By the end of next week, the DA’s federal candidates’ selection committee is expected to make known the successful candidates for mayors of the major metropolitan councils where the official opposition has a chance of winning.
Party insiders say that in Cape Town the chances are good that it will poll between 55 percent and 60 percent, albeit down from the 66 percent it achieved with Patricia de Lille took the mayoralship for the second time in 2016. In Nelson Mandela Bay the party is, according to reliable sources, putting the bulk of campaign money – to win an outright majority of 50 percent. It got 46.7 percent in 2016 –against the ANC’s 40.92 percent – and ruled for two years until toppled by an ANC/UDM/EFF putsch in 2018. It has subsequently regained power.
Both political commentator Mzwanele “Jimmy” Manyi – a former newspaper proprietor – and analyst Aubrey Matshiqi, believe the DA have Cape Town in the bag irrespective of whom is the candidate for mayor. Manyi says the other cities currently led by the DA – Nelson Mandela Bay and Tshwane, both recently won back after falling to ANC-led coalitions – “are long shots”. Manyi believes that DA will only get near winning them if the ANC remains disorganised and faction driven, but it will not pull off the 2016 unexpected wins in Tshwane, Nelson Mandela Bay and Johannesburg otherwise on it inherent strength.
In Tshwane the DA – which took power back late in 2020 – is pitching to win an overall majority or close to it – but will only work with non-Economic Freedom Fighter parties in opposition. Its candidate is widely expected to be incumbent mayor Randall Williams. In Johannesburg, the DA is hoping to take back the city – lost in 2019 – with the help of Herman Mashaba’s Action SA, which may poll as strongly as five percent making it the kingmaker. In Tshwane In 2016 the DA got 43.58 percent of the votes compared to the ANC’s 41.66 percent.
Already the race in Cape Town has taken a racial element – a ‘coloured’ incumbent Mayor Dan Plato is pitted against the African black provincial leader Bonginkosi Madikizela and a white male Geordin Hill-Lewis, the national parliament finance spokesman. But party insiders, including Helen Zille, the federal executive chairperson who sits on the selection panel, objected to questions using “the race card”. Matshiqi says the Cape Town contest is “multi-racial” rather than truly non-racial. “The DA has not succeeded yet in embracing non-racialism.” The DA had not got to a point that it was “non-racist”. Manyi agrees that the coloured vote is pivotal – and if he were a DA man, which he isn’t – he would choose the coloured incumbent, Plato. That candidate simply would provide a “decisive win” for the DA, said Manyi.
Manyi – once ANN7 television news channel ceo – said he did not know Hill-Lewis. “A mayoral position needs an unquestionable profile. Dan has such a profile.” It was a non-brainer to choose him, Manyi believes. Manyi said he had advised Mbali Ntuli – who is poised to start a women-led political party – not to stand against DA national leader John Steenhuisen because the demographics in the DA were against Ntuli. She lost by 80 to 20 percent. In the same way, Madikizela did not have the demographic profile to win over support for mayor of Cape Town, he believed.
Matshiqi believed Plato had the shoe-in because as a former Western Province MEC, he would reflect the politics of the province, unlike Madikizela who had already lost a contest for the premiership against Alan Winde in 2019. If incumbent Plato was beaten by a white man, Hill-Lewis, “that would deepen racial tension not only in Cape Town” but generally would have an impact on the DA national campaign.
Meanwhile, Zille dismissed notions that putting up a white candidate was unwise: “In the metros … the job of the selection panel is to identify the candidate we consider best able to do the very demanding job of being an executive mayor. The party does not pit anyone against anyone. We have an open nomination process and anyone who thinks they can do the job, may apply. We then have objective screening criteria, to ensure that everyone on the short list meets the required threshold. Applicants are not excluded or included on the basis of race.”
Political commentator RW Johnson acknowledges that there is a racial element to voting at least in the Western Cape. While he said: “No one should feel unable to put their name forward because of their race, it is undemocratic. It is a good thing for different groups (to contest high office),” he added he was always struck by a strong “coloured” identity in the Western Cape. Some of the attitudes in this community hark back to the coloured labour preference policy – under apartheid – has left a feeling among a section of these voters, who overall constitute about 50 percent of Cape Town voters, that “it is their place”. There was a feeling among a segment of this electorate that black people are attempting to “take over”.
Thus he believed that Madikizela, the DA provincial leader, would be at a disadvantage in the race for mayor of Cape Town. A DA insider who did not wish to be named, said he believed the Mother City race was between Hill Lewis and Plato, with two terms of experience as mayor. But the insider believed Hill-Lewis had the support of the federal leadership – and would probably emerge as the victorious mayoral candidate. Johnson believed Madikizela should take his ambitions to the national shadow cabinet instead of looking at Western Province prizes. Johnson said he was surprised by the Hill-Lewis candidacy as he was the second most senior ranking Member of Parliament.
Tony Leon, the former leader, said he was not sure if the race issue of candidates was that important. What was key was to find the best leader and would make a fine and competent mayor. While Patricia de Lille – who left the party to form Good in 2018 – had the leadership qualities, she had taken the party to a two-thirds majority in 2016, she did not prove a great success as mayor.
Generally, Leon hoped that voters did not raise the race card – and in Cape Town, a white candidate Helen Zille had come to power in 2006 and since then Plato and De Lille had followed, both coloured candidates. In Nelson Mandela Bay, a white man, Athol Trollip had pulled the biggest slice of the vote and had served two years as mayor.
Now incumbent Nqaba Bhanga, was the only candidate for the DA mayoral post in Port Elizabeth. Party insiders indicate that the DA is being rewarded by voters after two years of reasonably shambolic ANC/UDM led government in the city of Nelson Mandela Bay. Zille confirmed he was the only candidate for mayor. Bhanga has been mayor since December although he had to be re-elected in January after his first election was contested by the ANC provincial MEC.
Zille confirmed that Cape Town mayoral committee member Xanthea Limberg had put her name in the ring for mayor, but her application had been incomplete. Zille said: “She submitted an application but it was recorded as an incomplete application. Those applications fall away.” She is now tipped as deputy mayor, replacing Ian Neilson – the current finance mayoral committee member as well – who is expected to become an ordinary councillor from the next election.
Party insiders believe that winning Johannesburg back – lost in 2019 – will be an uphill struggle. It is expected that Leah Knott, the caucus leader, could well emerge as the candidate for mayor. But if she does succeed, the party knows that it is likely to have to work with Mashaba, the former DA mayor. Johnson said small new parties have historically struggled to make headway. “Businessmen who go into politics get it wrong. He also had a terrible relationship with the DA caucus. He threw his weight around. They (the party) should never had picked him. He had no record in the party. Like all these things it ends in disaster.” But the sentiment within the DA is that Mashaba – who apparently has R100 million to spend on the Gauteng races in Ekurhuleni, Johannesburg and Tshwane – could hold the balance of power, at least in Johannesburg.
In Cape Town, De Lille’s party, Good is not expected to be strong enough to dislodge the DA’s overall majority. Leon said that Good had polled well in some rural areas of the Western Cape. This may not translate into significant support in Cape Town, her old political hunting ground.
Leon said the colour of the party leader – including whiteness – did not seem to sway DA electors negatively. It was pointed out that the party leader John Steenhuisen had been elected overwhelmingly against a black candidate, Mbali Ntuli, in November 2020. Zille herself was elected federal executive chairperson in 2019 with an electoral college two thirds black.
It was difficult to predict the prospects of the DA in the metros – where it has or is governing. It had been hit by leadership issues in the cities – as well as by Mmusi Maimane leaving as national leader two years ago. But he thought that the turnout issue – something the DA had always been good at – could make the difference. The countrywide municipal poll is expected in October or November. The ANC – the major competitor – was not as fit and able as it was in 2019 before Cyril Ramaphosa turned into “a disappointment”. It also now carried the poor leadership burden in municipalities as well as the Ace Magashule issue hanging over it. But Leon pointed out that the Jacob Zuma factor – negative for the ANC and positive for the DA – was now excised.
Overall, Leon believed the DA party supporters were more important than individual leaders. In Cape Town Plato had a track record of serving as mayor and Madikizela had a record of serving in provincial government as an MEC. While Hill-Lewis had no municipal experience, he was an able politician and an intelligent man, said Leon. While he did not believe that voters had a “racial hangover”, race was indeed, a recipe still instilled in SA politics.
Donwald Pressly is a veteran political economy journalist.