Can coalitions work in South Africa?

The issue of coalitions has been one of the major talking points regarding the political future of South Africa particularly in the lead-up to the next election in 2024. With many citizens gatvol of the ANC after decades of corruption, mismanagement of public resources and widespread service delivery failure, this has opened the door for opposition parties to band together to unseat the ruling party. While it is seen as positive by many, it seems that the negatives could potentially far outweigh coalition government – with instability the order of the day in coalitions recently in Nelson Mandela Bay and in Johannesburg, where councils have been prevented from carrying out their duties towards the public. Theuns Eloff writes on the instability of municipal coalitions in the era of post-ANC dominance, explaining the various reasons why the coalitions are so unstable, from a long history of one party domination to personality differences and old grievances between bigger and smaller parties. This article was first published on Politicsweb. – Asime Nyide

Coalition conundrums

By Theuns Eloff*

Dr Theuns Eloff
Dr Theuns Eloff

If one considered the more than forty coalitions countrywide formed after the 2021 local government elections, it initially looked as if they were at least doing better than after the 2016 local government elections.

But after what happened recently in Nelson Mandela Bay (where a newly founded coalition led by the DA unseated an ANC coalition) and Johannesburg (where the opposite occurred), it has become clear that especially metro coalitions are very unstable.

The ANC has also boasted publicly that it – with the help of amongst others the EFF – would take over Tshwane and Ekurhuleni “before Christmas”. It seems that instability is not going away soon.

The formation of coalitions is a cooperative process between and amongst political parties directed towards a common goal. At local level, it should enhance service delivery to communities, good governance and good financial management. In practice this, however, very seldom happens.

Why are coalitions unstable?

The reasons for the instability in coalitions are manifold. South Africa is in a transition from decades of one party-domination – the National Party between 1948 and 1994 and the ANC since 1994 – to a situation where multiple parties are part of government.

It is therefore by and large a strange and unfamiliar phenomenon. The last coalitions that South Africa had experienced at national level date from the days of Jan Smuts, Louis Botha and JBM Hertzog (1910-1948).

The second reason for instability is that in most coalitions the only unifying factor amongst opposition parties is the desire to get the ANC out of power – for understandable reasons. It is, however, clearly not enough of a binding factor.

Thirdly, smaller parties often consist of disgruntled former members of other (bigger) parties, and therefore personality differences and old grievances set the tone in political decision-making. At local government level, politicians have clearly not reached the maturity to move beyond personal agendas.

Fourthly: amongst the parties that are not far left or populist, the DA clearly has the biggest national support with around 20%. For this reason, this party is often accused of bullying the smaller coalition partners. The reality is that in most coalitions, the DA is the party with the most support.

It is only the IFP in KwaZulu-Natal that is in a similar position. The consequence of this perception of bullying (rightly or wrongly) is that smaller parties can hold the DA ransom and topple a coalition government by walking away from pre-negotiated agreements.

A fifth reason is that many politicians view the local government system as a kind of employment bureau. Many of them (especially in the ANC) are not trained to do anything else and can do nothing else. A political career not only gives them a monthly salary and a pension, but often also access to bigger wealth through corruption and tenderpreneurship.

The internal political competition (especially in the ANC) to gain access to these opportunities, has sometimes degenerated into deadly infighting (and so you have the political assassinations in KZN).

Opposition politics (especially where disgruntled individuals roam from party to party) have not escaped this problem. The case of the of the new Cope speaker of Johannesburg, whose radical turnaround helped bring the ANC into power, is testimony of extreme opportunism and selfishness – and lacks any shred of principled or even ideological basis.

Is there a solution to these problems? Some commentators are of the view that coalitions should be based on ideology rather than “positions”. The problem is that those who hold local coalitions to ransom at present have no ideology when it comes to their pockets and their careers. It will take time to establish a mature and ethical corps of politicians.

Another possible solution (proposed by the DA) is to regulate coalitions by legislation, so that it would be impossible (or at least more difficult) to get rid quickly of elected officials through a motion of no confidence.

It would entail that coalition governments be granted a minimum time period to form and execute policy. Another possibility is to stipulate that only parties that acquire a minimum threshold of votes (e.g., 2-4%) may form part of a coalition government. This may, however, be deemed as unconstitutional as it would violate the principle of proportional representation.

Corné Mulder (FF+) is chair of the technical committee on coalitions of the opposition parties in Parliament. After a multiparty visit to Denmark, he formulated the following lessons that can be learnt from the Danes:

“The biggest party in the coalition should be the humblest… your bigger numbers means nothing if you lose the support of the other coalition partners.

“Coalitions are locally negotiated, established and managed, with little involvement of the national structures. National structures can set broad principles, but it is the specific local dynamics and individuals who carry the day.

“Personal relationships are absolutely important for coalitions to succeed.

“It is preferable to have political parties that are stable in a coalition, rather than small and insubstantial parties that are built around one leader or a few individuals.”

There is no quick fix for this dilemma. The learning curve will be long and slow. Appropriate legislation is a possibility, but it questionable whether the ANC will be open to that. It is clear that both the ANC (at least at local level) and the EFF are not interested in political stability.

The ANC stated publicly that it would win back some metros – apparently by any means possible, including intimidation, promises of positions and possibly bribery. The recent hypocritical rhetoric of the ANC about the return to Johannesburg’s golden days (under the ANC) is, to say the least, laughable.

Political parties will have to improve the education of their candidates. Better selection of candidates is also important, especially with regard to their ethical mind-set. Voters will also have to start realising that they give a party a specific mandate by voting for it – and if the party does not follow that mandate, it should not get their votes next time around.

What is the impact of these unstable coalitions for 2024?

Several political leaders stated publicly during the last few years that they would “never” go into coalitions with this or that party. The DA specifically excluded the possibility of coalitions with the EFF, and Action SA with the ANC.

In some local coalitions, however, the coalition parties are to some extent dependent on the EFF for the adoption of budgets and other policy decisions, without the EFF being formally part of the coalition.

Will developments at local government level over the next eighteen months have an influence on possible national coalitions after 2024?

It is indeed possible that coalition tensions at metro level could have an impact on coalitions at national level. This is especially true where national leaders get involved or speak publicly on what happens at metro level. But if, for instance, the ANC falls below 50% of the votes and needs a coalition partner(s) to stay in power, it is unthinkable that local fights will stand in their way.

It is likely that ideological or leadership style differences will carry more weight. The big (and still unanswered) questions in this regard are whether the ANC and EFF will ever get into the coalition bed together, and whether it is at all possible for the ANC (minus the RET faction) to consider a coalition with the DA (and vice versa).

It is too early to risk an answer to these questions.

At a different level, metro coalitions could influence the outcome of the 2024 election. If, for instance, the ANC-led coalition remains in power in Johannesburg, but fails to keep the promises of good governance and service delivery, it would definitely have a negative impact on the party’s performance in 2024. The same is true of the DA in numerous smaller or bigger councils.

Coalitions are inevitably part and parcel of South Africa’s political future. The instability experienced presently in especially the metros will have to make way for greater wisdom, maturity and the pursuance of shared objectives – to the benefit of ordinary South Africans. The ANC and the EFF will not and cannot do this. It rests on the shoulders of the (other) opposition parties to make it happen.

  • Theuns Eloff is an independent commentator. This article was first published by Netwerk24.

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