DA-ANC coalition: SA’s ‘least worst option’ or political risk? – Terence Corrigan

Terence Corrigan explores the so-called ‘least worst option’ in South African politics, pondering the viability of an ANC-DA coalition. While some see it as a firewall against radicals, others like Michael Beaumont of ActionSA strongly oppose it. The dilemma lies in ideological differences and the challenge of trust in electoral pacts, leaving the future of such alliances uncertain.

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By Terrence Corrigan

Would an agreement between the ANC and DA be a viable option, or an attractive one for South Africa?  This question, a perennial one for some time, was placed on the proverbial table again when DA leader John Steenhuisen was reported in the Mail and Guardian as saying that a post-election coalition between the two might be the ‘least worst option to prevent the radicals from taking over’. 

This drew a swift rebuke from Michael Beaumont of ActionSA, a fellow member of the Multi-Party Charter (MPC). ‘This is not going to fly. @Action4SA is going to confront this head on because we will not tolerate those who want to hunt with the hounds and run with the foxes’.

Given that the purpose of the MPC is to displace the ANC from power, and that a founding provision of the MPC is that the constituent parties are to rule out working with the ANC and EFF, Beaumont’s reaction is both unsurprising and understandable. Indeed, Action SA’s leader, Herman Mashaba, has been emphatic that cooperation with the ANC will happen ‘over my dead body’. 

For what it’s worth, Steenhuisen has repeatedly made it clear that the DA does not want to go into coalition with the ANC. 

But that’s the inherent difficulty of an electoral pact: it is based on trust, without a fail-safe means of ensuring that the agreement is adhered to. And so, the day after, there is no guarantee that the MPC will hold together, particularly if it fails to secure a majority. 

And if no party is able to achieve an overall majority, all bets could in principle be off, since this opens a range of hitherto barely conceivable options.

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What Steenhuisen is alluding to is essentially that the DA would operate as a sort of political firewall between the dire circumstances of the present and the fatal alternative of a team-up between the ANC and the EFF (or perhaps these days, Jacob Zuma’s MK party, which he says intends to ‘reclaim’ the ANC). Arguments for this arrangement have been put forward by several commentators, such as Adriaan Basson. A failure on the part of the two parties to find each other, he has written, would compel the ANC to look for an arrangement with the EFF, to the great detriment of all.

Ebrahim Fakir has added that the two parties need each other to compensate for their individual weaknesses and to drive national recovery: ‘Only the ANC working with the DA can do this by keeping each other honest, aiding each other to stabilise and reset public institutions.’

There is also considerable public support for such an arrangement. Polling last year by the Social Research Foundation found that around two thirds of South Africans would welcome a coalition between the ANC and DA. 

The assumption is that this coalition signals cooperation between peer opponents – not the onboarding of a subordinate – and would denote the end of the conflictual relationship between the parties, so that full attention could be devoted to dealing with the crises that pervade contemporary South Africa.  

Is this plausible?

An immediate limitation is that each party understands the problems confronting South Africa very differently. For the ANC, the issue is that its ‘hegemony’ has not been properly brought to bear on South Africa’s malaise. If the country confronts a flatlining economy, record unemployment and debilitating crime and disorder, the issue is not that its vision of a party-politicised state has failed, but that it needs to pursue this with better ‘cadres’ and heightened fervour. Indeed, it needs greater reach for the state, not less (hence for example, its ambivalence about private sector involvement in dealing with South Africa’s infrastructural failings, and the plans in its manifesto for the National Health Insurance system and prescribed assets.)

For the DA, the issue is the ANC’s misgovernance, and the policy mix over which it has presided. It has positioned itself explicitly in opposition to the ANC’s core agenda. Fiscal rectitude, the abolition of cadre deployment, enthusiastic engagement with the private sector, and rolling back race-based restitution in favour of the Sustainable Development Goals would be hard to combine with the ANC’s slate of offerings.

So, there doesn’t seem to be much bringing the two together, neither ideologically nor in policy terms.

Proponents would no doubt say that this could be managed if both parties saw each other as at least sensible alternatives to what else was on offer, and reliable allies in defending the country’s political centre and constitutional system. This is inevitably a variation of the ‘good people in the ANC’ school of thought.

This might be appealing to some in the DA, but it’s hard to see it as having much traction with the ANC. For one thing, the ANC has talked itself into something of a corner over the past three decades, declaiming that it is NOT in the political centre, it is a centre of radicalism. And it is the perceived failure of the party in government to deliver this that has been the target of those radical elements now seeking to ‘reclaim’ the party. 

It would be a veritable political nightmare for the ANC to turn around now and claim that it was teaming with the party supposedly representing all that has been wrong with South Africa historically – white supremacy, unbridled capitalism, neoliberalism and so on – to do, well, what? To safeguard the country against the very radicalism that they previously claimed to champion? Doing so would mean abandoning, probably formally, a large part of the party’s historical and ideological heritage. That would in effect mean that the ANC brand (shopworn though it is, it’s still an asset) would effectively be placed up for grabs. It’s hard to see this happening.

It was often said in the past that an alternative to the ANC had to be based on something more than anti-ANC sentiment. The same would be true of a post-election coalition. In fact, opposing the ANC at least had the advantage of foregrounding a clear target, and one that held power by a substantial margin. Standing together to oppose the EFF or an unspecific mob of ‘looters’ (or perhaps recycling the ‘Stop Zuma’ slogan?) would be an unstable basis indeed. 

Assuming though, that an agreement could be reached, a reasonable concern – certainly for those sympathetic to the DA, or to a reform agenda more broadly – is that even if the electoral returns reduced the gap between the DA and ANC, the ANC would remain dominant. It has assets that the DA simply doesn’t have. For one thing, it has been in government since 1994. Forget the quality of competence of its governance, it knows the systems better and has had decades to staff and undermine its institutions. This it has done deliberately. That even the ANC now talks about the need to ‘professionalise’ the public service gives a sense of how monumental that challenge is. 

DA ministers could expect to face a great deal of obstruction as a result. Some of this would be ideological and political, but a lot would simply reflect the corruption and patronage networks – not necessarily inherently political – that have become entrenched. The risk is that after a term of office, there would be little to show for it, and the embarrassing question would arise of why the DA propped up the ANC for this period: co-accountable, but not really co-governing. 

It would, of course, also deal a body blow to the DA’s credibility as an alliance partner for reformist groups. The MPC would be dead, and the bad feeling around it would make it exceedingly difficult to do something like it again.

So the logical choice for the DA would be to stay away, but it’s not quite that simple. The notion that working with the ANC is the ‘least worst’ option is a powerful one, and when faced with the stark choice between a DA-ANC or an EFF-ANC conjunction, it’s not inconceivable that it would be under great pressure from its supporters to do a deal with the devil to prevent something worse. But voters can have short memories, and five years later the DA would suffer from the inevitable disillusionment.

And if it declined, and an EFF or MK or broadly anti-reformist coalition took power, the DA could expect to shoulder a lot of the blame for its failure to prevent this.

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The only minor possibility – and it’s still a risk, make no mistake – that would seem to be an option would be one that put the DA in control of the finance portfolio. Control of the country’s purse-strings comes with outsized power, and with what is still recognised as a skilled and professional bureaucracy. It wouldn’t be failsafe, but if there is one area where a reformist minister could make a valuable stand, this would be it.

On the other hand, portfolios carrying expectations with deep-seated problems linked to the ANC’s internal politics would best be avoided. There is probably very little that a DA minister could do with education or with cooperative governance at this point.

Alternatively, the MPC as a whole – rather than the DA – might attempt to negotiate an agreement with the ANC. This would potentially strengthen the hand of the reformist bloc in government, numerically, but at the risk of less coherence, and the possibility of the ANC being able to divide and conquer. (The very offer of an ANC-MPC coalition might prove divisive, since the IFP has a long history, on and off, of cooperation with the ANC, while Action SA has been emphatic that it will refuse to do so).

If, however, the MPC was prepared to go this route, it would be important to maintain a balance of power between itself and the ANC, possibly something like a 50-50 split that would give the MPC an incentive to stay united. Great caution would need to be exercised if it came to bringing in other parties that could tip this balance. They would, after all, have their own interests.

An alternative to all of this is the proposal made by Martin van Staden – that instead of a coalition, the DA (or in principle the MPC) would enter into a confidence and supply agreement. This would not be a formal coalition. It would see an ANC minority government supported by the DA, to the extent that the latter would not support a vote of no confidence and that it would back annual budgets. On all other matters, it would be in opposition. The ANC would pledge not to accept the EFF or MK into a coalition. This intention is that politics could at least be frozen in its current dysfunction for another cycle while reformist forces try to expand their positions without compromising themselves.

There is much to commend this, although it remains to be seen whether the ANC would countenance it. This would be a messy, ongoing process of negotiation with a party it has little regard for, and which has sometimes sharply competing policy objectives. Unless the ANC undertakes some serious internal reform, it’s hard to see this working.  

Faced with a moment of profound crisis, what each party chooses will reverberate for itself and for the country. The ‘least worst option’ is one that the DA will no doubt have to weigh, though the entire issue is, whatever its choice, something that the DA will find difficult to win. How it will play out remains to be seen.

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This article was first published by Daily Friend and is republished with permission