Brett Herron | Season of mayoral musical chairs must end | News24

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What happened in Tshwane, Johannesburg, Nelson Mandela Bay, and was proposed for the small Western Cape Town, reveal why we need rules on how coalition governments are established and can be removed from office, writes Brett Herron.


The season of mayoral musical chairs, regardless of the consequences for the delivery of services, will continue until rules are put in place to regulate the establishment of stable coalition governments.

Political parties will not self-regulate. They will continue to prioritise power and well-paid positions over policy and principle.

The political manipulation of unstable Gauteng metro coalitions presently viying for attention – with “placeholder” mayors representing small parties elected to lead Johannesburg and Tshwane at the whim of larger parties – but the scourge of unregulated, unsustainable coalition governments is a national disease demanding urgent treatment.

Democracy is obviously about numbers, but politics should be about service – as naïve as that may sound. 

In Nelson Mandela Bay, when the ANC lost the support of its coalition partners late last year, and the writing was on the wall that a new coalition, led by the DA, would take power, the ANC’s Provincial MEC for Local Government stepped in to change the rules. 

By changing power from the Executive Mayoral system to a Mayoral Committee system, the metro would be governed by a Mayoral Committee comprised of an equal number of ANC and DA members, plus a couple of EFF members. 

READ | Richard Calland and Mike Law: Coalitions are here to stay. How can we make them better?

The ANC had led a coalition government under the Mayoral Executive system for almost a year, but the coalition collapsed because the ANC was unable to honour its commitment to its partners that it would clean up the administration. 

By changing the system, the MEC was effectively sentencing residents of Nelson Mandela Bay to further maladministration and crookedness.

Another example comes from a small town in the Western Cape. Here, if a DA ward councillor resigns as planned, is a potential opportunity to replace a DA-led government.

GOOD was approached to form a new government and even offered the Executive Mayor’s position. It was a ridiculous offer, with no principle in sight. The proposed new coalition would likely only last until the by-election to replace the disaffected councillor.

What has been experienced in Tshwane, Johannesburg, Nelson Mandela Bay, and was proposed for the small Western Cape Town, are abuses of office and abuses of our prevailing coalition system. 

These examples speak eloquently to why we need rules on how coalition governments are established and can be removed from office. 

What about tomorrow?  

An opportunity to remove a coalition government should not necessarily constitute sufficient grounds for doing so. Coalitions formed on the basis that “my enemy’s enemy, today, is my friend” don’t work. What about tomorrow?

How does anyone besides the politicians themselves, benefit from the installation of a “placeholder” mayor and mayoral executive committee in Johannesburg to keep chairs warm while more powerful potential partners haggle over who gets which jobs in the next coalition government?

The present unregulated environment is not conducive to municipalities, which are meant to be in the vanguard of the delivery of basic services, improving their performance. 

With a general election due next year, many analysts have predicted that the ANC’s share of the vote will decline below 50%, which will necessitate establishing a coalition government.

If steps aren’t taken to stabilise coalition governments by then, and national government ends up in a similar whirlpool to that Johannesburg is now in, it will be a disaster.

The Minister of Co-operative Government must lead a legislative process to bring the situation under control. There are a few obvious things we can do that have worked well in countries with more experience in coalition governments than ours.

To start with, we must provide more time for governments to be formed. Section 51 of the Constitution requires that the first sitting of Parliament is called within 14 days of the election results having been declared when it must elect a President. Similarly, the Municipal Structures Act requires the first council meeting to be called within 14 days of the election results being declared in order to elect a mayor.

Elections on fixed dates? 

This is insufficient time for parties to find common ground, determine governing priorities and form stable coalitions based on principles.  

One solution would be for the elections to be on a fixed date, like in the United States, with the term of office commencing about two months later.  

This will allow parties with outright majorities the time to arrange their executives and finalise governing plans. In cases where no party has a majority, it will allow parties time to negotiate majority government coalitions based on shared governing ambitions.

Motions of no confidence have become a political trick – very much for political theatre. There should be provisions for removing an incumbent for serious misconduct by way of impeachment, but frivolous motions of no confidence must be stopped from becoming a national sport.

READ | Brett Herron: If you want coalition governments to work, there needs to be trust

In Denmark, delegates on a recent multi-party trip learned mayors are elected by their councils for a full term, regardless of later manoeuvring of coalition partners. 

This creates stability and reduces space for endless disruptive motions of no confidence. Disagreements within coalitions are resolved through what they call legislative coalitions, where members vote to approve, or disapprove proposals from the Mayor regardless of whether they are in the coalition government or not.

We saw this system in action while in Denmark when the budget tabled by the mayor of Copenhagen was rejected in favour of an alternative budget proposed by the council.   

What this approach does is foster a common purpose around the issues in society, which, after all, is what councillors are elected to manage and fix.

Another stabilising measure we could consider, used with some success in other territories, is that the party that gets the most votes, and thus seats, in an election is given the first opportunity to attempt to form a coalition.

When we make rules to stabilise coalition governments today, we don’t make them for those presently holding power. They must be sustainable enough for a future in which support for an ANC/DA coalition dips below 50% because that’s where we appear to be heading.

I know that we’re presently preoccupied with electricity, as we should be, and that the COGTA Minister’s hands are full after the unnecessary declaration of the electricity state of disaster.

Given the disastrous state of some of our biggest municipalities, she’d be better employed taking action to stop the musical chairs.

– Brett Herron is GOOD Secretary-General and Member of Parliament.


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