SA coalitions to consider or avoid post-May 29: van Staden

In South Africa’s upcoming critical election, the prospect of coalition politics poses a dilemma. Will the ANC join forces with MPC parties, risking their demise? Options range from limited agreements to full-scale coalitions, each with its implications. Yet, amidst this political manoeuvring, the need for a strong opposition and engaged civil society is paramount. As the nation faces this crucial juncture, the imperative for strategic alliances and active citizenship is undeniable.

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By Martin van Staden*

A coalition between the African National Congress (ANC) and one or two Multi-Party Charter (MPC) parties after 29 May would be the kiss of death for the latter, and must be avoided at all costs. But there are other options to consider.

With the most consequential general election of a generation just around the corner, it is important to take stock of what is on the table. The end of the ANC’s absolute hegemony seems to be unavoidable, marking the first time since the transition that the party would have to negotiate before it can steamroll its agenda into policy.

The question is whether the ANC will have to negotiate with the opposition, which is broadly the MPC, negotiate with the opportunistic rats-and-mice, or negotiate with its lost children, being the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and/or uMkhonto weSizwe (MK).

The MPC represents what, for lack of a better term, could be described as the liberal-democratic centre of South Africa. The rats-and-mice are whatever they need to be from one moment to the next. And the ANC’s lost children are the death cult that will see South Africa burn.

From the perspective of a prosperous and free future, the MPC is the only game in town, so it is important to understand what the MPC and its members should and should not consider after 29 May.

What to consider

Confidence and supply

If the fear of the ANC shacking up with the EFF or MK is repulsive to a given MPC opposition party, that party should consider providing the ANC with confidence and supply only.

In terms of a confidence and supply arrangement, there is no coalition, meaning the opposition party receives no Cabinet posts. It does not participate in governance. The only thing the opposition party does, is agree to sustain the governing party as a minority government. This means it will vote with the ANC during no-confidence proceedings (providing the necessary confidence), approve the ANC’s yearly budgets (providing supply), and not oppose the ANC’s candidate for President.

The only real concession the opposition party demands from the ANC under a confidence-and-supply arrangement is that the ANC remain without coalition partners – especially the EFF or MK.

The decision then is the ANC’s.

Luthuli House will need to decide what is the greater inconvenience: governing with the EFF or MK, either of which will want a portion of the patronage and will sow chaos in the ranks of the ANC; or functioning as a minority government for one term, which will complicate the passage of new legislation.

Remaining in the opposition

What it means to be in the political opposition needs to change in light of the immense harm the central government is causing to South Africa’s socio-economy. Those opposition formations that govern in provinces or municipalities need to begin to oppose the misconduct of the centre in word and deed.

Only this can give the opposition real teeth that goes beyond asking questions in Parliament and its committees.

If the MPC bags Gauteng and/or KwaZulu-Natal in the 2024 general election, alongside a healthy 30-35% of the national vote, it can – as Hermann Pretorius writes – head back to the opposition benches with its head held high.

This strengthened opposition would have a launchpad from which to fight the harm that emanates from the centre. This will necessitate reinvigorated federalist sentiments among the MPC.

An ANC-MPC coalition

Another way to keep the death cult from the halls of power is an ANC-MPC coalition. Credit to Terence Corrigan for noting this possibility, which I had simply not considered before.

This coalition must be equitable in every sense.

It must be a full 50/50 partnership – regardless of the ANC and MPC’s vote share – where the ANC gets half of the executive, and the MPC gets half. Parliamentary duties, including seats on the Judicial Service Commission, must be similarly divided. The security portfolios, in particular, being Defence, Police, Justice, Correctional Services, Home Affairs, and State Security, must be evenly distributed as well.

The first ‘government of national unity’, under the interim Constitution, was a farce because the ANC – admittedly enjoying a comfortable majority over the National Party – had the final say on all matters. That cannot be allowed to happen again. The full MPC must agree with the ANC on every decision before it may be adopted. This is to say that there will be two votes, and two votes only, in Cabinet: one for the ANC, and one for the MPC.

A key problem, of course, is that the MPC is not a coherent force.

The saddest dimension to this is while the MPC has not differed internally about policy or principle in any substantive sense, its members simply fail to get along because of personality clashes, a desire to play one-upmanship games with each other for the news cameras, and a jockeying for positions. The MPC can be a powerful counterbalance to the ANC if everyone is willing to move past pettiness.

The agreement must be clear: it is the whole MPC, functioning as a bloc, or nothing.

The MPC must create internal structures that finally and fully put an end to the bickering. Something regrettable, but potentially unavoidable, might include the immediate termination of any personality in the MPC that has proved unable to get along with the other partners. Some party leaders would need to be encouraged to resign.

What to avoid

A coalition between one or two MPC parties and the ANC

Any one or two opposition parties that go into a coalition with the ANC to give it a parliamentary majority, but without a big enough mandate to demand an equitable say in government, will be chewed up and spat out.

Marthinus van Schalkwyk could have gone down in history as the man who reinvented the (New) National Party and led it to being a stable force for conservative Christian democracy in South Africa. Instead, virtually nobody remembers him today, because he believed the insignificant New National Party could play an outsized role in a coalition with the continent’s oldest liberation movement at the height of its power in 2004.

If the Democratic Alliance (DA) alone, for example, goes into a coalition with the ANC, I would bet that it would not last more than a year. The DA, now part of the central government, will wish to take immediate and concrete steps against corrupt comrades and cadres – action which the ANC will fully and unequivocally repudiate. The DA will exit the coalition quickly.

But even if the DA gets out quickly, a large percentage of DA voters will not forgive such an unprecedented betrayal of its mandate. Unless the DA can work real magic and make the coalition a success – it will not, because the sheer Machiavellian spirit necessary to do so does not and has never existed in the DA – it will either not return for the 2029 election, or will be reduced to a minor, insignificant party.

In my view, such a coalition with the ANC must be avoided at all costs if South Africa is to retain its relatively strong opposition, supported by an absolutely strong civil society.

A coalition without massive concessions

The DA, or another MPC party, might decide to not heed this advice, and storm into a coalition with the ANC anyway.

This would be a bad decision, but if it must be made, then that party must demand and secure massive concessions before the ANC acquires any benefit from the arrangement.

One of these concessions has to be a devolution programme that would make even the United Kingdom blush.

The provinces (not only the Western Cape) and the municipalities (not only ‘well-governed’ municipalities) must immediately receive powers, functions, and funding from the centre that enable them to mimic in all but name the states of the United States of America and the cantons of Switzerland. This is legally possible.

These devolutions must occur before the coalition arrangement kicks in. The instruments in terms of which they are adopted must contain (non-enforceable, but nonetheless politically powerful) provisions that require the consent of each individual province or municipality before its powers, functions, or funding may be revoked.

And if the coalition it to have any chance of making it through a year, the other concession must be that a very, very, very long list of ‘allegedly’ corrupt named ANC comrades and cadres supplied by the opposition party must be fired from government service and be barred from government contracts.

Asking the ANC to pursue prosecution will be a step too far for the party, but getting these people away from government will give the coalition at least a small chance. If these people remain in government, the DA, which is primarily known in South Africa for its steadfast anti-corruption stance, will resign from the coalition before the ink on the agreement is dry.

A coalition without the Finance and Justice portfolios

This ‘concession’ could be housed under the previous heading, but it deserves special attention.

If an MPC party makes the mistake of taking a junior partner position in an ANC coalition, it will be entitled to only one or a small number of Cabinet positions. It is abundantly clear that the former MPC affiliate must be placed in charge of the Finance and Justice portfolios in particular. This should be regarded as non-negotiable.

The junior partner must additionally be given effective sovereignty over these portfolios, to the point of submitting draft legislation to the ANC before any coalition agreement is signed which the ANC agrees to adopt without amendment. This legislation must insulate both portfolios from the excesses of South African labour legislation and other laws that could stand to undermine their proper functioning under the administration of the junior partner.

These portfolios must, insofar as is possible, be allowed to become ‘states within the state’, which operate autonomously to a significant degree.

No time to relax

It seems to me that the 2024 election can either go very poorly for the free society, or things can basically trudge along as they have been for the last several years. The possibility of a reformist grouping taking the reins of central government power appears remote.

The implication is that freedom-loving South Africans should not put all their eggs in the electoral basket.

Over the last decade, civil society has sharpened its spears and has adopted an active role, specifically, in local governance. Commerce has also stepped up to the table, almost single-handedly fixing our power crisis. This would all need to scale up significantly going forward, to ensure that South Africans’ interests are recognised and protected regardless of the outcome of the election.

If you are not already a paying or contributing member of an active civic or business association, neighbourhood watch, or special ratings area, now would be the time to change that. Do not forget to vote on the morning of 29 May, but when you get home after a few hours queuing in the sun, it will not be time to put your feet up and sigh a breath of relief. The work will only then be getting started.

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Martin van Staden* is the Head of Policy at the Free Market Foundation and former Deputy Head of Policy Research at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR).

This article was first published by Daily Friend and is republished with permission