A meltdown of South Africa’s official opposition and the resignation of its first black leader has left control of two key cities and their R104 billion ($7.2-billion) budgets hanging in the balance.
The Democratic Alliance has been running the economic hub of Johannesburg and Tshwane, which includes the capital, Pretoria, for the past three years since it took control from the African National Congress by entering into pact with the Economic Freedom Fighters.
But their tenuous relationship edged closer to unraveling last week when Johannesburg’s DA mayor, Herman Mashaba, said he’d step down next month and Mmusi Maimane abruptly quit as party leader.
The resignations, which came after the DA shed support in national elections in May, leaves the party with an almost exclusively white top leadership. The EFF, which calls for South Africa’s black majority to be given a bigger stake in the economy, said the DA’s leadership shakeup showed it’s increasingly turning right-wing and characterized by “white supremacy.”
Julius Malema, the EFF’s leader, said his party will field its own officials for municipal-council posts instead of backing DA candidates.
“The EFF must contest, and we must contest without talking to anyone,” he said at a media conference in Johannesburg on Monday that was posted on Twitter.
Mashaba is due to step down on Nov. 27. A cosmetics mogul who made some headway in improving control over Johannesburg’s finances and tackling graft, he’s been criticized by human-rights groups for attacks on undocumented migrants. The DA intends naming a candidate to replace him, and the EFF hasn’t decided whether to back its choice.
The EFF’s relationship with the business-friendly DA has been fraught from the outset – their main commonality is their dislike for the ANC, which they accuse of misrule and failing to fight corruption.
While the EFF worked well with Mashaba, it has repeatedly threatened to oust another DA mayor of Tshwane, only to backtrack when no-confidence votes were called. And last year, the EFF teamed up with the ANC to eject the DA’s Athol Trollip as mayor of the southern coastal city of Port Elizabeth – a move Malema described as “cutting the throat of whiteness.”
While Mashaba said the main opposition appeared determined to scuttle its accord with the EFF in Johannesburg, DA parliamentary leader John Steenhuisen said he favored continued cooperation.
“The DA won’t exit any government that it governs in coalition, until evidence-based research shows us otherwise,” Steenhuisen, a possible contender to succeed Maimane when it holds elections next year, told reporters in Cape Town on Monday. “I personally believe that coalitions are still the way to work through the political logjams that often plague our politics.”
Voters will next have a say over who they want to run the cities in municipal elections in 2021. The ANC won 45% of the vote in Johannesburg in 2016 and could win back outright control, having seen a resurgence in its support since Cyril Ramaphosa replaced the deeply unpopular Jacob Zuma as its leader in December 2017.
The ruling party faces a sterner test to take back Tshwane, where it previously received just 42% of the vote.
Darias Jonker, director for Africa at Eurasia Group, sees the DA relinquishing many of its black supporters to the ANC as a result of its internal ructions, and it losing control of both Pretoria and Johannesburg in 2021. That would leave it retaining its hold on Cape Town where it has ruled since 2006.
“In the interim, the coalitions through which the DA governs Johannesburg and Pretoria are likely to hold as their support from the Economic Freedom Fighters is unlikely to shift to the ANC,” Jonker said in a note to clients.
“Although the EFF is not in a formal coalition with the DA and the relationship is very tense, the EFF is even less willing to work with President Cyril Ramaphosa.”