S. Africa's Main Opposition Eyes Alliances to Run Key Cities

  • Zuma has stronghold on ANC, likely to finish term: Maimane
  • Malema's EFF is a threat to opposition in local council vote

South Africa’s main opposition party is ready to form coalitions with other parties to run Johannesburg and Pretoria if the ruling African National Congress fails to win a majority in those cities in local elections this year, Democratic Alliance leader Mmusi Maimane said.

The DA has the best chance of the opposition parties of pushing President Jacob Zuma’s ANC below the 50 percent threshold in the two main cities in Gauteng, the richest province, and Port Elizabeth, Maimane said in an interview Monday at Bloomberg’s Johannesburg office. It already controls Cape Town. The party is counting on rising urban discontent with Zuma, who’s been hit by controversies including the spending of taxpayer money on his private home and his firing of Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene in December that sparked a sell-off of the rand and the nation’s bonds.

The elections, scheduled to be held between May and August, come at a time when South Africa’s credit rating risks falling into junk status and the economy is forecast to grow at the slowest pace since a 2009 recession. The country is battling the worst drought in more than a century and a jobless rate of 24.5 percent.

Anti-ANC Vote

“I don’t always think that people who vote for the DA are blue-blooded people,” Maimane, 35, said, referring to the party’s branding color. “I think they will be people who say ‘I despise the ANC, so anything other than the ANC is a good option for me.”’

The DA traditionally draws the bulk of its support from whites and other minority groups. It’s struggled to gain traction among the majority black voters since its birth 13 years ago from a merger of the Democratic Party, the Federal Alliance and the New National Party, an offshoot of the National Party, which governed during white minority rule.

The DA won 23.9 percent of the municipal vote nationally, governing 18 councils including Cape Town in the last local government election in 2011, up from seven municipalities in 2006. The ANC lost two councils and took a majority vote in 198 out of the 278 in total, giving it 62 percent of the vote nationally.

Zuma Support

Maimane, who grew up in a pro-ANC family in Soweto, decided to stop supporting the ruling party in 2009 when Zuma became president just weeks after prosecutors dropped charges against him for allegedly taking bribes from arms dealers. He’s become a staunch critic of Zuma, mounting multiple motions of no confidence against him in parliament and leading campaigns to have him removed as president. He became the first black leader of the DA in May.

Even though Zuma’s support may have waned among voters in cities, Maimane said, he still has strong backing in the rural areas and will probably finish his term as ANC president, which ends next year.

“The thing that strikes me the most is how powerful Zuma is,” Maimane said. “His removal isn’t going to be an instant thing, if it’s going to happen.”

Another challenge to the DA’s rise comes from the Economic Freedom Fighters, South Africa’s third-biggest party, which is led by former ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema. The EFF has gained notoriety for regularly disrupting Zuma’s speeches in parliament and has drawn support from poor black voters with its campaign for the nationalization of banks, land and mines.

EFF Threat

“The EFF are a threat and we understand that they do fish in some ways in the same pond, which is the pond that says any voter who is disillusioned with the ANC then has a new choice,” Maimane said.

While the DA opposes the EFF’s support for nationalization, it would be willing to join a coalition with the party in municipalities where the ANC doesn’t secure a majority because local authorities have few powers of expropriation, Maimane said. The DA would only enter into an alliance if it’s the biggest party in the coalition, he said.

“We talk about a market-based economy which makes it very difficult to negotiate with the EFF, but in a local-government terrain you can’t nationalize too much and then we talk about, at least, respect for the rule of law,” he said.

The DA and EFF appeal to different constituencies, undermining any attempt at a successful coalition, according to Somadoda Fikeni, a political analyst at the University of South Africa.

“The EFF is so diametrically different in approach, in style, in ideology, such that their constituencies are a direct opposite,” Fikeni said. “Even if they were to attempt it, it wouldn’t be a coalition that lasts. But, with other smaller parties, that would be a possibility.”

Masters Degrees

Maimane is a father of two and is married to Natalie, who’s white. He holds Masters degrees in Public Administration and Theology from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. He lectured at the Gordon Institute for Business Science and managed his own consultancy firm before joining the DA seven years ago.

While the DA is trying to focus its campaign on economic growth and jobs, its image was hurt in January by public outcry when a party member posted on Facebook describing black beach-goers as monkeys. The DA ended her membership.

“Some of it has been exploited for political gain. The ANC will make this election about race,” Maimane said. “We can also make this election about the economy and jobs. I think the ANC wants to deliberately move away from that conversation because they have got no credibility.”

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