The increasingly intense and ugly battle for political control of the North West city of Tlokwe is turning this university town and agricultural centre into a microcosm of what is awaiting South Africans in the crucial general election next year. And, it is not a pretty picture.
The Tlokwe battle has it all: vicious in-fighting and factionalism in the African National Congress allegedly driven by undercurrents of corruption and the opposition Democratic Alliance stepping out of the shadows to pick up the spoils.
In next year’s elections, the ANC and its broader alliance version will be fighting itself as much as it will be doing battle with opposition parties waiting to insert their hungry beaks into the cracks. It promises an epic battle in which the going may get extremely ugly.
As we reported previously, early readings of the mood among the election contestants predicts a gloves-off confrontation. The election comes at a critical historical juncture, with South Africa already facing multiple challenges and even crises. Not least of all the problems are the ongoing tensions and restlessness in the mining sector and labour relations, as reported last week .
In this uneasy political landscape Tlokwe currently stands out menacingly. The fault lines and undercurrents go far back, their roots being in factional battles raging since Jacob Zuma ousted Thabo Mbeki in 2007.
Since then developments progressively tipped the scales towards decline on many fronts for the ANC and even more markedly since 2012. Pressure points include the economy, investor confidence, constitutional issues, labour turmoil, social unrest, corruption allegations and more. The alliance has also been destabilised by factional power struggles and ideological divisions.
Developments in Tlokwe came to a head in November last year when ANC councillors sided with their DA counterparts to oust ANC mayor Maphetle Maphetle, accused of corruption. The DA’s Prof. Annette Combrinck was elected as new mayor.
A council with an ANC majority with a DA mayor, was highly embarrassing to the ANC and after intervention by its national leadership, Maphetle was returned as mayor in February. But then, last week 29 Tlokwe councillors, including 16 ANC members, again elected Combrink as mayor and the ANC expelled 14 of its councillors from the party for five years, “reprimanding” two who had apologised.
The divisions in the ANC in North West intensified in the run-up to the ANC’s national conference held in Mangaung in December last year when Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa came under fire for allegedly irregularly interfering to ensure a strong pro-Zuma provincial delegation would attend the ANC’s elective conference in Mangaung. This coincided with the first revolt against mayor Maphetle in Tlokwe.
In February the ANC national leadership’s intervention to have Maphetle returned as mayor also coincided with its intervention in the faction fighting in the North-West provincial structures.
Branches and other structures were up in arms against the ousting of the provincial secretary, Kabelo Mataboge, by a pro-Zuma faction led by Supra Mahumapelo, the ANC’s provincial chairman and the speaker of the North West Provincial Legislature. Despite this high-level intervention by an ANC head office team consisting of national secretary-general Gwede Mantashe, his deputy Jessie Duarte, treasurer-general Zweli Mkhize, and once again, strangely enough, Police Minister Mthethwa, the ructions continue in the province.
These ructions have as much to do with the ongoing power struggles in the ANC as they have with the growing resentment among old-school ANC supporters of what they believe has become a rampant culture of corruption in the party.
Despite Maphetle denying allegations implicating him, a forensic investigation requested by the DA last year found that the council had irregularly bought Maphetle a R736 000 customised Mercedes-Benz, that he had allegedly abused the municipality’s disaster management fund and poverty relief fund and recommended formal disciplinary action against him and other officials. In May the DA laid criminal charges against him, and in June Public Protector Thuli Madonsela announced she would also investigate. The outcomes of these developments are being awaited.
In Tlokwe and in North-West province the South African National Civil Organisation (SANCO), which is in alliance with the ANC, has also embraced the anti-corruption stance and come out in support of the expelled Tlokwe councillors. It planned an anti-corruption march in Tlokwe on Friday (July 12).
While these developments have every time thrust the DA into an advantageous position, even if only temporary, it does not signal any real change in the support for the various political parties. Recent by-elections have not shown any significant shifts.
The ousted ANC councillors still view themselves as ANC supporters, although some of them have said they will not vote for the ANC next year. They have not joined the DA and are unlikely to do so. The DA’s Combrinck herself has dismissed any such notion saying it would “not be clever”. But she is hoping for their possible cooperation as independent councillors after by-elections scheduled for 7 August.
In the previous round the ANC was able to secure the return of Maphetle as mayor with the help of these same councillors but the decision to expel them could now come back to haunt the ANC.
Six of the expelled councillors were indirectly elected and could simply be replaced by the ANC but the remaining eight could stand for re-election as independent candidates. If successful they might side with the DA, denying the ANC a majority in the council. The expelled councillors have the apparent community support, with local residents already having staged public protests against their expulsion.
Meanwhile the battle has taken on a more ominous tone with several of the expelled ANC councillors claiming they have received death threats.
This has led to comparisons being drawn with the murder of Moss Phakoe, an ANC councillor in Rustenburg, also in North West province, who was allegedly killed for being a whistle-blower against corruption.
These developments are symptomatic of a bigger crisis engulfing the ANC because of rampant patronage that breeds the corruption that has created a rising new elite based on materialism, greed and self-interest. This might shape the forthcoming elections, as much as anything else. The ANC might find itself not only having to fend off attacks from opposition parties, but also those from within its own ranks.