Master classes in creating co-operation in shambolic SA political coalitions – Erwin Schwella

Political coalitions are clearly not working in South Africa. Tshwane had a mayor from a tiny minority party for about six seconds when COPEs’ Murunwa Makwarela was disqualified because of an insolvency issue. Municipal governments have changed hands regularly in other large cities of the country as well, including Johannesburg. It is expected that the ANC, that has been in power since 1994 might not get more than 50% of the vote in the election in mid-2024 – they are currently polling at around 37% — and our history with coalitions on local government level does not bode well for coalition governments on provincial or national level. Recognising our inexperience in coalitions, a group of South Africa lawmakers are undertaking a tour to Europe to study how other countries have managed to make coalition governments work. Local government specialist Prof Erwin Schwella who is also professor emeritus at the Law School at Tilburg University in the Netherlands and now leads the School of Social Innovation, Centre For Good Governance in Africa at  Hugenote Kollege in Wellington has been given a mandate by the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung to design and deliver a leadership masterclass in coalition governance. Prof Schwella told Biznews that he is hoping for a “healthy rush to college doors instead of another rush to the courthouse doors.” – Linda van Tilburg


Service delivery failures has expanded coalition debates to the general public

There’s been a very vibrant and somewhat courageous conversation on coalitions for a number of years now since the ANC started to lose its support and is now at a position where predictions for the national and provincial elections are that they may get to below 50 or even closer to 40%.

What was discussed theoretically became a reality, and as often happens, that reality is quite a complex, if not a messy reality. There’s a lot of instability in current coalitions and if it only affected the politicians, if that was the only concern now, nobody would have been too worried but there is a growing and general dislike and distrust of politicians in South Africa. That conversation has become very strong given the serious governance and service delivery challenges we face in South Africa, around energy, infrastructure, agriculture, policies, and governance in general, and of course around a corrupt government. That led into discussions on how we are going to improve the probabilities of successful and best governance through coalitions. This conversation has expanded beyond academics, professionals, and politicians. It is a very public discourse now. 

Introducing a master’s class to improve the competency of leadership in coalitions 

We are now working on something which I hope will contribute to building capacity with institutions and competencies with individuals, to get them to be more informed about realistic and integrity-based coalitions, which will inevitably happen. 

We want to increase the individual competencies of those people who are in leadership positions dealing with coalitions, as well as the institutional capacity of institutions that are involved with coalitions in South Africa. That includes  political parties, governance institutions and oversight bodies. All of these interested and affected parties are constituted, and democratically and constitutionally authorised under the Constitution of South Africa. If we change that particular part of the calculation, we have a bigger probability of success and successful coalitions. So, we are building a prototype. Why a prototype, because the Adenauer Stiftung, who is in this case, my mandate giver, said, ‘let’s see how we can start this off.’ 

We are going to have two sets in two modules of what we call a master’s class in coalition leadership. It will only be over two dates, that means four days in total and the idea is that we involve experts who are confronted with these problems. What I want to do is to involve politicians who are thoughtful and constructive, local government professionals who are experts, as well as academics to co-create and construct this prototype in a partnership. 

Read more: South Africa’s local government coalitions: A dry run for national politics?

Putting in place incentives, dealing with destructive behaviour, giving more time for coalitions, more power to officials 

This particular challenge in South Africa is often based on a lot of contextual issues, but fundamentally also on a lack of integrity, a lack of professionalism and if you want to be really honest on the basis of greed in the system. We will have to incentivise better behaviours and discourage and even introduce some form of dis- incentivisation, not to call it punishment and deal with destructive behaviours. We will also have to take this conversation to policy-making and government institutions. What we see, for example, in local government is that the Municipal Systems and Structures Act that governs coalitions compels municipal managers to call a meeting and have a constitutionally based coalition agreement in place within a week. These are structural problems. You have to find ways of having more time,even if in the meantime you have to give more power to officials when there is a deadlock. Hopefully we will be professionalising our public service, including our local government service. So, there are many of these things that will have to be carried over from our dynamic, interactive classroom-based laboratories which impact on our probabilities for success. If we do nothing, it will definitely get worse. 

Creating a best practice workbook adapted from international coalition experiences 

The challenge is to find those things that are generic and those things that are contextually different, but there are lots of things that we can learn from the Dutch experience. We’ve recently started to look at the Irish experience, which is an interesting one. There are, of course, in the European Union, a number of countries with similar electoral systems. The basis of the problem is the South African electoral system, which is a compromise. It is not a bad compromise because otherwise, if you had a constituency, a winner-take- all approach, there would be very little opportunity for minority voices. Minority voices are already marginalised by the current majority, so fortunately we will force them into coalitions. So, there has got to be conversation around policy and there’s got to be trade-offs. The trade-offs should be about principles, not about greed and the lust for power. They are very good things to learn also from the Scandinavian countries. In my course I am using some Danish material which is very useful because it is a very practical approach. We link the theory to the practice, and the practical procedure is that we create a workbook, which people can take into the negotiations. So yes, we can learn a lot from Europe and we must contextualise it in our reality, use the generically useful material and adapt it to our own very complex realities. 

Read more: Why South Africa’s opposition must avoid a coalition with ANC and EFF

Hoping for a healthy rush to the college doors instead of a rush to the courts

I have established relationships with a number of representative institutions from  political parties, also institutes, which work in this area, which are at the connecting point between academia, the professions, as well as politics and I get a lot of buy-in for this. I will have at least 20 prototype candidates, and after that it will become a semi-commercial proposition which we can provide as social entrepreneur and social innovator to a broader audience and market. I must prove the value of that in terms of its economic as well as social and political value. I think we will have a sellable product.  It will be, I hope, not a healthy rush to the courthouse doors, which it has now become, but a healthy rush to college’s doors. It has been done in a thoughtful way, a considerate way with a strong strategic approach behind it and I think that gives us a better probability of getting it to work. I am in a very constructive set of dialogues and conversations with the institutions, political parties and some of the connected academic and political, social think-tank institutions. Being in a smaller set-up now than Tilburg University, where I still serve, I also work collegially with colleagues. I want to invite interested parties to talk to me.  

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