South Africa

Op-Ed: Are DA-led coalitions sustainable now and into 2019?

By Raymond Suttner 6 September 2017

The current turmoil in local government in Nelson Mandela Bay points to the difficulty of forming coalition governments more generally. These were embarked on with much enthusiasm following gains made by opposition parties in local government elections last year. It may be that the pattern of managing the coalition in Nelson Mandela Bay is related to the personality of its Executive Mayor, Athol Trollip. If his aversion to consultation, that is claimed and reported, is more widely characteristic of the DA-led coalitions it will be difficult to sustain these as stable governments. Without continued securing of agreement of partners, these relationships will not last and the possibility of forming such a coalition at a national level in 2019 will be slim. By RAYMOND SUTTNER.

This article first appeared on Creamer Media’s website: polity.org.za

In last year’s local government elections the ANC nearly fell below 50% of the national vote. It lost three major metros, in addition to Cape Town, already held by the DA. This signified the birth of a new era in South African politics, with the ANC vulnerable to electoral defeat in the national elections of 2019.

While the ANC suffered this setback, no opposition party obtained 50% of the vote in any metro and the strongest, the DA, needed to govern in coalition with or in a loose alliance with other opposition parties, to secure majority support.

What happens in coalitions led by the DA may give citizens a sense of what lies ahead should the ANC fail to recover the support it has lost. In order to manage coalitions anywhere, including in South Africa, there needs to be some level of political agreement and it needs to be observed by the parties.

How the basis of co-operation is understood may be disputed with some conduct of one or other party being seen by others as contrary to their agreement. In this situation the starting point of the strongest party that leads the coalition, in this case, the DA, needs to be that it will do everything in its power to hold the coalition together. It may need to make concessions, even sometimes where it believes what is demanded is unreasonable to satisfy electorally much weaker parties. It may have to do this because they are needed for the coalition to survive. It is the strongest party that stands to lose the most if the coalition fails. But insofar as the basis for uniting appears to be to deny the ANC power to govern, all have a common interest in maintaining their relationship.

Being in coalition or even a loose alliance means that strength of numbers does not enable the strongest party to simply push through policies or laws without consultation. If it wishes to hold the coalition or alliance together the stronger party needs to ensure that it does not take its partners for granted. It ought to avoid unilateral decisions if it expects its coalition partners to abide by these.They cannot be expected to simply fall into line. Any demonstration of such contempt is an inducement for other parties to break away.

At the same time, there are obviously limits to mutual accommodation and there may be a threshold of agreement that needs to be maintained and which any party, large or small, cannot breach should the coalition wish to persist.

In order to inject some level of confidence in an electorate that is battered through multiple levels of malgovernance, dysfunctionality, corruption, impunity and economic battering, the DA-led metros need to demonstrate that they can perform better than the previous ANC incumbents.

Even if the ANC fails to achieve 50% of the vote in 2019 it is likely to be the strongest party and it cannot be assumed that it will be unable to form a coalition government, rather than the DA. If the performance of the DA in coalition creates the impression of instability it will count against it. That is not to say that any government will emerge with anything approaching the stability associated with single party government to which South Africans have been accustomed. But with regard to coalition formation, the way in which the EFF will move is unpredictable and could lead to a fragile coalition or alliance, led by the ANC.

For the DA to forestall this it needs to sustain governance in metros and perform adequately. On the level of performance the new local governments have inherited a range of problems as well as being constrained by lack of resources. Their record appears mixed and it is impossible to generalise. The DA prides itself in “getting things done”, pointing to its record in Cape Town, (which can be interpreted in more than one way, depending on one’s geographical location in the city).

In the case of Johannesburg, its record has been mixed, with the billing crisis possibly having worsened since the DA took over. Most problematic is the manifestation of the DA’s Achilles heel-its lack of compassion for the poor, demonstrated in crude form by Executive Mayor Herman Mashaba’s statements with regard to cleaning up the inner city. He has located himself in opposition to human rights lawyers and indeed, the Constitutional Court, on the need to provide alternative accommodation to those who are evicted from buildings. He has also repeatedly made statements that are xenophobic.

Whatever the Nelson Mandela Bay (NMB) metro may have achieved has been overshadowed by internal conflict within the coalition, between the DA and the UDM, culminating in the dismissal of the UDM’s Mongameli Bobani as deputy mayor. There has been a long-running conflict between Bobani and Executive Mayor, Athol Trollip, who has listed a series of charges against Bobani though the allegations have not yet been proved. The allegations have formed part of a draft PwC report that has not been presented to Bobani or to the council, even though DA members of council have apparently had sight of it.

There are repeated claims of lack of consultation between Trollip and coalition partners. It is also claimed by the UDM that the Executive mayor’s state of the metro speech was presented without consultation with coalition parties. The other coalition parties did not object but the UDM argued that this was contrary to the character of their relationship. Trollip is unapologetic over non-consultation, claiming that his leadership position does not require him to consult partners, who in his language confuse who is the tail and who is the dog. “They want to be the dog and to wag the tail. But they are the tail….” (Quoted in The Herald 5 August 2017.)

While the DA is at pains to locate itself on the side of constitutionalism, the vote leading to Bobani’s removal may have been irregular since a walk out was staged with only 60 members, one less than required for a quorum, remaining in the chamber. The speaker claimed there was a quorum by including members who were in the process of walking out as part of the additional numbers required for a quorum. (Bobani booted out, The Herald, 25 August 2017.)

There are clearly problems not only between the mayor and Bobani but decision-making in the coalition. Also, without consulting the rest of the coalition the DA has sought to strengthen its position by incorporating into the coalition, the Patriotic Alliance of former gangster, Gayton McKenzie, a grouping that hardly inspires imagery of ethical citizenship. The Patriotic Alliance local leader, Marlin Daniels played a key role, in the motion to remove Bobani from his position. He has made it clear that he now expects to replace Bobani as Deputy Mayor and also hold the portfolio of safety and security. The DA relationship with the Patriotic Alliance must surely sound alarm bells to many DA supporters and the public at large.

At this point in time the NMB coalition agreement is in tatters with the withdrawal of the UDM and the EFF also withholding its support (as a qualified ally, not a coalition partner), in NMB and also in all DA-led councils. The EFF does this because of what it claims is the arrogance with which the DA conducts itself towards other opposition parties.

Joining together in political relationships requires ongoing consultation. Parties retain their independent identity but within that which is agreed by the coalition government no party can take unilateral action. It needs the consent or implicit agreement of other parties to deviate from that, which is agreed.

The separate identities of the distinct components of the coalition is the basis on which the UDM appears to justify Bobani and it’s other member voting against the coalition on various occasions. Is that compatible with coalition? It is unclear how the coalition can function where parties vote as they wish, unless the issues where the UDM voted against the coalition were not material to the coalition agreement. There needs to be clarity on that before one can assess whether or not the UDM action was reasonable. The UDM needs to clarify beyond referring to its being an independent party. Equally, the DA needs to explain whether the issues on which the UDM opposed coalition positions had been ones where partners were adequately consulted.

If coalition government is to be advanced as a basis for displacing the ANC in local and later national government both the largest and smallest parties need to give and take and abide by agreements. On the evidence it appears that the DA made constant efforts to engage with the UDM at national and local level to make the agreement sustainable. But at the same time it appears, also, to have acted unilaterally on some issues and it is unclear to what extent Trollip, with acquiescence of the DA national leadership, sees consultation as central to the functioning of the coalition.

If the allegations of corruption and irregularity against Bobani are valid it is vital that these are taken through processes quickly, if the DA does not want the NMB and other coalitions to collapse. It needs to make allegations and evidence public. At the same time, if the UDM national leadership believes there is any basis to the very serious allegations levelled against Bobani, it needs to demonstrate good faith in efforts to have these addressed.

There seems little doubt that all the parties to the various DA-led coalitions and alliances in the metros are united in their desire to remove the ANC from power. If the parties wish such arrangements to succeed there needs to be agreements that are clear and to which they adhere. There also needs to be a common understanding over the basis on which shared responsibility is demanded. Is there validity in the claim that the DA decides and the others are expected to abide in NMB, implicit in Trollip’s reference to the dog and the tail? Is this the stance of the DA in other metros?

The ANC may be in disarray. It may have lost its moral legitimacy but it cannot be counted out as a potential leader of a coalition government in 2019, given that no other party is likely to be as strong as the ANC. If the DA cannot evoke confidence in other coalition partners, it may squander this opportunity. It is not a question of reasonableness of the other potential partners, but whether the DA can find a language and a way of working that is sustainable. DM

Addendum: In a Twitter exchange addressed to me and others referring to his leadership, Athol Trollip says: “It seems you don’t have any idea of what’s going on here in Nelson Mandela Metro.” Days before writing my article I sought the viewpoint of Trollip. The material that his office undertook to send had not been provided at the time of publication.

Photo: Raymond Suttner is a political analyst who served lengthy periods in prison and under house arrest during apartheid. Photo: Chris Snelling

Raymond Suttner is a scholar and political analyst. He is a part-time Professor attached to Rhodes University and an Emeritus Professor at Unisa. He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities. His prison memoir Inside Apartheid’s prison has recently been reissued with a new introduction covering his more recent “life outside the ANC” by Jacana Media. He blogs at raymondsuttner.com and his twitter handle is @raymondsuttner

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