Lessons to apply: slow and steady will win the race in South Africa’s coalition negotiations

In this article John Brand discusses the challenges of coalition negotiations, specifically in the context of South African politics, and emphasises the importance of thorough preparation and skilled negotiators to achieve a successful and enduring coalition pact. Brand highlights the need for trust-building and skills development among negotiating parties, and suggests that expert facilitators can assist in the negotiation process. The article concludes that while coalition negotiations are challenging, they are vitally important for the future of South Africa and can be successful with appropriate preparation and skilled negotiators.


How to effectively prepare for a national coalition pact – go slow to go fast

By John Brand*

Many people are disappointed about the collapse of the mayoral negotiations in Johannesburg, but perhaps they need not be unduly despondent. As important as those negotiations were for Johannesburg, they were not the negotiations for a post-2024 national election pact, and there is still enough time to put those negotiations on a sound footing. Hopefully, the parties have learned some valuable lessons from this failure which may prevent a repeat at a national level. Perhaps the primary one is that to successfully put a coalition pact together, the parties need ‘to go slow to go fast’. They need to invest much time and resources into proper preparation. They cannot afford to be rushed.

At worst, hasty, and superficial preparation will result in deadlock and a breakdown in relations between potential political partners. At best, it will deliver a sub-optimal agreement which will run the risk of collapse when it is put under pressure.

It is not possible to establish an enduring pact in a few days, particularly shortly before an election. 

Challenges of coalition negotiations

John Brand on coalition
John Brand

Coalition negotiations, both in South Africa and abroad are very challenging. The negotiations are mostly multi-party, and multi-issue and the content to be negotiated is usually, varied, and complex. The negotiating parties often have very low levels of trust in one another and very poor interpersonal relations. They have to adjust from being political rivals to being collaborators, and they must deal appropriately with difficult people in their ranks and the ranks of the other parties.

There is also a range of interested 3rd parties outside of the face-to-face negotiations with varied needs and concerns. These include the parties’ constituents, their mandate givers, and the media, among others.

Trust building

Before they even begin to negotiate, the parties need to address their trust and relationship deficit. They do not have to like one another, but they do have to, at least, develop a working relationship with each other. This trust and relationship-building process takes time, effort, and resources. It cannot be done in a rush before an election.

Skills Development

Ahead of any negotiations, the parties’ negotiation teams must sharpen their existing negotiating skills and make sure that they are familiar with modern negotiation theory and practice. They must ensure that they have the specific expertise necessary to prepare for and to participate effectively in demanding coalition negotiations. (See -https://www.conflictdynamics.co.za/Blog/How-to-effectively-upskill-South-African-coalition-negotiators-)

Read more: Coalition talks collapse in Johannesburg as Action SA blames DA for shattering its own Moonshot Pact

Poor negotiators

Typically, poor negotiators prepare superficially by deciding what they want, what their opening demands and fallback positions should be, and if and when they should make concessions. Their thinking is that one party will win, and one will lose, or, at best, there will be a compromise. Their opening demands usually provoke similar positional responses from the other parties. Unfortunately, experience teaches us that this kind of negotiation does not deliver optimal outcomes, nor does it achieve sustainable agreements.

Read more: A coalition of the ‘good people’ will prevail in Johannesburg City Council – Freedom Front Plus Chief Whip Corné Mulder

Good negotiators

Good negotiators who want to achieve sound and enduring agreements adopt a far more systematic approach to their preparation and they avoid the pitfalls of superficial positional preparation and bargaining. They reflect not only on what they want but on the needs and interests of the other parties and much else. Their negotiation strategies are therefore better informed before they start the negotiation.

Preparation

To do this, they invest much time and resources into thorough strategic planning and preparation. They spend much more time in this planning and preparation for negotiation than they do at the negotiation table, while poor negotiators do the opposite.

Successful negotiators are clear about what the purpose of the negotiation is. For example, is it for a pre-election pact, a post-election pact or both? They also consider all the environmental forces which impact achieving an effective coalition pact. Political parties in South Africa and around the world have dealt with many coalition challenges, both effectively and less effectively. Reviewing the experience of others and obtaining the advice of experts, from here and abroad, enriches the thinking and decision-making of political parties.

Ahead of detailed preparation, they make sure that they have clear strategic objectives and that they are properly resourced. They then deal with the many topics which go to make up a detailed coalition agreement.

Negotiation

Once the negotiating teams are fully and properly prepared, they can then enter the negotiations which will themselves be very challenging, even with very thorough preparation. The negotiations need to be carefully constructed in a way that, in essence, separates problem analysis from solution search, and solution search from solution evaluation and solution choice. The parties need to consistently avoid slipping into adversarial positional bargaining and instead aim for mutual gain.

Facilitation

The strategic planning, preparation, and negotiation process are very demanding, and the parties may find it helpful to obtain the services of an expert facilitator to assist with the processes. The role of the facilitator would be to direct the processes but not to contribute to the substance of them.

South Africa is fortunate to have a number of highly skilled facilitators who have had rich experience both here and abroad.

Conclusion

Coalition negotiations are vitally important for the future of South Africa and, fortunately, coalition parties still have enough time to embark on the detailed work that is required to fashion a successful national coalition pact. However, it is essential that the people who participate in them are appropriately skilled and meticulously prepared to undertake them. Hopefully, the parties will invest the necessary time and resources to achieve this by going slow to go fast.

Read more: Helen Zille on Joburg chaos: Gayton “played” DA’s Moonshot partners, always defaults to supporting ANC

*John Brand is a lawyer, retired consultant and ADR specialist at Bowmans in South Africa, mediator, trainer, and retired director and shareholder of Conflict Dynamics. He serves on the ADR Advisory Committee of the South African Law Reform Commission.

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