Coalition crossroads: MPC parties’ dilemma in post-election South Africa – Martin van Staden

As the 2024 general election looms, the prospect of coalition politics in South Africa raises critical questions for Multi-Party Charter (MPC) parties. Will they align with the African National Congress (ANC) or opt for a ‘confidence and supply’ strategy? This dilemma pits idealism against pragmatism, with the risk of tainting reputations and perpetuating corruption. Amidst calls for federalism and stringent preconditions, the MPC faces a pivotal choice: compromise or uphold integrity in opposition.

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By Martin van Staden*

What will a Multi-Party Charter (MPC) party do when the African National Congress (ANC) approaches it after the 2024 general election to form a coalition? This question is, no doubt, already besieging the minds of prominent politicians from the Democratic Alliance (DA), Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), and Freedom Front Plus (FF+), among others. 

To take such a deal, firstly, would violate the eponymous MPC charter, but political promises have never truly been binding. 

An MPC party will not consider this offer because they desire such a coalition, but because they are under the mistaken impression that such a coalition is the ‘better alternative’ to the ANC forming a pact with the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) or, now, the MK Party of Jacob Zuma.

The reality that they do not yet appreciate, is that no MPC party is likely to remain in a coalition with the ANC for long, meaning that the ANC would end up with the EFF or MK eventually anyway, unless there are smaller, generally pro-ANC parties (like GOOD or the ATM) that can get it across the line. 

No sincere MPC party will be able to reform the ANC away from corruption, and they will not want to stick around for long enough to allow voters to begin to associate ANC corruption with their new partners in government.

Confidence and supply

I have argued before that if the DA or any other MPC party wishes to keep the EFF or MK away from the levers of power, they should enter into a ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement with the ANC after the election. 

Briefly, this means that the opposition party will do two things: it will support the ANC in confidence votes, and it will approve the ANC’s annual budgets. But it will not enter into a coalition, and it will not become part of the government, meaning it will still fulfil its opposition role. 

Confidence and supply is complex, but it is better than getting into bed with an irredeemably tainted party. The ANC will remain corrupt, and that corruption will reflect on the new coalition partner, whether it participates in the corrupt activities or not. 

The coalition partner will also be forced to support the ANC’s policies in most cases. An FF+ minister of justice in an ANC-majority cabinet, for example, will have no choice but to defend (and enforce) the ANC’s hate speech legislation, regardless of the fact that the FF+ opposed it in Parliament. 

Confidence and supply is simply and unequivocally the better alternative to coalition.

Preconditions

But confidence and supply remains the best of bad options. The ideal is that the MPC secures a majority in 2024, or that it is able to govern with smaller, historically pro-ANC parties that are not the ANC itself, the EFF, or MK.

But if an MPC party makes the wrong choice and goes into a grand coalition with the ANC – which is not unlikely – it must set preconditions. 

In the early 2000s, while the New National Party (NNP) and the ANC were merging, the NNP also set conditions – but these were ‘post-conditions’ that would ostensibly follow the merger. NNP members were promised high government office and various party mechanisms to resolve policy disputes. 

Needless to say, the ANC kept promising that they will get around to it ‘eventually,’ but never did. The ANC hallowed out the NNP because the latter was naïve, believing the ANC to be an honest political actor. 

Federalism

The MPC party must set at least two true preconditions – meaning the condition must be met before the coalition formally begins. 

The first is the immediate removal of specified (in a very, very long list), corrupt and ideologically compromised individuals from all spheres of government. The second, and more important condition, is the federalisation of the South African state. 

Now, South Africa is constitutionally already a (flawed) federation, but it is governed as if it were a unitary state. 

The best place to start – within hours of the Electoral Commission calling the outcome of the vote – is for the Minister of Police to immediately ‘devolve’ policing powers to the provinces and municipalities. The ‘federal’ aspect comes in where the Minister states clearly in the directive that the devolution would only be revocable at the request of the respective provincial legislature or municipal council. 

The Minister of Transport can do likewise regarding management of our key ports, railways, and highways. Both these mandates must be funded from the National Revenue Fund, while National Treasury immediately begins a process of involving the provincial governments in the determination and administration of the tax system.

A strict parliamentary agenda, including bills that assign labour relations primarily to provinces and municipalities, must also follow quickly (perhaps within a set timeframe of 100 days). If not met, the MPC party will immediately dissolve the coalition. Crucially, no extensions to the timeframe must be possible, otherwise we will be back where the NNP was.

This would amount to a ‘muscular devolution’ that might inculcate a spirit of true federalism.

The answer is ‘no’

It is easy enough to tell the MPC party to ‘just say no’ to an ANC proposal for a coalition. The reality is that the publicists in these organisations probably understand that the centre-left columnists living in Sandton and Bishopscourt will write scathing criticisms of them if they do not take the hand of friendship offered by the so-called ‘reformist’ faction of the ANC. 

The best path is to table a set of reasonable preconditions that will substantially change South Africa for the better if accepted, but which the ANC will likely reject. What, then, if the ANC is not interested in these preconditions? 

The MPC party must – and can – then return to the opposition benches with its head held high. Under such circumstances, it would be the ANC that said ‘no,’ not the MPC party.

To be clear, I would want the ANC to accept the preconditions, because if it does, the costs of the grand coalition will be less than the immediate benefit of substantial political decentralisation. But while we can and should dream, our consciousness of what is achievable must ultimately govern our behaviour.

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Martin van Staden* is head of policy at the free market foundation.

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