The word “coalition” often conjures up images of instability, backstabbing, and corruption in South Africa. This has been particularly true in Johannesburg, where infighting and bribery by ANC members led to the failure to appoint a competent city manager. However, the Nelson Mandela Bay opposition coalition, made up of ten parties, has been a beacon of hope in a sea of political despondency. Despite inheriting a municipality facing R20bn in irregular spending, devastated service delivery, and oncoming drought, the coalition has managed to rebuild much of the municipality’s services and infrastructure, providing much-needed stability and unity within the administration. The success of the coalition is due to the surprising level of political maturity among its members, who put aside their own self-interests for the betterment of the city. The lesson of Nelson Mandela Bay’s successful coalition is that responsible, accountable parties are crucial to the success of a government. Read more below.
Making coalitions work
By Nicholas Woode-Smith*
The word coalition, for many South Africans, immediately conjures up mental images of instability, backstabbing, back-room bribery, and inevitable collapse. In the foremost metropoles of Gauteng, this has often been the case.
The opposition coalition in Johannesburg faced a year of infighting and self-sabotage at the hands of its own members, with the help of brown enveloped bribes courtesy of the ANC. This resulted in failure to appoint a competent city manager, as ActionSA (ASA) backed an EFF-aligned candidate embroiled in corruption scandals over “Mr FixIt” Johan Mettler, the DA’s preferred candidate.
This disaster over the inability to appoint a city manager culminated in a rapid-fire political drama, as the DA’s speaker was ejected, the mayor was impeached, and then not impeached, and then impeached again. The Patriotic Alliance (PA) proved to be an opportunistic party that only cared about lining its own pockets, as it effectively handed the city over to an ANC-led coalition, with an ANC puppet in the form of a young Al Jamah-ah mayor.
Throughout this all, ASA has relentlessly targeted the DA for every slight infraction, real and imagined. A tirade of anti-DA slogans and hit pieces that one could be forgiven for thinking that ASA would rather be in a coalition with the ANC than the DA.
But coalitions can work. Frans Cronje, former CEO of the IRR, argues that for every failed coalition in South Africa, there are eight successful examples of sound coalition politics.
Nelson Mandela Bay is one such example. And even so it had all the odds stacked against it, it has proven to be a beacon in a sea of despondency.
Nelson Mandela Bay’s opposition coalition seized power in September 2022. It contains ten parties. The most diverse coalition in South Africa. And while claims that it may be the largest coalition in the world are probably false (as there are quite a few European countries with cavalcades of coalition partners), it is still true that this is a massive undertaking for South African democracy.
In a country rife with infighting, political instability and sagas of failed coalitions, its largest coalition should surely fail. But it hasn’t.
Nelson Mandela Bay’s opposition coalition inherited a fraught municipality, facing R20bn in irregular spending, a destroyed administration, devastated service delivery, and oncoming drought.
In the seven months since the DA-led coalition took charge, it has managed to rebuild much of the municipality’s services and infrastructure, building its administration from the ground up. It averted total drought by instating an unpopular water-shedding policy that has since proven to have saved the day and ensured that the people of Nelson Mandela Bay won’t run out of water.
But, most importantly, the coalition had provided Nelson Mandela Bay with much needed stability. As DA mayor Retief Odendaal said in an interview on BizNews: “Instability in government is the enemy of progress.”
A stable coalition and unity within an administration is necessary to get things done. So, how does Nelson Mandela Bay’s coalition do it?
According to Odendaal, ego and arrogance is put aside in the coalition. Despite the DA leading with 48 seats (their closest partner being the Northern Alliance with 3 seats), they do not consider themselves the “Big Brother” or boss of the coalition. All partners are considered equals, and this was established when the coalition was agreed upon.
I have argued in the past that the DA has a right to act a bit heavy-handed and arrogantly as it is the official opposition on which the entire coalition relies upon to exist in the first place. But it seems that when a coalition is founded on mutual respect and unity, this dictatorial approach is not needed.
This is fundamentally due to a surprising and welcome level of political maturity among the coalition partners. Councillors have put aside their own self-interest and even the interest of their parties to focus on what really matters: the betterment of Nelson Mandela Bay.
They focus on the issues and the job at hand. Something that is sorely missing in most politicians.
This political maturity and stability is also due to the fact that none of the coalition members are ANC proxy parties or repeat offender opportunists. There is no tug of war between one-seat party kingmakers between the ANC/EFF and the DA. The councillors are focused on service delivery and ensuring stability.
Notably, the coalition doesn’t contain ASA – one of the common causes of instability in the troubled Gauteng coalitions. Without ASA fomenting distrust and infighting, the DA and its partners can keep its eye on the prize.
The lesson of Nelson Mandela Bay’s successful coalition is that the maturity of parties is tantamount to determining the success of a government. Parties must be mature, responsible, and accountable. They must put aside their own self-interest and not act opportunistic, resentful, or immature.
And, ultimately, it is up to voters to identify the parties that are responsible, and those which are not, and punish and reward said parties accordingly at the ballot box.
*Nicholas Woode-Smith is a political analyst, author, and economic historian.