of Johannesburg with a time bomb like Brink in the role of city manager might be a sound idea for people rooting for the party’s demise.

A fourth and, for purposes of this piece, final possible explanation of the eagerness of Mashaba and his party to prefer the compromised Brink over corruption-busting Mettler, is the fear of discovery, should someone in the position of city manager undertake scrupulous consideration of Brink’s time at the heart of Johannesburg government – a time, it’s worth noting, when Mashaba was mayor.

Rumours of irregularities during Mashaba’s mayoral tenure have long been around. It must be noted, however that irregularities are not necessarily the fault of the executive in charge, nor has evidence of gross irregularities beyond the ordinary failures of government been proffered in public. There is here no claim of deliberate wrongdoing by Mashaba while in office.

However, significantly more worrying allegations can be made surrounding the tumultuous weeks at the end of Mashaba’s mayoralty and the ANC’s return to government in Johannesburg. If such allegations are made and substantiated, Mashaba could become electorally vulnerable for having ‘handed over’ the city of Johannesburg back to the criminals and cronies by huffily flouncing out of the DA after its election of Helen Zille as chairperson of the federal council – an election, it should be noted, that Mashaba had the right to vote in, but failed to pitch up to do so. It’s somewhat odd that he felt so strongly about Zille’s election that he was motivated by its result to leave the DA and the Johannesburg mayoralty, yet didn’t quite feel strongly enough about to vote to oppose Zille’s election.

Whatever the case may be, as to Mashaba’s departure from the DA and the Johannesburg executive, his vulnerability increases dangerously if either his tenure or departure invites damaging investigation by a new city manager known for thorough anti-corruption integrity.

The de facto firing of Shadrack Sibiya by Brink only this past week adds a new dimension of contention to the already fraught situation.

Sibiya is a highly regarded anti-corruption public servant with a history of angering all the people on the ‘villain’ side of state capture. A veteran of the Hawks and Scorpions, Sibiya was the target of an unashamedly political prosecution that concluded in his acquittal on fraud charges that not even the prosecutor could adequately explain in court. Challenged to enlighten the court on the charges against Sibiya, the prosecutor couldn’t do anything but admit that prosecution of Sibiya, on the grounds of a very weak case, was to be pursued on orders of superiors in the then-upper ranks of the NPA.

Despite Mashaba as mayor of Johannesburg appointing Sibiya to head Johannesburg’s anti-graft unit, Sibiya is now clearly the target of Brink, another high-profile Mashaba-era recruit. The extent of the EFF’s influence in Mashaba seeking the original appointment of Brink as city manager is an open question, though reports paint it as a quid pro quo for the EFF supporting the Mashaba-led Johannesburg government. An ominous possibility.

Whatever the reasons for ActionSA and Mashaba pursuing the appointment of Brink over Mettler, there is no escaping the fact that this tussle between coalition partners reveals a dangerous weakness in current political constellations as we move almost inexorably to a post-ANC era of provincial and national government.

For South Africa to make a success of the post-ANC period requires coalition governments that can take office and hold it, pass budgets and see them implemented in collaboration with a competent civil service bureaucracy. The likelihood of this coming to fruition seems to be slipping away, mostly because politics has been left to politicians.

Four months into the trial period of post-ANC governance, it’s becoming a real possibility that the era of coalition will die in infancy. This is by no means inevitable. But, to avoid this catastrophe that would, if it comes to pass, be the penultimate phase of South Africa becoming irreversibly a failed state, a few things must happen:

Voters must take a greater interest in the mundanities of local governance and such things as the appointment of a municipal or city manager;

Civic engagement and oversight over matters of local government and administration must increase and the temptation to expend exclusive attention and focus on such things as the Zondo Commission must be resisted;

Political parties like the DA and ActionSA must come clean and invite civil participation in administrative matters like the appointment of a municipal or city manager;

Smaller political parties like Cope, the FF+, and the ACDP must find some mettle and rise to defend the governments they are part of, rather than allowing coalition tensions to erode public hope and trust in such arrangements due to the indignity of constant and often petty friction between the DA and ActionSA; and

The self-imposed political impotence and corresponding irrelevance of the vast majority of the public must not be allowed to continue.

It baffles the mind that millions of South Africans pay quarters and thirds of their income to governments national, provincial, and local, yet fail to pay equal amounts of time to investigating and considering the spending of these funds. It simply is no longer sensible to consider voting the total extent of civic engagement.

It is no longer sensible to entrust matters of politics so meekly to politicians.

South Africa is plagued by deficits – fiscal deficits, personal financial deficits, trust deficits. But most damaging of all is the deficit of constructive, responsible, informed public participation in matters of government and administration.

While voters might be fully justified in asking, after these broadly unremarkable months of the post-ANC trial of coalition government, “is this it?”, future generations of South Africans will be similarly entitled to look at this period where fundamental change was possible. They might consider the actions or inaction by citizens in taking a constructive role in matters of governance and administration, in reaching out to non-voters, in broaching the great taboo of talking politics, and pose a similar question: was that it?

It’s time to, at the very least, demand of ourselves what we so easily demand of politicians: public service.

[Photo: Johann Mettler & Floyd Brink]

Hermann Pretorius studied law and opera before entering politics and, latterly, joining the IRR as an analyst. He is presently the IRR’s Head of Strategic Communication. He describes himself as a Protestant, landless, Anglophilic, Afrikaans classical liberal.