Tshwane test could offer dissolution of councils in disarray as a way forward

Gauteng premier David Makhura has taken the appropriately described “drastic” step of enacting section 139(1)(c) of the constitution to place Tshwane under administration until a new council is elected within the next 90 days.

This follows the inability of the council to meet since November 2019 — an untenable position for the capital which has been run without a mayor or mayoral committee and has been unable to manage even the most essential tasks such as appointing a city manager.

The move means by-elections for the metro which will represent a fascinating test of support for the DA ANC and EFF. It may also mean council dissolution will become an option considered for other poorly functioning coalition-run metros.

Tshwane is a classic hung council with no single party having won more than 50% of the 214 total seats. The DA won 93 seats in the 2016 local elections with the ANC close behind on 89 and the EFF — a decisive kingmaker — with 25 seats and a smattering of smaller party representation (four seats for the FF+ and one apiece for the ACDP COPE and the PAC).

With the council in disarray — unable to appoint a city manager for instance due to opposition walkouts — the ANC is said to have been weighing up its options and the EFF is said to covet the mayoral chain. The political impasse provided convenient justification for the intervention by provincial government although this may be challenged by the DA as a crisis created by the ANC to suit its own political agenda.

This agenda relates to how the make-up of the council might change with by-elections. The 2016 local elections saw a dip in support for the ANC (it won just 41.3% of the vote down from 55.3% in the 2011 local elections) support it appears to have recovered if the 2019 provincial votes cast in the metro are anything to go by — the ANC garnered 49.6% not far off its 51% in 2014. (Provincial polls provide the closest comparison to local polls although turnout trends are significantly different between general local and by-elections and local elections can be influenced by nuanced local trends including proposed councillor candidates).

The converse is true of the DA; it secured 43.2% of the vote in 2016 (a significant gain from 2014’s 31.3% of the provincial vote) but shed support in last year’s general election securing only 25.9% of the provincial votes in the metro. The EFF while making steady gains at the polls (from 11.4% in 2014 to 11.6% in 2016 and 13.8% in 2019) is likely to recede in significance should the ANC win an outright majority.

The DA and EFF therefore have the most to lose in by-elections a probable return to the opposition benches. It is likely that the DA will consider challenging the premier’s move but it will be difficult to dispute the level of dysfunction in Tshwane’s council chambers whatever the cause. A full set of by-elections is however unusual — indeed unprecendented in a large municipality in SA and the DA is likely to argue that the ANC deliberately collapsed council meetings to force council dissolution. It may argue that other forms of intervention should precede the drastic measure that has been taken.

Tshwane by-elections should they proceed are likely to be hotly contested as a dry run for 2021’s local government elections. While ANC support in poorer outlying areas should be secure it will require voter mobilisation with the real test of support in relatively wealthier middle-class and emerging middle-class areas that expressed clear disapproval of the Zuma-led ANC in 2016 but appeared to be more favourably inclined towards Cyril Ramaphosa in 2019. 

Instability under the DA and its coalition-led administration never mind the race-based leadership crisis in the DA and legislative disruptions by the EFF in more recent times will do little to encourage voters to vote for anything similar to the status quo. It is therefore likely that a resurgent ANC will secure a majority in the Tshwane council hopefully (for the sake of residents) ushering in greater stability political considerations aside.

Furthermore the outcome of the premier’s action if favourable for the ANC as well as bringing political and institutional stability (justifying the legal necessity) may sway Makhura and other provincial governments to consider a similar course of action in Johannesburg Nelson Mandela Bay and elsewhere.

For provinces however the question already being asked is why this course of action has not been taken before. Will premiers and provincial co-operative governance MECs be able to justify the dissolution of Tshwane due to council dysfunction and resist intervening in the case of other arguably more delinquent municipalities?