Former Mayor Dr Mpho Phalatse: ‘Corrupt’ ANC already back to old ways in Joburg, enabled by eight-seat turncoats

The DA’s Joburg leader Dr Mpho Phalatse has gone from medic to politician and from leading the opposition in SA’s biggest city to becoming its mayor; and then being controversially deposed after an ally with eight seats in the 270-seat council switched sides. In this frank interview with Alec Hogg of BizNews, the reluctant politician explains why she is now fighting tooth and nail to prevent a return of the ‘corrupt’ ANC to its old ways, but fears the plundering of Joburg has already started. Phalatse unpacks events of a turbulent year and explains she is still working behind the scenes to get back the mayoral chains. In the process, she also provides insight into the kind of challenges SA is likely to face after the 2024 National Election when political coalitions become the norm.

Mpho Phalatse on the November 2021 election after the votes were counted and how this worked out and whether it was a surprise

It was a surprise. I am a person of faith, so I really believed something would happen. I didn’t know what and didn’t know how it would happen. But I believed something would happen because I would have had to have a very strong conviction to even start the journey in the first place. That is what brought me here. But when I went to that election that morning, I only had 26% of the votes. No coalition partners, in spite of weeks of trying to put a coalition together, this attitude, no success, not even a single partner on our side. And so I went there and just waited it out to see what would happen. We started observing a trend, of course, in other parts of the country that morning when we saw the eve of voting in dismay as in other parts of the country. We got a sense that the pattern was likely to repeat itself in Johannesburg. It was around lunchtime. I remember when Helen Zille asked if I had an acceptance speech. And I replied I didn’t. Shesaid, “Well, I think you should start writing one because it looks like it’s coming here as well.” And that’s when I took out my laptop and started writing my acceptance speech. That evening I was elected mayor. As I said, I’m a person of faith and believed it would happen. I just didn’t know how. So it was quite rewarding to see that indeed, it did happen.

On how the party of 10 coalitions worked out

It is quite a mammoth task, doing the number crunching and trying to see what different permutations would give us the 136 we were aiming for. Effectively you want more than just 136 because you don’t want to be on the fence. You want to have enough reserves so if somebody is off sick or absent for whatever reason, you are  still able to run the business of council, particularly where you need an absolute majority. And so, yes, we started doing that. We approached everyone to look at who we could potentially work with and ended up with 10 parties. Soon, two of those parties exited the coalition. The first one was Al Jamah; we realised the person we were negotiating with actually did not have a mandate from his party to negotiate with us. Even though he had attended the signing of the coalition agreement, he did not have his party’s mandate and they nullified everything that happened in that negotiation process. So, they exited the coalition. The other one was a party that came in through another one of our partners. I believe it was the APC that came in through the ATM; where ATM said it works together with this party, so if we were going to work with them, could we make room for them as well. We were happy to do that. Later, they came back and said, no, we never approached them directly and they are not part of our coalition and we had to excuse them as well. So we ended up with eight parties. But later on, if you recall, we added the Patriotic Alliance, making us a nine-party coalition of 140 seats. We thought we were really stable, really comfortable. We had four seats in excess of the 186 we needed. We thought we had the numbers we needed to govern without any disturbance until 2026.

On the likelihood coalition politics will be the norm post-2024 and what has been learnt that can be taken back for the upcoming election in 2024

I think there are lessons all around and not just lessons for the Democratic Alliance. There are a lot of lessons for the electorate as well. I don’t believe our voters understand the numbers game in politics and in governance. I don’t think they get it. A lot of voters think, well, I’m going to vote for the party I like and we’ll see what happens. They are not strategic enough to say, what does it mean if we’ve split the vote so much that a municipality is home; and what does it mean that we’ve split it so much that you end up with a coalition of so many parties and becomes almost impossible to govern? So I certainly think conditions can be a good thing and they can work. We see them working in other parts of the world, of course, there’s legal frameworks that support coalitions to work. For instance, on the last day the mayor broke away, there was a delegation from Denmark and one of the speakers was a former mayor, current deputy mayor. And one of the things she shared was that there is no motion of no confidence in Denmark. It is not allowed by law. If you’re a mayor, it’s expected of you to finish your term and it’s even difficult for you to resign. You need council permission to resign. If you sit, you need to ask permission and counsel can still say no. Those are the kinds of laws that make it easier to keep stable governments in other parts of the world where they have had coalitions for many, many years now. Our laws here are different, and perhaps it’s time to review our laws as South Africa, because our laws were developed at a time when we had a single party of majority rule. So much has changed since then, and perhaps the lawmakers need to come together and question whether we need some reform. You know, given what is happening now and the stability that the country needs, cities are key to the development of nations. I believe that Johannesburg, as a city in South Africa, being the economic hub, is quite key. We contribute 15% of the country’s GDP. Now, you cannot afford for South Africa to have an unstable city of Johannesburg, and that’s where the lawmakers should really assist us so that we stabilise our clinicians should we end up in commissions. But I certainly think it’s easier to govern if you have a full mandate, a clear mandate, it’s certainly easier. I see it with some of our counterparts in Midvaal, in the city of Cape Town, for instance, and in many of the municipalities in the Western Cape where we are. The DA is able to govern well and is able to showcase after the five-year term what they’ve been able to do. Whereas here you spend so much time in negotiations. Consultations and these are time consuming. It has to be done when that’s what the electorate has given you. We have a commitment. We’ve made the commitment to the residents of Johannesburg that we will make it work. And that’s why you see me standing and fighting today.

On what’s behind her firing as mayor of Joburg

We’re in a democratic state and embrace democracy and understand the importance of democracy. However, our democracy is under attack through processes that have no regard for the rule of law, for the rules of council. That is hugely problematic. It is not something that can be entertained or even promoted or protected. What happened that day was completely unlawful. You know, so many things were done wrong from the programming committee; how it was put together, how to set up and how to run to the actual council meeting itself. Programming is a committee of council. It is one of the Section 79 oversight committees, if you like. And it’s a committee that decides, for instance, on the agenda of every council meeting and so on. Now, this meeting was called within a three-hour notice period. Ordinarily, you’d have about a 72-hour notice period, and the reports would be circulated so that members of programming are able to go through them, consider them, so that when they come together and debate whether or not those reports are admissible and should be allowed to go through to council, they are well informed and if there’s a need to consult the legal experts, they are able to do so. This did not happen this time around. You had a programming committee meeting that was called at very short notice. Three hours is ridiculous, particularly after the speaker had made a pronouncement at the end of the last council meeting that there would be a special council meeting only after recess, which is after 10 October. So for her to have just changed her mind overnight and expect that people have not made other plans and travelled just before recess, was ridiculous and unreasonable at best. However, that’s not the only reason the programming committee has representatives from different political parties. It is very carefully constituted for representations to make sure all parties are well represented and that there’s fairness in terms of the distribution of voices in that programming committee.

Now, what we saw here is a programming committee that did not co-operate, and they were not supposed to go ahead with an incorrect programming committee. It should have been called off and adjourned for another time when you could form a quorum. That did not happen. They went to hit. The last thing about the committee is that they then tabled a motion, which was declared inadmissible; it was a motion of no confidence in the executive mayor, which was declared inadmissible by a previous programming committee based on the rules of council.  One of the issues raised in that motion is before the court. Such a motion is not admissible. It cannot be considered by the council. And one of the things they mentioned in their motion was a matter currently before the courts, where Herman Mashaba has taken the public protector to court and the motion was rendered inadmissible based on that. However, this programming committee forced this motion through to a council meeting called for the following day. Again, no adequate notice was given for this council meeting; the council meeting was illegal because it did not observe the rules of council. It went ahead and they considered this inadmissible motion, and that is how I was illegally ousted. They went ahead then and elected a mayor without notice. You are supposed to issue notice as the speaker that there’s going to be an election. It is such an important position, such as the position of mayor of the city. You cannot just elect a man on a whim. Yet this is exactly what happened. You know, the IEC was there and there was a short caucus break and they set up and there was an election. The whole thing was illegal,  a farce. It is on those ballots that we’re going to court.

On whether she’s got something up her sleeve

We are in talks with various political parties. Like I said, we’re not going to go down without a fight. We are very concerned about this corrupt cabal that has taken over the city. We believe their only agenda is to loot the city’s coffers and we believe we have a constitutional duty to our residents to protect the ratepayers’ money, to protect the city’s budgets, and to make sure services are rendered with the money they contribute towards the city and whatever we get from other spheres of government. So yes, we are in talks with various parties, these various negotiations at all tiers of government: national, provincial and local. It’s still early days but I’m quite hopeful that we will be able to a) be reinstated, and b) remain in government. 

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