Skip to main content

First published in the Mail and Guardian

The ousting of the City of Johannesburg mayor Mpho Phalatse, last week has sparked an implicit public debate about the suitability of the newly elected young mayor, Thapelo Amad. It raises long overdue questions. What constitutes mayoral leadership and what criteria are political parties using to determine a mayoral candidate during a vote of no confidence when coalition city governments crumble?

While political parties have made strides to advance the descriptive representation of youth and women in mayoral leadership, the question of substantive representation of mayors and grave concerns about governance instability in city governments are nevertheless gaining momentum.

Mayors, as identifiable public figureheads, are increasingly being hollowed out by patronage politics. As Alex van den Heever points out. highly experienced mayoral candidates are required to politically manage complex cities such as Johannesburg, which has a huge budget of R77 billion. He suggests that Amad is probably the “weakest and [most] unknown” mayor the city has ever had due to his political management inexperience.

This might seriously undermine the leadership’s strategic decisions that are crucial for the city’s bureaucratic administration to turn around the City of Johannesburg. In fact, his election into the mayoral seat is viewed as another horse-trading agreement among minority parties, who are likely to manipulate the newly elected mayor into exercising patronage through distributing resources for their benefit which has very little to do with a competent leadership and governance track record.

Indeed, Johannesburg battles with the multiple complex socio-economic issues commonly found in urban settings. The city has had more than six mayors in three years while juggling deteriorating infrastructure, recurring service delivery protests in townships, rising crime levels, tensions between locals and migrants, unresolved historical electricity debts, unsatisfactory audit outcomes, weak financial liquidity demonstrated in the city’s R1.8 billion deficit in 2022 and a 7.1% operating revenue.

African cities are gradually being impelled towards adopting modernised forms of governance as increasing urban socio-economic challenges demand transformative leadership and qualitative representation.

However, their politics and governance modalities differ ominously from western urban local governments, who attempt to deepen local leadership and representative democracies through directly elected mayors. They have legislatively insulated their city councils from the abrupt removal of mayors through motions of no-confidence, which has birthed relative stability and autonomy in their mayoral political governance and administrative systems. But mayoral stability and autonomy is something that South African city governments strained to achieve even before the emergence of hung councils.

In South Africa, mayors have been at the epicentre of entanglement with partisan leadership contestation, power struggles, inter-intra party factions, political-administrative conflict, patronage and subversion of professional values which tend to crowd out the political management roles and responsibilities of mayoral leadership in the city council.

Coalition formations through horse-trading political office bearers’ positions, such as the mayoral seat, has become the deal breaker for attaining power in hung councils. Thus, political parties rarely consider how mayors derive their public legitimacy as leaders holding influential power and authority over the city’s jurisdiction.

This has made the proverbial kingmaking process ambiguous under coalition city governments, particularly when a motion of no-confidence is passed by councillors behind the council chambers, where citizens are unable to have a direct voice.

Phalatse’s so-called lack of leadership in the Soweto electricity protests was used to question her elitist leadership style and disconnection with poor communities, thus justifying her removal from office. Attempting to counter this narrative, her public statement listed her achievements during her tenure in office which fell on deaf ears, thus resulting in a lost opportunity for broader public debate and consensus about how citizens can assess the performance of a mayor and hold him/her accountable.

Mayors can be either judged as strong or weak in terms of their experience, skills and competence. But their formal relationship with the council and informal relationship with the public does matter. Where mayors have executive powers and authority over the municipal budget, their strength can be judged through their ability to use these powers to influence the appointment of administration, to manage their executive and the administration and to set the tone for their interaction with other councillors.

The mayor is strategically positioned with councillors, staff and the public and therefore has the ability to pull the administrative and legislative wing together for better interaction and improve communication between council and the public.

Through social status and political position, it is expected that the mayor should promote the city’s vision and agenda by seeking support from provincial and national government and attract investments from the private sector. Other mayors can be viewed as strong activists and more hands-on due to the close relations they may have with communities by being proactive and responsive in community conflicts, which can be either good for the mayor’s public visibility or cause abrasive friction with the speaker who is in charge of public participation and petitions.

Leadership in city governments has increasingly become an expansive activity, requiring leaders to interact with stakeholders from local business, communities and other local public bodies with competing demands, to address matters of concern, whether or not they are directly within the realm of local government’s service responsibilities.

Local leaders are stretched by the complexity of the urban polity, where boundaries are unclear and authority is dispersed between multiple actors. Moreover, leading a multi-party government requires cohesive cooperation between various political parties, which might be met with resistance, tension and conflict.

Importantly, these leadership roles depend on the city’s rule book, bureaucratic politics, executive powers and the performance of mayoral authorities of different municipalities in relation to the freedom and autonomy of mayors.

Surely, the public should have a say in what type of figurehead they want at the helm of their city to ensure that the role is assigned to a worthy candidate with adequate competencies to exercise internal (institutional) and external public leadership.

The muting of  public views in scrutinising  mayoral candidates who are presented by political parties in the opposition benches and minority raises questions about the consultative process of appointing political office bearers and the limitations of representative local democracy.

While the agenda to professionalise the recruitment, appointment and removal of senior managers in local authorities still incubates in the committee chambers of parliament, the election and removal of city mayors (including members of the mayoral committee) must also be afforded greater public attention, given the tumultuous coalitions that fall apart before their end of term of office.

Dr Thina Nzo leads the local government programme at the Public Affairs Research Institute (PARI).