Not many people remember that South Africa was led by a government of national unity from 1994. National Party and Inkatha Freedom Party leaders held positions in President Nelson Mandela’s Cabinet even though they were unlikely bedfellows for the ANC. The 2016 local government elections will open the space for coalitions in hotly contested municipalities and areas where no party will win a clear majority. But opposition parties, particularly the Democratic Alliance (DA), are in desperate need of a game plan for the 2019 elections. Unless they are willing to wait for divine intervention to break the ANC’s hold on power, it is time to think out of the box. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.
In recent years, co-operation between opposition political parties has not been very successful. The hostility and competitiveness in Parliament means that even when alliances are formed on certain issues, such as Nkandla or the motion to impeach President Jacob Zuma, these do not last for more than a few days. It is therefore difficult to envisage workable, five-year coalitions in municipalities, between the DA and Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) for example, when relationships at national level are so topsy-turvy.
Alliances formed out of expediency or not properly negotiated can rapidly crash and burn. Who can forget that messy DA-AgangSA merger in early 2014 that went up in smoke days after Helen Zille and Mamphela Ramphele kissed on it? Both party leaders at the time had different understandings of what their co-operation agreement entailed. As a result, it turned out to be a spectacular failure.
Another coalition had been announced a few weeks prior to the DA-AgangSA merger but few people will even remember it. Five opposition parties announced a “Coalition for Democracy” in December 2013. The African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP), Congress of the People (Cope), the Freedom Front Plus (FF Plus), the IFP and the United Christian Democratic Party decided to form the coalition ahead of the 2014 election with the hope of securing enough representation to form a new government. All five parties fared badly in the 2014 poll, hardly gathering enough votes to form a prayer circle, let alone a government.
Alliances can prove to be unwieldy things, even when they have lasted decades. The tripartite alliance between the ANC, South African Communist Party (SACP) and Cosatu is a case in point with now more issues dividing them than those keeping them together. Yet the SACP and Cosatu are ploughing on to campaign for the ANC even as the fissures are widening.
With co-operation between parties being so difficult to manage, is it worthwhile even pursuing? For the DA, in particular, it certainly is.
DA leader Mmusi Maimane has been at the helm of his party for over a year and will have been the party leader for four years when his image will appear on the ballot paper in 2019 as the DA’s presidential candidate. Had Zille’s plan with Ramphele worked in 2014, Maimane might not even have been in the National Assembly, let alone been the Leader of the Opposition. Zille had wanted Ramphele to be the DA’s presidential candidate in 2014, which would have given the AgangSA leader the prime spot in the opposition benches.
Maimane was thrown into the deep end when he was elected as the DA leader last year. His mandate is to grow the party, particularly among black people, while pacifying the DA’s original base of white liberals. In the past year, the DA has had to contend with incidents of racism by party members and accusations that Maimane is fronting for a group of white leaders who still call the shots in the party.
Political immaturity often shows itself in the DA – from choosing a C-grade business personality as its mayoral candidate for Johannesburg to patronising people who complain about unsolicited campaign SMSes and e-mails. It has also embarked on foolhardy PR exercises, from having the whole DA caucus dress in black for the State of the Nation Address to numerous attempts to pass motions of no confidence in the president and the Speaker of Parliament with inadequate numbers on their side.
The DA has the opportunity to step up its leadership role and graduate beyond the steady stream of media statements condemning every aspect of ANC governance. As the doors open for discussions about coalitions in municipalities, the DA should open talks about co-operation agreements with other parties ahead of the 2019 elections.
Smart coalitions will prevent a division on anti-ANC votes across opposition parties. This does not mean that smaller parties will collapse into the DA, in the way Patricia de Lille’s Independent Democrats did, but co-operate to consolidate the power of the opposition.
In the Eastern Cape, for example, a smart coalition between the DA and Bantu Holomisa’s United Democratic Movement could see them agreeing not to contest in each other’s respective strongholds. Such a non-aggression pact will prevent votes being split between the two parties. The same could apply in KwaZulu-Natal where the DA can enter into talks with the IFP, and the National Freedom Party (NFP), presuming they bounce back from the current crisis.
The difficulty for the DA would be the EFF, its biggest competitor in the opposition. It is unlikely that Julius Malema’s party would agree to back off from campaigning in certain areas as it is determined that the red tide reaches all corners of the country. The DA and EFF also have stark ideological differences and strategy outlooks, whereas there are areas of commonality with other smaller parties such as Cope, the IFP, NFP, UDM and ACDP.
If parties, including the EFF, are forced into coalitions after the 3 August poll, it could open possibilities for redefining relationships among opposition parties. A strengthened opposition front will obviously give voters new perspectives of the field and could disrupt traditional voting patterns. At a time when opposition parties are wanting to change perceptions and voting patterns, particularly those of disenchanted or apathetic ANC voters, a bolstered opposition could do the trick.
Of course the 2019 elections are a long way off and a lot can happen between now and then. But within a few weeks, post-election agreements and coalitions will be en vogue. In order to make these coalitions stick, there could be incentives and tasters offered for what is to come in 2019. The kingmakers in this year’s local coalitions can be strategic players in reducing the ANC’s representation in some provinces and even winning control in others.
If the DA does not take the lead role negotiating with other parties now, it is possible that the ANC might end up doing so. The ANC has already claimed back a large part of its constituency that went to Cope and benefited from the haemorrhaging of the IFP. With the NFP’s non-participation in this election, it could move to swallow that constituency.
But the ANC is also beset with internal turbulence and factional battles. These will increase from early next year as the succession battle picks up pace ahead of the ANC’s 54th national conference next December. So far, none of the opposition parties has benefited significantly from the latest factional wars and disillusionment in the ANC. But if the opposition is able to think and act smartly from the outcome of next month’s election, it could win the confidence of those who are politically homeless.
The 2016 local government elections is a major litmus test of political party strength but it is also an opportunity for a realignment on the political spectrum. For the large number of undecided voters or people who believe that no party represents them adequately, such a reconfiguration cannot happen soon enough. A strengthened opposition is necessary to keep our democracy active and dynamic, and will also help certain ANC leaders understand that they do not have a God-given right to rule until the Second Coming. DM
Photo: Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema (L) and DA Parliamentary Leader Mmusi Maimane are seen during a debate in Parliament on President Jacob Zuma’s State of the Nation Address, Wednesday, 18 June 2014. Picture: GCIS/SAPA
"Man is by nature a political animal" ~ Aristotle