If you are a numbers nerd, by-election analysis is straightforward, because there’s lots of numbers. You can report the election results like a company report, full of gains and losses, or you can report it like a sports match, filled with heroic defenses and hard-won victories and lots of bloodletting.
It’s an exciting and dramatic approach to take, although it is prone to the over-egging and lily-gilding of most sports cliches. Often the real story is behind the frontline numbers. The official scoreline shows that the ANC retained all 13 wards in Mogalakwena on Wednesday and still enjoys an overwhelming majority in council. It doesn’t show that factionalism, violence and a disregard for the law are growing in municipal government.
To have to defend one ward in a municipality may be regarded as misfortune. To have to contest 13 wards back-to-back does suggest carelessness* or some other character flaw. The ANC had to defend 13 Mogalakwena wards because it effectively fired 13 ward councilors (along with nine PR councilors). In turn, it fired the councilors for voting with the opposition to remove the ANC mayor, Mr Tlhalefi Mashamaite.
Mr Mashamaite is accused of blowing a bunch of municipal money on his own personal bodyguards. A forensic report has recommended that he face criminal charges.
So where have we heard this story before, of factional fighting within the ANC and party mutiny by elected councilors rejecting an allegedly dirty appointee, followed by a mass expulsion of said mutineers by senior party structures, topped off with a clump of by-elections?
You guessed right: this time last year the same thing happened in Tlokwe. Back then the stakes were higher for the ANC: its council majority was lower and it lost a seat to a popular independent candidate. At the time, the party was at risk of losing one or two more wards.
Tlokwe was followed by Mbhashe in January, where another vote of no confidence in another ANC mayor led to another mass expulsion of councilors. The ANC’s majority was bigger in council, so even though It lost two wards that time its control of the council was assured.
November 26 has the dubious honour of hosting by-elections in four dysfunctional municipalities. Aside from the expulsions in Mogalakwena, the municipalities of Inkwanca and Mooi Mpofana, and the district municipality of Ngaka Modiri Molewa were placed under administration by their respective provincial governments.
To recap, In these latest by-elections, two-thirds of the ward seats contested (plus all of the PR and DC40 seats) have been because of councils in crisis. Most of the elections on Wednesday were held because of political failures: failures of municipal governance, failures of internal party unity, and failures of legitimacy.
There are worrying factors that are starting to link these municipalities in crisis. These include: mayors that are not supported by their councils, evidence of corruption by top municipal officials, political factionalism, a disregard for legal decisions, and the use of violence by factional supporters.
At the time of the Tlokwe elections there was speculation of whether other municipalities would face these internally-engineered problems. One article was particularly prescient, identifying the Ngaka Modiri Molewa district and other North-West municipalities as particularly vulnerable.
Still, most of the analysis remains focused on whether these by-elections are good or bad for the ANC or the opposition, far less energy is spent picking through what all these things mean for the municipalities and their residents.
Maybe it’s because we accept that by-elections are not held because there is a need to replace a non-performing councilor with a performing one. There is little to no correlation between the site of a particular by-election and the performance of that particular ward councilor. Councilors cross the floor, are expelled by their parties, resign or die in office. They are never fired or recalled by their constituents.
Ward by-elections are dominated by political parties and our only chance at direct elections becomes another process that involves the courts, the police and a series of negotiations behind closed doors. It’s not surprising that our analysis is focused on party rivalries and power balances. If your role in representative government is reduced to that of spectator, you start to seek out the spectacle.
Meanwhile, the problems in some municipalities are growing so big that they can’t be contained behind closed doors. The ‘business unusual’ of untouchable mayors and rogue councilors is being normalised with every by-election of wholesale councilor posts. Some of the scary shit that is happening on a national scale is happening locally also: police officers in Parliament are being echoed by police officers in municipal offices.
It could get worse before it gets better. There’s normally a spike in municipal protests in the year before a general municipal election, and 2015 could mirror the events of 2010 and 2005.
It isn’t productive to scaremonger for no reason, but election analysis that’s just by the numbers won’t do much to improve the performance of this council or that. The growth in by-elections is a warning sign and a symptom of the sickness in municipal government.
*apologies to Oscar Wilde