The Battle for Nelson Mandela Bay is within the ANC

Ryan Brunette, Bronwyn Kotzen, Mahlatse Rampedi and Tatenda Mukwedeya | 14 July 2016

Ryan Brunette, Mahlatse Rampedi and Tatenda Mukwedeya are with the Public Affairs Research Institute (PARI), University of the Witwatersrand and Bronwyn Kotzen is a former researcher at PARI.

The 3 August 2016 local government elections have brought national attention to Nelson Mandela Bay Metropolitan Municipality. The ruling ANC is sitting on only 62 of that Council's 120 seats, rendering the Municipality electorally competitive and a political battleground. Many commentators, including local academic Joleen Steyn-Kotze have suggested that the often-labelled 'battle for Nelson Mandela Bay' may amount to "the ANC's waterloo". Extending the military metaphors, being outside the demographically distinct Western Cape it seems set to form a beachhead from where other local governments could fall, with the potential to scale-up to the national sphere.

What this elides is the fact that the real Battle for Nelson Mandela Bay is taking place within the ruling party. How this plays out is perhaps more important than any immediate electoral outcome.

Nelson Mandela Bay occupies an under-recognised place in the history of post-apartheid South Africa. A conurbation centred upon Port Elizabeth, characterised by significant and long-term industrial concentrations in automobiles and more broadly, a space of effective and radical anti-apartheid mobilisation. Port Elizabeth's One City movement, its path eased by the relatively liberal climate of White politics in the area, brought this country its first non-racial Municipality and its first Black Mayor.

For its first decade, crossing over into the 2000 amalgamation of Port Elizabeth, Uitenhage, Despatch, and other satellite areas, stable and effective administration made Nelson Mandela Bay an inspiration for post-apartheid local government everywhere. In 2002, when the ANC aligned its own regional boundaries with the new municipal boundaries, the resulting Nelson Mandela Bay region was the ANC's largest and most powerful. Its local strength was reflected in the 2006 elections, that took the ruling party beyond 67% of Council seats, a result higher than its national average and well beyond any other Metro at the time.

Although Nelson Mandela Bay follows a national trend, nowhere has the ruling party's decline been more visible, rapid and pronounced. The 'sins of incumbency' have played their role, with corruption creeping into the higher echelons of the regional party from at least the late-1990s. The unemployment crisis has been an under-appreciated factor, being particularly acute in Nelson Mandela Bay, a declining industrial city in a poorer province with a strong left-wing politics. Indeed conservative estimates put the unemployment rate at 36.6% and the youth unemployment rate at 47.3%. Factionalism, indeed fundamentally entwined with these prior maladies, has however been the regional ANC's primary infirmity.

Dominant mass-based parties are universally prone to factionalism. In this sense the Nelson Mandela Bay ANC has been a victim of its own initial success. Dominant parties are a strong attraction to careerist politicians, which augments competition for limited party positions. Such parties also come to be composed of numerous, competing ideological tendencies, raising the prospects of ideological schism. Accentuating these factors is enhanced electoral security magnifying the salience of individual or factional interests over party interests. The Nelson Mandela Bay ANC has suffered a surplus of all of these. The region's inordinate political weight in the broader party also brought the often unwelcome attention of higher structures of the ANC.

It is seldom fully appreciated that the ANC's Constitution remains quite different from that of the country's. The South African Constitution provides, under national standard-setting and enforcement, for autonomy between, and cooperation across spheres of government. The ANC Constitution provides instead for a hierarchical line of command running staggered down across party structures matched to these spheres. So, the national executive committee can issue binding instructions to provincial executive committees, and so on. This line of command sits uneasily with another feature of governmental spheres and matched party structures. These all mandate democratic elections as a precondition for office, conferring legitimacy to office-bearers, making them accountable to a constituency, and thereby in morality and fact providing them with a measure of autonomy. Hierarchy and lower level autonomy are necessarily in tension. Between them a balance must be struck. The Nelson Mandela Bay ANC came undone along this particular tension.

Critical in this understanding is the history of regional politics and the role of Thabo Mbeki, who as in so much, was the progenitor. In 2002 he effectively inverted any natural balance by purging the Eastern Cape government of what were perceived to be the ring-leaders of an 'ultra-left' plot. He did so under the poorly evidenced pre-text of corruption and maladministration, an investigation in relation to which was ultimately nullified by a High Court. Such exertions continued, extending to what was then perceived to be a left-inclined Nelson Mandela Bay ANC. There they culminated in the appointment of an otherwise under-supported mayor in 2006 under Mbeki's approval.

In recompense, Nelson Mandela Bay became an epicentre of the backlash against Mbeki's presidency, along with the local 'Mbekites' who he had entrenched. By 2009, COPE would carve a full 17% of Nelson Mandela Bay's provincial vote from the ANC, reflecting not so much the strength of Mbeki's support in the municipality, as it did the irreconcilability of the factional divisions that his over-weening presence had inspired. It was this that took the ANC to under 50% of the Nelson Mandela Bay provincial vote in that year. A slight rally in the 2011 local government elections gave it a controlling 63 of the Council's 120 seats, with the declining COPE nevertheless largely ceding votes to the DA.

By 2009 the Mbeki imposed mayor was removed. Elevated into power was an awkward anti-Mbeki faction, consisting of erstwhile excluded African nationalists and partly NUMSA-aligned leftists. These came to control, respectively, the ANC region and the municipal 'troika' of mayor, speaker and chief whip. The effect was to divide power between regional party and municipal state. Built from ideological opponents, in fact this ruling ANC faction came apart on the resulting institutional ambiguity. The ANC, in other words, has never clearly and practicably defined the relationship between party and state. And so conflict in Nelson Mandela Bay now occurred primarily around instructions issued from the regional party, these being resisted by the left in the municipality on grounds of mayoral responsibility. Producing intractable factional difficulties, both the mayor and the ANC's regional chairperson were removed in the presence of Jacob Zuma in 2013. The mayor being a former NUMSA shop steward and close associate of Irvin Jim, this played into the subsequent NUMSA Moment.

The NUMSA-aligned United Front represents a potentially more significant breakaway than COPE. It is set to contest the election on 3 August, having already fired its first volley in November 2014 with the by-election victory of an aligned independent candidate. It was it appears the first time that a Nelson Mandela Bay ward ever fell beyond both the ANC and the DA. Another would fall the way of the UDM in August 2015, on the back of a "No DA-ANC" campaign in that ward. In the run-up to these August local government elections, the ANC therefore sits on the fence with a mere 51.7% of Council seats. The DA, the EFF, the United Front and the UDM have also all shown irrefutable evidence of moving into its core constituency, with little indication of traffic in the other direction. If the beachhead is being taken, it is the implosion of the local ruling party that gave it away.

By 2014, amidst the insecurity and ill-discipline that characterised what was now over a decade of persistent and intensive factional politics, corruption had attained ostentatious proportions, with a palpable effect upon service delivery. Resulting currents of dissent in society even saw business align with labour in a Nelson Mandela Bay Civil Society Coalition, which included in addition, left-inclined civic associations, ratepayers, property owners and much of the local clergy. Partly in response to these pressures, in December 2014 Jacob Zuma once again came down, this time to disband what was once the largest region of the ANC.

In January 2015 a task team was established to reconstitute the party, with none other than Deputy Secretary General Jessie Duarte noting as the "major crisis" confronting the region, "…concerns about processes that involve councillors who may have interests in business… So we are very certainly going to look at what corrupts the Council, and therefore what stalls service delivery to the people".

Real efforts, even heroic efforts, have been made to do so. Yet the same intervention, which saw Danny Jordaan assume the Mayorship in May 2015, served to disorient and factionalise the regional ANC even further. Even today these efforts run up against an electoral suicide tendency intent on derailing efforts to reconstitute the regional party in the interest of individual advance.

The outcome of this particular struggle is important, for everyone, regardless of who wins on Election Day. The decline of the Nelson Mandela Bay ANC is not primarily the result of the moral or other failings of individuals. It could not and cannot now be corrected by a mere act of political will. It was a product more of the situation in which the ANC placed itself. So how it got here and where it goes, provides an object lesson for the ANC, everywhere, and for other political parties in South Africa.