[intro]Politics in Metsimaholo, a Northern Free State town, is a mess. In the past year, the region has seen coalitions form and break down, the dissolution of its Municipal Council, attempts at motions of no confidence in the now-dissolved council’s Mayor, political back-dealings and many unsubstantiated claims thrown from one political party to the next. Metsimaholo may set the scene for the tightest battle for power in democratic South Africa.[/intro]

The Free State region is hoping to settle its governance issues in the upcoming municipal by-election. It could result in any of the three major political parties winning. The African National Congress (ANC), the Democratic Alliance (DA) and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) are all equally optimistic about their chances. However, recent events may tip the scale in favour of the opposition.

The South African Communist Party (SACP) has indicated that it intends to contest the local municipality, marking the first time that the political party will compete in elections since its landmark announcement at the SACP´s 14th Congress that it will compete in all future elections.

So, what happened?

Following the 2016 local government elections, the ANC was ousted from this local municipality after no political party won a majority. The opposition parties including the EFF, DA, Freedom Front Plus (FF+) and the Metsimaholo Community Association (MCA) formed a coalition with a combined 23 seats to the ANC’s 19. The DA won 12 seats, the EFF 8, the MCA two and the FF+ got one.

This coalition elected the MCA’s deputy secretary, Sello Hlasa, to the position of mayor and the DA´s Arnoldi du Plooy to the position of speaker. But it was soon apparent that this shaky coalition would not hold.

The tensions that caused the current crisis stem from an unlikely coalition partner, the MCA. The community association was formed in 2013 mostly in opposition to the proposed merger of the Metsimaholo and neighbouring Ngwathe municipalities. In August of that year, the Municipal Demarcation Board withdrew the proposal, but the MCA had already established a strong community presence. This assisted in their contest of the 2016 local government elections. However, with no clear party affiliation, this newly-formed group initiated a crisis in early 2017 when they switched allegiance from the opposition coalition (DA, EFF and FF+) to the ANC.

In January 2017, DA Free State leader, Patricia Kopane revealed that the relationship between the DA and the MCA was strained by the failures of the MCA mayor. Kopane accused Hlasa of not complying with the strategic plan for the first 100 days of the council, failing to release the 100-days report, using council resources for work at Karabo FM, and throwing a R30 000 party. Hlasa refuted this and accused the DA and EFF of developing their own interests because of an ¨insatiable taste for power.¨ He also cited immense pressure against him, including the tainting of his reputation and a plot to have him killed. Kopane contested these claims, labelling Hlasa a ¨liar.¨

The conflict culminated in a proposed motion of no confidence vote schedule for 31 January 2017. This was later postponed to give Hlasa opportunity to respond to the allegations against him. Intensifying the conflict was a by-election that was held in Ward 12 the following week because of the resignation of an ANC councillor. The ANC retained the ward.

On 23 February, Hlasa held a special council meeting where he reshuffled his mayoral committee. He replaced his entire committee with ANC members. The MCA claim this was a result of a new mandate from the community following the collapse of the coalition. In response, the opposition coalition vowed to table a motion of no confidence vote. However, with the council hung between two coalitions of 21 seats, neither group would be able to claim adequate control of the council. Stemming from this, a scandal emerged that the ANC had bribed a DA councillor to vote with the ANC. Because of this, the motion of no confidence vote was indefinitely postponed.

The following months were filled with tension as the hung council had to find governance in division. After it failed to approve the budget, the council was formally dissolved in July, six months after it was virtually defunct.

Why dissolution?

Left with little choice, the Free State Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Department dissolved the Metsimaholo Municipality Council on 6 July. This was in line with Section 139 (4) of the Constitution which states that if a municipality does not approve a budget, the relevant provincial executive must intervene and take appropriate steps. This includes the dissolving of the Municipal Council and the appointment of an administrator. Moses Moremi was appointed as the municipality´s administrator.

Behind this is an even murkier story of questionable motives and tough accusations. First, MCA head Sello Hlasa was accused of being ¨captured¨ by Free State Premier and ANC chairperson Ace Magashule. Second, Benjamin Mothibe who was the DA´s member of the mayoral committee for finance at the time was accused of conspiring with the ANC to vote with them in the motion of no confidence vote. Third, the MCA accused the DA of suspending black councillors, in relation to disciplinary action against Mothibe. Fourth, Metsimaholo Municipality Manager, Steve Molala was accused of interfering in the DA´s internal disciplinary process

Kopane claims there are audio recordings that prove Mothibe´s subversion. James Selfe, the DA’s federal executive chairperson revealed that there was proof of a bribe offering by the ANC. Mothibe´s DA membership was subsequently terminated by their Federal Legal Commission. Following this, Molala should have opened a council vacancy but delayed the process and withdrew a notice sent to the IEC informing them about replacing Mothibe. The DA resolved the matter with Molala on 20 February in the Bloemfontein High Court which favoured the DA´s case for the termination of Mothibe’s membership and the opening of a council vacancy.

The crisis helped the MCA and ANC avoid the February motion of no confidence vote (which was indefinitely suspended) but with May 31 looming, conflict rose again in relation to the council’s budget. The opposition coalition in the municipality cited multiple reasons why they rejected the proposed budget. This included lack of adequate consultation with all political parties. The opposition also disagreed with the budget’s priorities. R6 million was budgeted for a cemetery, R7.5 million budgeted for a 1km graveyard road and a R4.5 million for high mast lights. On 1 June, Speaker du Plooy used her casting vote to disapprove the budget.

So, we certainly got here through a ¨Games of Thrones¨ -like conflict between opposition coalitions, between political parties in their coalitions and even within the parties themselves. Metsimaholo was transformed into a political battleground with clashes in the polls, in wards, in council, via media and in the courts.

Where to from here?

Following the dissolution of a municipal council, by-elections were supposed to be held within 90 days, as per electoral rules. However, The Independent Electoral Commission of SA (IEC) filed an application in the Electoral Court requesting more time to update the voters’ roll to include addresses of all voters in the municipality’s wards. So, the 29th of November was chosen as the date for the by-elections.

The upcoming by-elections will include 21 Wards and 21 proportional representation council seats. Campaigning in the region has already begun. The DA´s Chief Whip John Steenhuisen visited the region on 3 and 4 November. The SACP’s first deputy general secretary, Solly Mapaila, met with local structures on 18 October.

The ANC should be concerned because the present narrative shows opposition parties gaining support in Metsimaholo. In the Ward 12 by-elections, The EFF´s support rose from 17% to 24% while the ANC support reduced from 52% to 31%. This is set to worsen with the SACP contesting and the DA´s rigorous campaigning.

Metsimaholo may set the scene for the tightest battle for power in democratic South Africa. The margin between the various parties is close and the number of significant political groups is high. So far, there has been no clear winner in the politics of this small region. However, for the sake of governance, one hopes that by the end of November, there will be one.