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Trashing the Alliance

Cape Town’s folksy, wisecracking mayor defied the Democratic Alliance and refused to resign for his alleged fat-cat antics. The ensuing game of brinkmanship flushed the DP-NNP tryst down the tubes but another, more important alliance took a worse beating.

Original publication: Tiscali World Online, 2001.

trashing the democratic alliance

Little by little, Peter Marais is starting to annoy me. For a while the dispute in the DP-NNP alliance over his political future was no more than a sideshow to weightier affairs on the world stage – a spot of local burlesque, a conversation filler between drinks. And for a while, out of a spirit of contrariness, I even felt sympathy for the much-maligned Marais.

He is a regional and regionalistic figure who sometimes gives the impression of floundering out of his depth, and this seemed particularly so in recent weeks, when, for all his folksy bravado, he came across as being bewildered by circumstances beyond his reckoning.

After all, I thought, it must be tough on the nerves to find that your stunts as a third-tier municipal potentate had somehow carried you off as if by whirlwind and transmogrified you into a colossus around which national opposition politics were revolving. And it's tougher still to find yourself out on your arse without a job.

The build-up to this bitter denouement is well known. Marais had been suspended as mayor of Cape Town after the Heath enquiry into the Streetgate farce, where it was alleged that the Unicity council forged petitions in favour of a bid to rename Adderley and Wale Streets after Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk. Two top officials were found guilty of maladministration, while Marais was said to have stated an ‘untruth’ to Tony Leon about the extent of support for the initiative.

All hell broke out at the OK Corral, however, when the Unicity rules' committee cleared the way for Marais' triumphal comeback by exonerating him of wrongdoing. The sheriff, a.k.a. Tony Leon, was having none of this. Reaching for his guns – and no doubt nursing an imminent thrombosis as well – he told Marais to get out of town as mayor or face a High Noon showdown with the DA's national management committee (NMC), which would strip Marais of his party membership and leave him unable to go on as mayor. Marais refused.

Now where the hell was Leon's trusted deputy Marthinus van Schalkwyk when backup was needed? Dang! The deputy and NNP head honcho was not only defying orders to whup Marais' ass outta office – he'd gone and rallied an NNP posse around Marais, resulting in extraordinary shoot-outs between the DA's two top gunslingers.

But Marais wasn't budging. Insisting that ‘I don't know what I've done wrong’, he showed characteristic gruff wit. ‘Whenever some things go wrong,’ he said, ‘I'm responsible. That's why I say I'm a responsible mayor.’ He vowed: ‘This attempt to get rid of me won't work.’

So it came to pass that the weekend before his promised return to office Marais was posing for the Sunday papers like a prize fighter, raising both fists in a thumbs-up and curling his lip in a surly and self-humouring grin of defiance. By the following weekend he'd been KO'd – kicked out. He appeared crestfallen, and declined an opportunity to appeal against his expulsion. It was hard not to feel sorry for the guy, this walking, talking allegory of pride coming before a fall, this victim of chutzpah, his own and others'.

Trampled by jackboot DP ‘racism’

My sympathy for Marais rapidly dried up, though, when I learned that he's taking to matter to court and wants the expulsion overturned so that he can continue as mayor. The hearing supposedly infringed a constitutional right to reasonable and fair administrative action. ‘I was given approximately two and a half hours to respond to the case against me,’ he laments. ‘This was hopelessly inadequate.’

More irksome were the developments that followed, and which Marais – having been cast by the NNP as a martyred cause celebre, a scapegoat to jackboot DP racism – served to catalyse. Hot on the heels of their political trophy's expulsion, the NNP closed ranks around Marais and announced they were suspending participation in the Alliance and were willing to co-operate with the ANC as they had done in the Government of National Unity – all of this against a backdrop of revelations that the party is currently unable to repay the R6,2-million it owes Absa Bank.

Why do these things annoy me so? It would be an overstatement to say that I give a tinker's curse that the NNP has abandoned the DA, or that the DP will now have to fight back for all it's worth against the diminished future that's staring it in the eyeballs. Nor do I bear any personal animosity to the folks in the NNP, all of whom are individually no doubt good, affable eggs, Peter Marais included.

No, perhaps my annoyance is grounded in the basic fact that I'm a South African taxpayer of voting age. More particularly (and as an illustration of some of the things that are at issue in the latter role of citizen), I'm a ratepayer in Cape Town. With every halting visit I make to the cashier's desk month after month I am, in my small, grudging and of course utterly insignificant way, endorsing the existence of the Unicity as a political and pragmatic apparatus for distributing resources that are, to some subatomic degree, funded by myself.

I ask but little in exchange for my monthly cash vote. I don't care, and don't mind, if, in their own time, the multitude of folk entrusted with this booty are saintly hearted or tripping on heroin and molesting oxen. All I want is accountable, non-fat-cat governance – and this wish extends, mutatis mutandis, to provincial and national levels as well.

South Africa's culture of unaccountability

What does this have to do with Peter Marais's legal action against the NMC, let alone the NNP's outraged withdrawal from the DA? Marais's unwillingness to step down from high political office in the face of scandal calls to mind a wider and hoarier South African culture, one which the DP and NNP (and, oh yes, Luyt's FA) had joined forces to fight by deed and example: the culture of unaccountability.

Albeit that the Cape Town council cleared Marais of wrongdoing in the Streetgate caper, he was fired for one central reason: he'd become a political liability to the DA, or at least to its DP component. In a qualified sense (qualified, given the risks of the move) the DA was acting in its own interests in sacking Marais. It wanted to repair its public image and keep what can be called the moral high ground in its attacks on the ANC – after all, you can't very well keep going on about shenanigans in the ruling party if the same insinuations can be jeeringly thrown back at you.

But in a related sense the DA clearly believed itself to be acting in the interests of municipal citizenry, i.e. in order for it to benefit – to maintain public confidence, to keep winning votes in the future – it would have to demonstrate its commitment to its stated platform of clean governance.

Should it have been left to voters to decide if they still had faith in Marais? Perhaps. A case can be made that Marais was knifed in the back – knifed, hacked and dumped off the midnight express. In this view it can be argued that the DA would not have made the gains it did in the Western Cape local government polls last year were it not that Marais, a popular and charismatic politician capable of securing ‘the coloured vote’, had been touted as its mayoral candidate. An alternative view – Tony Leon's – is that voters did not elect the mayor: Marais was voted in on a DA ticket and made mayor on the basis of internal agreements in the party. As such, he carried no direct mandate from the electorate and the DA was within its procedural rights to discipline him as it did.

Like it or not, even the most charismatic player's political value is contextual and time-bound. And as for the alleged ‘unfairness’ (read ‘treachery’) with which Marais was treated, it bears mentioning that while he was being asked to resign as mayor, moves were reportedly afoot to install him in the provincial cabinet instead – amazingly, to promote him. (This, apparently, on condition that Gerald Morkel be turfed out as premier and replaced by Van Schalkwyk, who would better be able to keep the reins on Marais.)

The simple fact is that Marais was accountable to the DA hierarchy, which – for whatever amalgam of self-interest and altruism – held itself accountable to the pledges it made to voters. By challenging his expulsion, Marais is effectively refusing to take political accountability for the political consequences of his own acts of commission or omission, as well as for those of the officials under him.

Taking the rap, carrying the can

According to Leon, Marais was dismissed for three reasons. First, he failed ‘to lead in a manner that unites rather than divides’, leaving the DA caucus in the city council ‘split and divided’. Second, he failed ‘to maintain a sound working relationship with the Provincial Government’. The third motivation is that under Marais the DA's public image became (‘to put it mildly’) a negative one. Almost from the outset, Leon says, ‘we have lurched from one public relations disaster to the next’.

He cites a litany of PR debacles: the street naming scandal; mayoral perks ‘with respect to bodyguards, cars and drivers’; and spending ratepayers' contributions on ‘indulgences’ such as overseas trips and an hourly paid spiritual advisor – ‘[t]his against the background of a deliberate DA strategy to show up ANC mayors who live in extravagance whilst poor people go unserved’.

‘Just as a political leader can accept the accolades when things go right, so a political leader must take the rap when things go wrong,’ Leon concluded. ‘And they have gone very wrong.’

This is as handy a definition of political accountability as any – but what was Marais's reaction to his expulsion? Speaking in a television interview, he said Leon ‘rattled off’ a bunch of reasons for his dismissal but he couldn't remember what they were. What he did recollect was the ‘massive knock’ his confidence in Leon had taken. ‘I thought he was a democrat,’ Marais explained, and went on to assert that ‘the voice of the Christians, the voice of the poor, the voice who spoke up for Afrikaans, has now been silenced ... I have now been targeted.’

Wronged, slighted, the target of a plot, Marais protested his innocence – indeed his incomprehension – of the charges of under-performance made against him by the party he represented at the time and whose leader he publicly defied. A few days later he had taken legal proceedings against the NMC; and less than a week after that, the NNP staged their long-threatened walkout from the Alliance.

Kamikaze politics the DA death-match!

It is difficult, though, to see how he expected to get away with giving Leon the finger, or why the mayor of an administration clouded in scandal can seem unable to grasp that his political value had dwindled as a result – that he had become detrimental to the principles of governance on which, oddly enough, his former party platform just happened to be based.

It's also hard to see how Marais could be unfamiliar with the quaint British tradition of cabinet responsibility – the notion that elected officials are answerable for whatever happens on their beat, whether or not they themselves are directly involved.

Could it be that Marais, boosted by high-level support within the NNP, had never doubted his ultimate utility to the Alliance? Could it be that he believed Leon would back down rather than risk losing him – that Leon would not be prepared to lose the NNP or the strategic support base he apparently carries in his pocket? Did Marais overvalue himself while underestimating Leon, on the assumption, the gamble, that his antagonist would choose power over principle?

To invoke Hegel's philosophical allegory of the struggle for recognition (a death-match in which rivals risk their all and the loser is the one whose love of life stops him from going to the point of death), did Marais think Leon would opt for the comforts of life rather than risk (political) death in asserting a point of principle?

A remark by Marais after his dismissal suggests that this could be so. Kamikazes have been in the news a lot lately; they even made their way into Marais's life. ‘I was shocked,’ he said of the NMC, ‘to see them in utter silence observing the kamikaze manner in which my membership has been brought to a conclusion.’ Marais was in the doomed cockpit, that is to say, but alongside him were the kamikazes of the DA, single-mindedly flying both Marais and themselves into oblivion.

A struggle to the death, a struggle for survival: headline hyperboles, perhaps, but they shed some light on the ructions caused by the Marais saga. For the DP, Marais had become, contradictorily, a political liability they could lose only at great expense: damned if you do lose him, damned if you don't. To survive, to enforce the notions that are their selling points in the market, they decided to place principle over power despite the risk of political suicide – a risk which they subsequently incurred when the Nats walked out and suspended the Alliance.

The bourgeois liberal mould: DP eugenics

For the NNP the Marais debacle has also been a potentially suicidal struggle for survival. They, too, have described their battle as one of principle over power, the relevant principles being cited as fairness and non-racism. When the Mail Guardian asked Van Schalkwyk what the ‘real issues’ were in the conflict around Marais, he answered that the latter had been ‘found not guilty by a multiparty rules committee [in the Unicity]’ and that the matter ‘has elements of – let me put it bluntly – race ... It has the element of the individual not being treated properly and fairly.’

‘The real issue,’ Van Schalkwyk added, ‘is that if you build a bigger party you must be able to accommodate ... people with different styles. You must be able to build a party with people you dislike. And you can't do that if you only want clones running around.’

The DA internal hierarchy, it appears, was not only top-heavy and inclined to act on personal likes and dislikes; it sought to reproduce ‘clones’, to homogenise the party's cultural mixture into a racially-based norm.

Van Schalkwyk later returned to these themes when he listed the reasons why the NNP had left the DA. ‘The first is [that] it was clear that the clique or cabal that took control of the DP and DA want to move the DA back to the old “Fight Back” approach. Secondly, the way Mr Peter Marais, a prominent figure in the coloured community, was simply pushed out because he did not fit into this mould ... opened the eyes of many people.’

So, in defence of the principles of fairness, cultural inclusivity and nation-building, the NNP has loved and left the DA (castigating it as the ‘angry white voice’ of South Africa) and decamped into the wilderness with its Absa overdraft in tow and its future dependent on whether or not the ANC accepts its overtures on co-operative government.

The DA wanted to biologically engineer Marais into a clone of their liking, to cram the rich fullness of his being into their bourgeois liberal mould, and the NNP resisted. To have let him suffer this Procrustean violence, this fate of being chopped and parcelled into a template, would have not only have been immoral, but would've created a problem – what do you do with the off-cuts, the pieces that wouldn't fit? Nothing: you lose them, apparently, as you lose the supporters attached to him, and wind up fragmenting the coalition of communities that make up your part of the Alliance.

As Van Schalkwyk said, ‘The NNP and its predecessors made many mistakes, but one thing we were successful with over the past few years was bringing the white and coloured community together. This is ... an element of what is happening ... [When building a party] if you only want clones running around, then you will become a smaller and smaller party.’

What was Leon's reply to these charges of cultural insensitivity? ‘Obviously we are a broad church organisation ... But at the end of the day it does not matter which culture you come from, you must never invoke culture to say that you can do whatever you like. You have got to say it is government for a purpose. It is not government ... to say ... you can behave in a certain way without consequences.’

The essential alliance

No doubt there are innumerable underlying reasons for the breakup of the DA, and no doubt amongst the incompatibilities between the DP's liberalism and the NNP's Christian democratic culture you will find the usual mix of opportunism, hatred and ambition that makes politics such a rock 'n roll bonanza. Whatever the case, Marais has stood at the centre of the controversy, less for himself than for his symbolic capacity: as a mayoral figurehead, a vote-catcher, and a PR nightmare. Likewise he has been a pawn in a game of brinkmanship between contending groups, however complacently self-aware he appeared to be of this status. And latterly he's undergone a further shift in semiotic value: from being the NNP's internal call to arms to being a poster boy for the party's resurgent interest in nation-building with the ANC.

But there is another symbolic role that hovers over Marais, one which presumably he would be loath to occupy and which may rebound on the NNP even as it makes so much political capital out of him. To be sure, there is no dearth of candidates for this role: the symbol of fat-cat unaccountability. Inner party disputes may well require sensitivity in their handling. But for parties in power the crucial sensitivity is always due elsewhere: to the citizenry.

In governments for, by, and of the people, elected representatives hold the status and positions they do by virtue of public confidence. And when the dung hits the fan in an executive's area of responsibility, he must do the honourable thing and step down, not cling all the more tenaciously to power. It is unsettling to see politicians get away with too much. They can trash as many alliances as they please, except for one – the alliance between government and people.


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