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

David Christianson discusses the ongoing coalition experiment in South Africa and its viability for the future of the country. Local elections in 2021 produced hung councils in almost 70 of over 200 municipalities. The focus is on the city governments which have faltered in recent weeks, with DA-led coalitions losing office in both Johannesburg and Tshwane. Christianson argues that these metropolitan government arrangements represent a dress rehearsal for an ANC/EFF coalition after the next election. The kingmaker role of smaller parties in local government coalition politics in South Africa has been the subject of repeated comment. Some are suggesting electoral thresholds, but these come with trade-offs. Find this article below.

Coalition politics has yet to run its course

By David Christianson

It is only 16 months since South Africa’s great coalition experiment began but already some are arguing that it has failed and that a dark future looms for the country generally.

The original thesis is that South Africa is in dire need of the sorts of reforms that will render the country investible again and make its leaders accountable to the electorate. The best chance of such reforms is a coalition of centrist pragmatists, hopefully forced by the outcomes of the 2024 General Election.

From this perspective, coalitions in local government are viewed as a dry run for a national process. The 2021 local elections produced hung councils in nearly 70 of just over 200 municipalities. But attention has focussed on the main city governments and it is these that have faltered in recent weeks.

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

DA-led coalitions have lost office in both Johannesburg and Tshwane and may also do so in the near future in Ekurhuleni where the coalition provides a minority government. The new mayors, in both cases, are representatives of parties which won less than one percent of the local vote in 2021. Both are seen as a smokescreen for an alliance of the ANC and EFF which effectively wields power in these two cities.

It is the second of these cases, Tshwane, where the DA-led coalition previously appeared to hold a narrow majority, that saw Tim Cohen, one of South Africa’s most respected commentators, arguing that these metropolitan government arrangements represent a dress rehearsal for an ANC/EFF coalition after the next election.

But is too soon to draw any conclusions about the viability of coalitions in South Africa. This is still a new phenomenon and South Africans are still learning what works and what doesn’t. Moreover we should be cautious about tweaks to the existing system. Among the several mechanisms suggested to try and make coalitions work better are electoral thresholds; but these need to be used with great caution and due awareness of the trade-offs.

Prior to the secret ballot in Tshwane last Tuesday, it seemed likely that the DA’s Cilliers Brink would be elected city mayor. He would have been a straight replacement for the DA’s Randal Williams who had stepped down after an extremely negative audit result.

There are 214 councillors in the Tshwane City Council which means 107 votes are needed to elect a mayor. In terms of the relevant legislation, the Municipal Systems Act, the council Speaker would only vote if there was a deadlock. The Act also specifies the need for a secret ballot.

Prior to the election, local parties who were part of the DA-led coalition previously – ActionSA, the ACDP, the IFP, Cope and the Freedom Front Plus – expressed support for Brink. In all, 109 votes were supposedly controlled by the parties who expressed a preference for Brink. In the event through, he received only 101 votes while former Speaker, Murunwa Makwarela, of Cope received 112.

There were clearly defectors within the DA-led coalition. One was Cope’s Makwarela himself who, after declaring his support for Brink only six days earlier, agreed to run against him for the mayorality. He was formally nominated by the minor, one-seat, African Transformation Movement, which is aligned with Radical Economic Transformation elements in the ANC.

The combination of Brink’s declared opponents – the ANC (75 seats), the EFF (23 seats) and minor parties – needed just two defections to win the mayorality. In the event they got eight.

The identities of the other defectors remain a mystery at the time of writing. Some of the speculation has been wild with disgruntled members of the DA, ActionSA and several of the smaller parties all being fingered. It has been suggested that sinister motives were in play, including bribery and ‘treason’.

The outcome is that Pretoria has a mayor from a party which has only one seat on council and received only 0.19 percent of the municipal vote in 2021. This is not entirely dissimilar to Johannesburg which is under a mayor (Thapelo Amad) who represents a party (Al Jama-ah) which won 0.83 percent of the vote in 2021. Al Jama-ah at least won a single ward in Johannesburg, something Cope could not manage in Tshwane. And Amad is described, even by his allies, as a ‘caretaker mayor’.

Read more: SLR: How will today’s world receive a post-ANC “coalition”?

The kingmaker role of smaller parties in local government coalition politics in South Africa has been the subject of repeated comment since at least 1994 when Minority Front leader Amichand Rajbansi was able to leverage his position in the KwaZulu-Natal Provincial Legislature, where he held the balance of power between the ANC and the IFP, for provincial cabinet office.

The presence and occasional enormous opportunistic power of small parties is an inevitable result of South Africa’s Proportion Representation (PR) electoral system. It has been suggested that an electoral threshold should be imposed to restrict their emergence. This is a mechanism characteristic of PR systems all over the world from Germany (where it is set at five percent) to Rwanda (five percent), the Philippines (two percent) and Argentina (three percent).

But electoral thresholds threaten one of the most acclaimed characteristics of PR systems; their ability to ensure the widest possible representation in politics. They also can, and have been, misused to keep minorities out of legislatures (Kurds in Türkiye for instance). Finally, they shift the arithmetic of elections in favour of the biggest parties which may allow a party to achieve a majority of seats with a minority of votes.

It is probably better to allow the fullest possible representation under the present PR system, rather than indulging in a knee-jerk ‘reform’ in response to the apparent current instability. Representation is, after all what democracy is all about and restricting it is a step, even if only a small one, down the road to more authoritarian ‘solutions’ to South Africa’s dilemmas.

Not only do the most inclusive paths usually produce the most robust outcomes, which is good for reviving institutions, but small parties and the interests they represent do not always remain marginal. In should be remembered that the DA itself, then in the guise of the Progressive Federal Party, only won seven seats (out of 400) and 1.73 percent of the vote in South Africa’s 1994 General Election.

But what are we to make of the unity of purpose between the ANC and EFF in these instances? It is too easy and too tempting, especially for commentators who are currently in a dark place, to see the events in Johannesburg and Tshwane as presaging a national arrangement. Of course, this cannot be entirely ruled out, but it must be pointed out that a brief moment of joint local purpose is a long way from putting together a national governing coalition. The ANC has become a party focussed on extracting rentals and the EFF has never been anything else. We should remember the old aphorism that ‘thieves fall out’.

Read more: Douglas Gibson on coalition changes – ‘voters will soon have their say’

Indeed, the game is by no means over in either Johannesburg or Tshwane where matters remain sufficiently finely balanced that another reversal would be far from a shock. And the prospects for a Grand Coalition (the ANC and the DA) have not been broached, let alone rehearsed, at municipal level. The coalition game has a long way to go yet. The politics will inevitably be rough but coalition remain perhaps the best hope if a democratic and inclusive future for South Africa is to be secured.

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