RW Johnson: Home truths about the DA and coalition governments

By RW Johnson

Helen Zille’s very good article on PoliticsWeb, “Why it is so hard to fix what the ANC has broken” (7 January 2023) points out that almost every public institution which the ANC has governed for any length of time is liable to be riddled with criminal syndicates of one kind or another. Moreover, as Helen points out, any new set of governors will find it extremely difficult to root out such practices because the laws have been written to make it very difficult to dislodge employees no matter how poorly they behave. 

As a result they are well able to resist efforts at reform, sometimes aided and abetted by corrupt trade unions. As Helen says, what happened at Eskom under Andre de Ruyter’s three years in charge – continuous sabotage, culminating in an attempt to assassinate De Ruyter – is a good example of what a DA minister might face in a coalition government.  

The difficulties of coalition    

The big question lurking behind this discussion is whether the DA should enter a coalition with the Ramaphosa administration if the ANC loses power in 2024 – if indeed such a coalition is offered. The difficulties are daunting. No one in the DA has any experience of national government. Many of its MPs have been town councillors, but that’s all. The party is short of the sort of highly capable managerial talent necessary to run a ministry well. 

Imagine, for example, a DA minister in charge of Home Affairs. 

A friend in Gauteng tells me of sorties to Home Affairs only to find offices there staffed with people who all have the same surname because their family has established a grip on that part of the administration. Meanwhile, visitors are made to queue in the street in the full sun. As they wait a tough guy goes along the line offering to jump them to the top of the queue with a chair to sit on for R50 or R100. Effectively the staff have turned the queue into a revenue-producing scam. But of course there are many larger scams in the procurement area, the “phantom worker” phenomenon and so on.

In Cape Town there is open corruption in the Home Affairs office when it comes to dealing with desperate Zimbabweans keen to renew their residence permits. Zimbabwean refugees who are frequent visitors to these offices tell stories of officials who quite openly demand money before they will look at any file or deal with any particular case – and, allegedly, often they take the money and still do nothing.  

No doubt Home Affairs offices all round the country have similar tales to tell. 

So what would a DA minister do ? If he or she tries to crack down on corruption – ie. reduce the revenue-earning power of civil servants – the minister will face strong resistance and possibly have to worry about cyanide in their coffee. Almost certainly the minister’s whole term of office will be consumed with struggles within their own department. 

One should remember Maria Ramos’s turn in charge of Transnet. She did her best, tried to insist on higher standards and had to get rid of more people than she could count. And she was much assisted by her high status in the ANC. Nonetheless Transnet continued its downward slide.

We have, of course, got used to ministers saying they can’t do things because their department “lacks capacity” but this should not be lamely accepted. No one doubts that the civil service which the ANC inherited in 1994 was experienced and capable. When the shortage of skilled African applicants was pointed out, Thabo Mbeki said that the notion of such a shortage was merely “an urban legend”. In effect this blindness meant deliberately choosing incapacity.

Thus a decision by the DA to join a coalition government is certainly not simple or automatic. At the moment the DA has already – naively – talked about a possible coalition with the ANC. This is a mistake. Coalition government is about hard bargaining and by appearing eager to offer a coalition partnership, the party undermines its own future bargaining position. 

Julius Malema, always a shrewd player, has already ruled out a coalition  – strengthening his ultimate bargaining position if the ANC comes calling.

Nearing the end of an era

Certain home truths need to be bluntly put. We are now nearing the end of an era. The entire African nationalist project has failed and has, indeed, been a catastrophe for South Africa. Black intellectuals are in a nervy state for they can see this inescapable truth and are worried that it will be interpreted in racial terms to suggest that Africans are congenitally incapable. There are some white racists who do believe this but it is, of course, wrong. There are numerous capable Africans in South Africa – almost all of them in the private sector. There are virtually no such people in government. 

But the discussion about African abilities is the wrong debate. The real point is that the ANC government is wholly incapable of running a modern industrial society. Under their administration the country appears to be in irreversible decline. It seems clear that the downward slide will continue under Ramaphosa and that the entry of the DA into a coalition government would not reverse it, though it might conceivably prop up the ANC a little longer.

The ANC’s failure is part of a sociological and historical process which is already well under way. The various demands for renewal or for new national compacts are simply part of that process: they mean nothing. The country’s continuing downward slide means that urban black voters will desert the ANC. 

When the ANC lost power in Cape Town it still had 38% of the vote. Deprived of patronage its vote has fallen at every election since, despite a huge increase in the African population of Cape Town. At the last election it fell to 18%. 

It will be the same story nationally. The ANC has already lost power in several metros and unless they are able to dislodge the Opposition coalitions now ruling these metros, they too will suffer attrition as their loss of patronage begins to tell against them. 

At the ANC’s hybrid conference Ramaphosa  expressed his distress at the state of the host city, Bloemfontein. For it has been exclusively run by the ANC for over 25 years and is thus a ruined city. As the lesson sinks in that ANC rule is incompatible with a modern urban society, the ANC era will end. It cannot survive so huge a failure.

A dangerous decline

If the ANC gets 45-50% at the next election it will sew up a deal with minor parties and carry on as before. Only if the ANC falls below 45% does a coalition with the DA become possible. 

However, a note of caution. Experience elsewhere suggests that the collapse of urban support for a ruling African nationalist party is an entirely predictable development. Such parties are devoted to the interests of a tiny elite and their neglect of the broader electorate is soon visible to urban voters. However, this is also a point of great danger, for the loss of urban support threatens the ruling elite with the loss of their power  – and it frequently responds by the use of force and electoral fraud.

This is what happened in Zimbabwe. In 1997 polls conducted by the Helen Suzman Foundation revealed the complete collapse of support for Zanu-PF in both Harare and Bulawayo. Sure enough, in the constitutional referendum of 2000 Mugabe was roundly defeated. He responded with land invasions, electoral fraud and systematic violence against the Opposition. Despite the fact that for many years on end opinion polls showed the Opposition MDC with a lead of roughly 55% to 25% over Zanu-PF, the Opposition was never allowed to win. There have been no free elections in Zimbabwe since 2000.  

Something similar occurred in Angola in 2022. Throughout the election campaign polls showed Unita leading the MPLA by the huge margin of                                                 30%. Young urban voters were particularly prominent in rejecting the ruling MPLA. The election results saw the MPLA win 51% to Unita’s 44%, a result achievable only by gross electoral fraud. 

Such examples suggest that the ANC’s loss of urban support is a moment of considerable danger for South African democracy. The ANC is honeycombed by criminal mafias and racketeers of every description. They, like the ANC political elite, live in cities and are sensitive to political trends there. The danger is that they will be frightened by the evidence of the ANC’s collapsing support and react with force or fraud.

Bargaining over coalition

A little appreciated fact is that the idea of coalition has been popular throughout the post-1994 period. In innumerable opinion surveys from the 1990s on, large majorities of black voters have always favoured the idea that  “government and business should work together” or that “all communities, black, white and brown must work together”..

 If one probed these sentiments further one found a consciousness that the white community (in particular) had played a major role in building South Africa as a modern country and that things would work best if they continued to play at least a supporting role. So it is not surprising that today 76% of voters favour the idea of a coalition government. 

In most countries coalitions are the result of prolonged bargaining – for weeks or even months. Agreements are hammered out in considerable detail so that the coalition government has a well-defined programme of action, which typically lasts a whole parliamentary term. 

It is, however, unlikely that the ANC can, or would, bargain in such a manner. Few ministers have such a grasp of detail and they are used to having their programmes written for them by NEC or conference resolutions. The idea of hammering out a “to do” list with a non-ANC partner would be novel – and disturbing. 

When the ANC was in a National Unity government with the NP and IFP it simply carried out ANC policy. There was no bargaining over a governmental programme. ANC hegemony was simply assumed. Similarly, the ANC would prefer a coalition with tiny parties like GOOD or the Patriotic Alliance for that too would involve no bargaining over a programme. So an ANC-DA coalition would see the DA introduce the idea of a bargained programme to an ANC which would find such a notion most unwelcome. 

However, let us assume that the 2024 elections see the ANC fall below 45% and that the possibility of an ANC-DA coalition opens up. In that situation the ANC could not insist on its hegemony precisely because it lacks a majority.

The options in front of the DA are then as follows:

1. The prospects of the DA in any coalition with the ANC are so poor that it is tempting to reject all thought of a coalition and say, “You created this mess, so you can sort it out”.  But this is not a viable option. First, given the dire state of the country a party that refuses to help in a crisis is liable to be punished for its irresponsibility. Secondly, a refusal to serve by the DA might result in the anathema of an ANC-EFF coalition. So the DA has to reject this option.

2. Of course the ANC might choose a coalition with the EFF in the first place. The DA should warn strongly against this possibility. Such a coalition would exacerbate the present crisis, see increased looting and irresponsible racist demagoguery. This would result in the flight of capital and skills. It is also probably incompatible with national unity since some provinces might seek to secede rather than be governed by Malema’s thugs. 

3. The DA is likely to agree to enter a coalition if one is offered. It will, however, be essential for it to bargain not only about which ministries it wants but about how it will govern. That is, the DA must run its ministries in order to carry out DA policies, not some watered-down version of ANC policy. And to be able to do that the party must have the ability to appoint its own directors-general and other senior figures among its civil service staff. The aim must be to replicate what happens at municipal level by demonstrating a different (and better) style of governance. 

In general, the fate of minority parties in coalitions – e.g. the Liberal Democrats in David Cameron’s government in the UK – is an unhappy one. The LD were naive and inexperienced, were completely outwitted in the bargaining process and in the subsequent election lost all their gains of the previous generation. Their leader, Nick Clegg, gave up politics and emigrated. Two elections and eight years later the Liberal Democrats have not recovered. This example emphasises the need for hard and shrewd bargaining.

4. Any government in which the ANC remains the dominant partner is unlikely to reverse South Africa’s downward slide. The DA’s bargaining position would be stronger if it could create a possible alternative governing coalition. Even a grouping with 35% to 40% of the vote would have great utility. Such a grouping might provide the basis of an alternative government if it gained the support of a breakaway faction of the ANC. 

5. The DA might also bargain over principles – e.g. the repeal of all race-based legislation (affirmative action and BEE), support for Ukraine against Russian imperialist aggression, and the privatisation of failing SOEs. While the ANC is unlikely tol give way on such principles for the sake of a minority partner, it is worth drawing up such a set of principles, partly to make it clear what the party stands for, and partly to make the party’s position more defensible if negotiations fail or if the coalition falls apart. 

The country and all its political parties are entering a very dangerous situation as the ANC ship begins to sink. There is nothing that anyone can do to stop the ANC era from ending but when a large ship sinks it can pull down smaller craft with it. It is essential for the country’s future that the liberal tradition survives and continues to present an alternative form of governance, for the founding leader of the Progressive Party, Jan Steytler, was quite right when he said that in the end a country as various as South Africa could only be governed along the lines of liberal principle.

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