South Africa, Politics

Op-Ed: Coalition democracy is coming to SA, again

By Stephen Grootes 26 April 2016

On Sunday morning former Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi tweeted confirmation that he had been approached by the leader of the DA, Mmusi Maimane, with a view to forming a coalition in the Nelson Mandela Bay Metro Municipality around Port Elizabeth. There’s no confirmation yet of whether such a coalition will ever be formed, but the political situation certainly seems to be heading towards an era of coalition government. Some of them will be successful, some will not. However, it does appear that it is the near unanimous public disapproval of President Jacob Zuma, and the rise of corruption in the ANC, that is pushing this process. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

It has become so common to hear the phrase “The ANC is a broad church” that we sometimes forget how it was that it actually came into being. In essence, the party of today is itself a grand coalition of people, organisations and forces that rose up against apartheid. It took a system as morally bankrupt as apartheid to unite people. In the end, you had the SACP and Cyril Ramaphosa in the same room. And that is how things have been ever since. Over time, and as apartheid is no longer with us, that coalition of different groups and people has become less effective at dealing with the continuous economic apartheid as it was with the National Party regime. And as the litany of mistakes and unforced errors darken the party’s future, it naturally starts to fray at the edges.

What’s worse for the ANC is that, over time, the profile of a person attracted to the party in the first place has changed. In the 1970s and 1980s it was someone who wanted freedom for their people, or freedom for South Africans generally. Now, the kind of person who joins the ANC is often someone who simply wants to be part of the ruling party, for its unparalleled access to power. (This helps to understand why so many people on the ANC’s National Executive Committee are happy to back Zuma.)

It also shows how the ANC is not so different from so many other liberation movements all over the world, all of whom have changed character significantly in the years after winning freedom for their nations.

However, South African society is more diverse and better resourced than many of those other societies. It was almost inevitable that, over time, a coalition of forces would start to build against the ANC’s de facto one-party rule. Some of these forces would have middle-class constituencies, such as the DA, and others would be closer to the poor or the ideological Left, in the case of people like Vavi (or Malema, if you ignore the watch and only look at the overalls). This is the current stage for the theatre of SA politics.

Naturally, this process of coalition-building in our society has been largely pushed by those who stand to benefit the most. The DA started it under Helen Zille in 2006, wanting to run Cape Town but not having enough votes to do it on their own. So, she managed to cobble together a group of parties, including people like the Independent Democrats and the ACDP. And it worked: the ANC was kept out of power, and the new administration was able to run the city efficiently ever since.

This example tells us several things that could be important in the future. The first is that one should be careful of pooh-poohing ideological opposites working together. De Lille had originally come from the Pan-Africanist Congress, and it’s hard to see her espousing an Africanist philosophy in the DA. (It also shows us one of the major dangers for the smaller parties. In the end, they can get swallowed by the bigger parties. The DA no longer needs help to win elections in Cape Town, and De Lille’s Independent Democrats no longer exist.)

All of this then leads to the question about whether it is wise for the DA to approach someone like Vavi, and the United Front, with a view to forming a coalition in Nelson Mandela Bay.

This decision possibly shows that the DA already knows it can’t win the metro on its own, and it is going to need a helping hand. It shows that it’s going to need so much help that it’s going to a major national player like Vavi. The other plus, of course, is that he is someone with legitimacy in that he himself is a product of the Tripartite Alliance: Vavi actually greatly helped the ANC retain Nelson Mandela Bay in 2011. It will be hard for anyone in the ANC to claim that he is just after power, or not a proper South African, or a man without a Struggle background.

But this situation is still fraught with danger for the DA. First, it doesn’t seem as if the United Front, the political formation being cobbled together by Vavi and metal workers union Numsa, is actually gaining any traction. While it can be difficult to measure what exactly is happening on the ground, if anything is happening at all, it’s certainly flying under the radar. Somehow, the momentum that was created by Numsa’s expulsion from Cosatu, and Vavi’s defenestration from his position, appears to have dissipated. Numsa and Vavi only have themselves to blame, however. They were making progress, now all of that appears to have greatly diminished.

Then there’s the usual danger of coalitions. You don’t know if you can really trust the person you’re dealing with, as Zille will tell you about her short-lived partnership with Mamphela Ramphele just ahead of the 2014 elections. And Tony Leon will remember a tumultuous union from 2002, when some former NNP councillors walked across to the ANC, resulting in the DA losing control of Cape Town.

If that’s a danger for the bigger partner, the danger for the smaller partner is that they end up disappearing altogether. As has nearly happened in the UK with the Liberal Democrats, after their coalition with the Conservative Party came to an end.

But the advantages of joining a coalition, whether you are the small player or the big player, are huge. Of course there’s access to state resources, and the kind of patronage that can help a party grow. But slightly less cynically, there’s also the prospect of using that time in power, no matter where, as a stepping stone to greater things. As of course the DA has done. How many times did we hear Zille talk about how “We are a party in government, in the Western Cape”? And it’s effective. It allows you to build up your own track record, and then for that to be compared to that of your opponent.

In some ways, when the first long-term histories of a democratic South Africa are written, they may suggest that the coalition that first governed Cape Town was actually the real beginning of the end for the ANC.

One of the things that happens when your coalition is successful is that it becomes attractive for other people to join it. So, imagine if Vavi joined a DA-led coalition. That would make it easier for people who’ve voted for the ANC, but now don’t feel comfortable anywhere, moving across to the DA. And then the coalition would grow further from there. People who can’t stand Zuma, for example, may think a coalition such as this could be worth joining, if only to work towards removing him.

Someone who stands to lose out seriously from any kind of agreement between the DA and a United Front/Vavi-led formation is Julius Malema. He may well have been looking forward to being the kingmaker in Nelson Mandela Bay. If the DA came close and he had enough to push them over the line, he would look very powerful. And he said at the Daily Maverick’s Gathering last year that he would be prepared to work with the DA through a contractual relationship. But it would appear that the DA would rather work with Vavi than Malema at this stage.

If all of this were to happen, the next question would be whether the use of coalitions would spread. Already all the opposition parties, including those that tend to be very close ideologically to the ANC, have voted against the ANC at least once, over the Info Bill. Zuma’s recent behaviour, the revelations over the Guptas, the Nkandla ruling etc, have already seen some co-ordination between people like Malema and Mmusi Maimane.

But it surely cannot be said at this point that the figure of Zuma is as powerful a unifying figure for the opposition as apartheid was. No matter what opposition leaders say about the need to protect the Constitution, or how the rule of law is in peril, we do not appear to be at that stage yet.

However, every time Zuma behaves in as brazen a fashion as he does, whether it be the contempt he shows with a non-apology, or his disregard for the law, or his seemingly corrupt ways and relationship, he pushes that process a little bit forward. And the era of coalitions comes closer. And every time that happens, life gets a little harder for the ANC.

And we should also not forget that it may take a second grand coalition to beat the original, the ANC itself. DM




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