Machiavelli and the tannie who seized power in Tlokwe

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Putsch in Potch. Annette Combrink wrote her doctorate on comedy in English literature. Now she is playing the lead role in a dark political comedy, writes Ray Hartley.

I wake up in the middle of the night and think oh my God, what am I doing? What have I got myself into?

It was a sultry night in November last year when 68-year-old Annette Combrink got a call from her fellow Democratic Alliance councillors in the Tlokwe municipality chamber.

She had excused herself from the meeting because she was hosting international guests and it was, in any event, “a continuation meeting of a continuation meeting of a continuation meeting”.

But by the time she got the call, a series of dramatic events had played themselves out. A group of ANC dissidents had tabled a motion of no confidence in mayor Maphetle Maphetle, citing 15 serious allegations of abuse of power.

The DA had joined them in voting in favour of it and the motion was carried.

Then came a fatal political error by the Maphetle camp. In a state of what Combrink describes as “high dudgeon”, he and 12 of his supporters had left the chamber. This was to prove a fatal mistake, because the council rules and legislation require that a new mayor be immediately elected.

Combrink reaches for rugby metaphor to capture the moment: “So that is how a ball shooting out of the loose scrum got picked up.”

The call to Combrink was to ask her to send an SMS accepting her nomination as mayor. The tannie had been passed the ball and the white stripe of the tryline beckoned.

For the three months from November to February this year, Combrink became the unlikely mayor of Potchefstroom. Municipal rules allow for the removal of a mayor after a minimum period of three months.

Little old Potchefstroom became the scene of national power politics. For the DA, which had won 22 of the 52 seats in the 2011 municipal election, the ANC’s descent into factionalism was a gift from heaven. It represented an opportunity for the party to advance its plans to seize the council, giving it another precious foothold in the previously impenetrable north.

For the ANC, the warning signs of the consequences of its faction-riven five years since the ousting of president Thabo Mbeki were blinking brightly. President Jacob Zuma himself paid three visits to the town, persuading, cajoling and threatening the dissidents to stick with Maphetle, who was returned as mayor in February.

But barely four months later, they had fallen out again and Combrink was once more elected mayor. This time, Maphetle refused to leave his mayoral offices and a court battle ensued over who runs the Tlokwe municipality, the outcome of which is yet to be decided.

“We find ourselves in limbo.

The moment we get the judgment, we can go ahead and govern,” she says with an everpresent chuckle. “The single biggest crisis at the moment is that the land committee has not sat for almost six months now. So all the zonings, all the applications for building have not been processed. I get about 10 calls daily from developers who are saying ‘Please, can’t you just sign off, it’s a mayoral-delegated activity’, but I’m a bit wary to sign things off.”

The state of “limbo” may be costly in the long term. But, for now, Tlokwe municipality’s finances are healthy. It has R 350million in the bank and has never had an overdraft. With a collection rate of 96% and an unqualified audit, the council is rudderless but in rude health.

For now, the story is more comedy than tragedy, which is right up Combrink’s street.

She wrote her master’s and doctorate on comedy in English literature, she tells me over cappuccino at the Mugg & Bean in Potchefstroom’s Mooi River Mall.

“I did my master’s on William Congreve, you know, the comedy of manners in the 18th century. My PhD I did on the works of Tom Stoppard and Harold Pinter.”

But her favourite comedy is The Playboy of the Western World by Irish playwright John Millington Synge. “Fascinating play. I loved teaching it to students.”

It tells the story of Christy Mahon, who regales an audience at a local pub with the story of how he killed his father. They are fascinated by his telling of the tale and perhaps a little disbelieving, and he becomes a minor hero. When his father, very much alive, makes an appearance, Christy kills him once more to restore his reputation. Instead, the locals turn on him and he is to be hanged. Once more, the father appears, this time to save him from the gallows.

The play so scandalised Ireland that it led to riots that spread as far as the US. It was condemned by prudes for its vulgarity.

The surprising ease with which Combrink is able to play the Machiavellian politics of Potchefstroom’s bloodless coup may derive from her ability to view it all as a dark comedy in which she plays the lead.

She is quick to describe herself as a “little old lady” and a “tannie”, but this is a smoke screen. She has a firm grip on the politics of power and has the energy of a woman half her age.

She presents the mathematics of the power equation: at present, the council consists of 42 people, out of which the DA has 22, a majority. The remaining 10 seats are vacant and will be filled in by-elections. Whoever comes out tops in these by-elections will rule the roost.

“I’m not stupid enough to believe that out of 10 by-elections we can win more than two.

I don’t think so, not the DA— not at this stage and not in those particular wards. We need five either outright wins for the DA, which I doubt, or it’s coalition politics,” she says.

The first showdown is on August 7, when five parties will field candidates in a test of post-coup strength. Then comes the big rumble on September 18, when the rest of the by-elections will determine the ultimate victor.

She says the view taken by some in the DA’s national leadership is that they should go for broke and field candidates in all 10 by-elections. But she is more cautious.

“We have to be careful not to split the vote. My sense is that it would be unwise to go for the wards where you had under 10% — not while you are looking at coalition politics.

“Our plan is to go for broke in 2016. And we’ll do it. Now is too soon. It might not be a popular view, but it’s my view and I live here and I know the people.”

Her phone rings, xylophone notes in rising intensity.

“This phone should be thrown into the river. I had the iPhone 4 and now I’ve got the 5, and the 5 is useless. It was 100% charged this morning; it’s now at 7%. It’s been a disappointment, even though people are impressed that an old tannie like me uses an iPhone 5.” There’s the “old tannie” thing again. This time I’m not buying it.

Should the DA attain victory, it will have its work cut out for it.

“On the one hand, you have to do all these low-hanging fruits, you know: clean up the place, do this, do that. But, on the other hand, you have to put more systemic things in place,” she says.

The “more systemic things” include solving a demand for housing, which is bedevilled by the fact that much of the municipal land sits on a dolomite foundation, making building impossible.

Last Sunday, Combrink addressed a rally in the Ikageng township. “The single biggest thing that came out is housing.

“We did certain things right when we had our three months. We made an impression, and I have to tell you that people have huge expectations and I worry about that a great deal. Expectations can so easily be dashed and then you have trouble.

“I wake up in the middle of the night and think oh my God, what am I doing? What have I got myself into?”

A black comedy, madam. You’ve got yourself into a black comedy.

Picture: JAMES OATWAYMUSICAL CHAIRS: Tlokwe mayor Annette Combrink of the DA and former mayor Maphetle Maphetle. The fight for power is far from settled in the Potchefstroom council

By Ray Hartley

Ray Hartley is a Rhodes University graduate

Article Source: Sunday Times