Complexity of coalitions and the DA’s ‘peculiar deadlock’ – Robert Duigan

As the country traipses towards national elections in 2024, just what the future coalitions landscape of South Africa is likely to look like is going to be a hotly-contested and contentious issue. Coalitions…they’re not new to South Africa at a local government level, but the prospect of coalition politics playing out on a national stage certainly is. We’re a young democracy and one in which the purveyors of power haven’t had to share it with anyone. Therein lies the greatest test. Many, if not most, analysts believe the electoral dominance the ANC has enjoyed will come to an abrupt end. What replaces it will dominate news broadcasts, opinion columns, and many braais around South Africa and (barbecues) internationally over the next two years. South Africa is – or at least was – seen as the springboard into Africa. Who governs this country at the southern tip of the continent is of great interest to trading partners and investors around the globe – not to mention millions of its citizens. But it’s those same citizens – millions of them – who don’t show up to vote. Who, data shows, have lost faith in political parties. Coalition politics is likely here to stay come 2024 but strap yourself in for a fair amount of chaos and horse trading. The DA – as the largest opposition party – will have a significant role to play in whatever that coalition ends up looking like. Political commentator and researcher Robert Duigan has tough words for the DA in this piece below, referencing a recent interview Helen Zille did with BizNews founder Alec Hogg – you can watch here. Duigan’s unsure about the official opposition’s ability to grow beyond its current limits unless “they abandon their policies of non-racialism and fiscal responsibility, but they cannot survive without their minority base who supports them for precisely those reasons.” – Michael Appel

Coalitions: The looming reality of the South African Constitution

Some time ago I wrote an article for Politicsweb arguing that the DA’s plan to enter into coalition with the ANC would be a disaster, and that any national coalition politics would resemble the disaster in Nelson Mandela Bay, not the smooth road to victory in Cape Town.

Helen Zille recently appeared on BizNews with Alec Hogg in an interview bearing that fact as a bold headline – the future of South Africa is permanent coalitions, and that it would mean chaos.

I am very happy that there is some realism over the Constitution and its eventual permanent coalition-based system. We are a party-list proportional-representation democracy. That means any party that fails to get an outright majority will have to go into a coalition, and absolute majorities are impossible to sustain in such a diverse country in the long term. It is fundamentally unstable. 

However, I had some more critical thoughts. 

First of all, there are two options for the DA to get into power. The first is to form a coalition with “moderates” in the ANC, which has been their plan for some time. I have argued in the aforementioned essay why that is a bad idea, but most of the reasons should be obvious to anybody reading this. 

The second option is to form a grand anti-Charterist coalition. But in the last election (and local elections generally favour smaller parties, giving us a best-case scenario) the main Charterist parties ANC (47.52 %) and EFF (10.54 %) total 58.06%. The DA (19.84 %) and their potential allies (VF+ (2.32 %), ASA (1.82%), IFP (6.27 %), COPE (0.20 %) total 30.45%. 

In order to build a stable coalition (as opposed to one with over 50 microscopic partners), there would need to be a 20 point swing to place an economically liberal, non-racialist government in power. This is impossible.

In the mean time, there are several ameliorating acts the DA could have taken to defend citizens from the deluge of sewage. Primary among them is federalism, a policy which has been on their manifesto for decades. But the DA has so far refused to take a single step in this direction.

And this is not because there is no capacity to do so either – I have just completed a book-length report for AfriForum on just this question, and by exploiting the right loopholes in law, the DA could seize control over policy in several areas at least in part, if not as a whole, including law enforcement, electricity, education, and transport. 

But they have made no such effort until the arrival of Geordin Hill-Lewis, instead promising they will give away power to the provinces once they have national power. I have my doubts.

The DA face a peculiar deadlock. They can only expand if they abandon their policies of nonracialism and fiscal responsibility, but they cannot survive without their minority base who supports them for precisely those reasons. 

At a national level, and among educated black South Africans of my generation, the unreflexive position insisting on Western Liberal Democracy as the only possible governmental model is seen as an exercise in racial supremacist thinking. They have been brought up on decolonisation ideology, and cannot think this way. 

The DA are condemned to provincial and urban support, which will wane as demographics change in the Western Cape, unless they become more like the ANC in culture and policy.

And they already are waning – the DA has lost their majority in most of the municipalities in the Western Cape and are forced to negotiate for coalitions. While recent gains in the northern metropole have been impressive, the future is a much more diffuse pattern of representation largely driven by voter apathy. Should an inspiring black political movement arrive, the DA will be buried forever.

In its mature form, coalition politics – the unavoidable outcome of a PR constituency, serves to preserve a permanently ruling party-cartel, as in most of Europe. This fosters grand corruption, since the ruling clique becomes unremovable. Europe scores lower on corruption indexes precisely because those instruments do not, and cannot measure grand corruption, only petty corruption.

Claiming that coalition building is a principled process is another thing that doesn’t ring true. The UDM and PA didn’t get into bed with the DA because of “principles” and didn’t betray them over principles either. Coalitions are about horse-trading at the best of times.

Perhaps modelling herself after Angela Merkel, the 20-year ruler of Germany’s permanent party cartel, Zille claimed to have learned a lot from observing Germany’s coalition politics. This does not inspire me. Holding onto power is not the same as providing a firm path forward. All of Merkel’s major policies (particularly nuclear energy and immigration) have proved disastrous in the long term, but each of them was useful in the short term for holding onto power and providing short-term “stability”.

Finally, and most importantly, the charge that voting for small parties threatens political stability leads inevitably to citizens and politicians treating opposition as treason. But perhaps that is inevitable. Soon we will have a post-ANC world, but one the ANC has built, and on which all their policies and attitudes have become so deeply institutionalised that they have become the air we breathe. 

There is no voting that out.

Robert Duigan is a political commentator, researcher and writer.

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