After weeks of arm wrestling, marathon negotiations and vaulting ambition, the first round of SA’s local government Olympics draws to a close. Now comes the really tough part, complete with mudslinging and backstabbing, as sworn foes try to nudge one another aside, jostling to retain a toehold on the winner’s podium.
Coalitions are difficult creatures to manage. As former DA leader Helen Zille warns ruefully, in response to party stalwarts pointing at the DA’s coalition successes in Cape Town in 2006 to 2011, the party has been in far more failed coalitions than successful ones.
Zille goes further. She will have infuriated the new party leadership while it was negotiating by warning against coalition governments where there was no outright winner, since such arrangements were “doomed to fail”. Her warnings will go unheeded. The euphoria of imminent power is intoxicating.
In all of this horse trading, EFF leader Julius Malema has again shown his tactical genius. The EFF won’t enter into any formal coalition but it will not, at least initially, vote against the DA in the minority-government metros, thus depriving the ANC of control. So Malema screws the ANC for not dumping President Jacob Zuma, as it had demanded, while “not getting into bed with the better devil” of the DA.
Malema keeps his hands ideologically clean but on the levers of power. He runs rings around his opponents and plays the media like a fiddle. This week’s EFF briefing on its coalition plans was held in the dusty veld overlooking the shanties of Alex.
The equivalent DA press conference was in a Sandton hotel. Or as more than one journalist promptly described it, a “swish”, “swanky” hotel, drawing an obliging contrast of the salt of the earth EFF versus the effete, out-of-touch DA.
Malema leaves DA leader Mmusi Maimane looking flat-footed. It’s a bit like watching two swordsmen, one with a rapier, the other with a cricket bat. The latter might strike an incapacitating blow, but only if he doesn’t bleed out first.
A largely uncritical public swallows this showmanship whole, exactly as it is served up by a largely gullible media that treats Malema less as a politician to be interrogated than as a celebrity to be promoted. It’s a problem, also, because neither the ANC, nor the DA, appears to comprehend the ruthlessness of Malema, as well as his indifference to the political niceties that they subscribe to.
Business Day’s Natasha Marrian describes how Maimane “waffled” in answer to a question about DA willingness to remove Die Stem from the national anthem, one of Malema’s non-negotiable demands for coalition. Malema earlier told journalists Maimane had agreed and confided to him that “having Die Stem … was like having Jewish people singing Nazi songs”. Maimane, says Marrian, “issued a thin denial”.
“It was an awkward moment.” Maimane and his supporters are understandably delighted at the DA’s potentially game-changing successes. But the ease at which the EFF has bested them in the post-electoral negotiations should be a matter of concern.
And there is still the ANC’s reaction to come. When it emerges from licking its wounds it will be to deploy every mechanism that a powerful government has at its fingertips – national budgets, the public service, the power of legislation and demarcation – to reclaim control.