Road to 2019

South Africa, a country of coalitions?

By Rebecca Davis 18 April 2018

South Africa’s electoral system is built around the concept of power-sharing – it’s just that the ANC has commanded a sufficient majority in every general election not to need to share power. But those days may be numbered: a new book argues that South Africa could be headed for a coalition government as soon as 2019. What would this mean for the country’s political future?

Princeton political analyst Dr Leon Schreiber throws out an eye-opening fact in the first few pages of his new book, Coalition Country.

Only three of the world’s 79 democracies – Botswana, Malaysia and Namibia – currently have a governing party that governed on its own for longer than the ANC,” he writes.

That the ANC has been able to command the majority vote share of every general election since 1994 is remarkable. But it’s not an unfamiliar scenario to South Africans, notes Schreiber. After all, the National Party governed for 46 uninterrupted years before the ANC came into power.

In short? “South Africans are used to one party calling the shots,” Schreiber suggests.

But that may just be changing. It is Schreiber’s belief that within 20 years, South Africa will be entirely governed by coalitions – and that the 2019 elections may be the turning point.

Any discussion of potential outcomes to the 2019 general elections should be prefaced with the acknowledgement that predictions are hard in a country which lacks a culture of regular, respected and rigorous opinion polling on political matters. The DA is known to do its own polling, but the results are generally kept a closely guarded secret.

In the case of Schreiber’s book, he is further hamstrung by the fact that the publication went to print before the resignation of former president Jacob Zuma and the installation of President Cyril Ramaphosa. As such, much of his gloomy predictions about the ongoing decline of the ANC at the polls is based on the expectation of further State Capture revelations and the prevailing cynicism of the Zuma years.

Coalition Country thus does not take into account the supposed national mood lift of “Ramaphoria”, and the potential effects that could have on the 2019 polls. This is an important point. It may well be that the media has overhyped Ramaphoria on the basis of positive market responses to the new president, but it could also be the case that an electorate which knows it is free from a Zuma presidency will indeed respond more favourably to the prospect of voting ANC in 2019.

Schreiber is not sticking his head on the block, however, and definitively predicting that the ANC will fail to win a majority of over 50% in the 2019 elections. He is merely extrapolating from the existing data to suggest that if the ANC’s voting share continues to decline, South Africa will eventually arrive at a situation where coalition governance becomes the norm.

The idea that this situation might arise as soon as 2019 is not too far-fetched. If the voters of the Western Cape and Gauteng overwhelmingly reject the ANC, that might be enough to push the party below 50% nationally – because, as Schreiber notes, “more than one of every three South African voters lives in one of these two provinces”.

If the ANC fails to secure an overall majority, what happens next?

Schreiber proceeds from the sensible assumption that no single opposition party would be able to take the ANC’s place as a majority. In that situation, what would follow is one of two scenarios: first, a desperate scramble among political parties to form a large enough coalition to govern; and second, if the first scenario fails, the establishment of a minority government in which a party declines to enter into a formal coalition with another, but will lend it votes at critical moments.

That’s the arrangement which is currently in place between the DA and EFF in metros like Nelson Mandela Bay. Schreiber’s deadline also missed the latest chaos in that particular metro, where the EFF’s sudden attempt to unseat DA mayor Athol Trollip has handily exposed the instability of such partnerships.

But Schreiber writes that while coalitions are receiving a bad rap in South Africa currently, there are a small number of local precedents to suggest that coalition governance can succeed.

The main precedent he cites is the Government of National Unity, convened between 1994 and 1996 as South Africa transitioned to democracy. From today’s jaded perspective, the Government of National Unity almost seems like fiction, but Schreiber reminds us that it did have several notable successes, including delivering the country’s much-vaunted Constitution. On the basis of interviews with a number of the key players of the time, Schreiber also concludes that the Government of National Unity went about its business with relative calm and stability.

The Government of National Unity was a coalition in the truest sense, with attempts made to appease all three major parties: the ANC, the NP and the IFP. Bizarre though it may seem now, the NP was even allowed to maintain control of the vital finance portfolio. Wherever a minister was appointed of one party, a deputy minister from a different party was installed as a check.

Nonetheless, interesting tensions remained, particularly to do with the role of the NP as an opposition party as well as a coalition partner. The ANC felt that all participants in the Government of National Unity should defend the positions taken by the government in the interests of unity; the NP chafed against this. Some of this conflict was attributable to the lack of a formal coalition agreement, which Schreiber suggests is vital for the longevity of any coalition.

But the problem with looking to the Government of National Unity as a successful example of coalition governance is how drastically different the political atmosphere was at the time. Schreiber acknowledges this. In 1994, reconciliation and compromise were still the buzzwords of the moment. In 2018, compromise is seen more as political betrayal, or at least weakness. Julius Malema’s party’s decision to try to eject the DA from Nelson Mandela Bay as revenge for the DA’s opposition to the new land policy is evidence of how radically the political terrain has shifted.

In his book, Schreiber sketches three different scenarios for what would follow the 2019 elections if the ANC failed to win an outright majority. The first is a hypothetical coalition between the EFF and the DA to govern nationally, which Schreiber suggests is a best-case scenario. The two parties might work to improve each other, he proposes, with the EFF pushing the DA towards an extension of social welfare, and the DA tempering the EFF’s most extreme policies when it comes to nationalisation.

The second scenario is a hypothetical EFF-ANC ruling coalition, which Schreiber paints in strongly negative terms. Such an arrangement, he suggests, would deepen corruption and strengthen the hands of racial nationalists.

He rules out the possibility of a DA-ANC coalition, on the basis that it would be too outlandish a turnaround for a DA which has defined itself in opposition to the ANC.

Schreiber’s third scenario – which he believes is the most likely – is the situation whereby a minority government takes power with the aid of votes from other parties, but in the absence of any formal coalition. In this event, Schreiber is also sceptical of success. Every proposed piece of legislation could be blocked by Parliament, he suggests, and it would also see the introduction of “pork barrel politics” – where the governing party would have to offer “sweeteners” to the opposition to see laws passed.

Schreiber’s scenarios make for compelling reading – though here, too, the book has slightly suffered from the flurry of activity between going to print and publication.

In the event of the EFF forming coalitions with either the DA or the ANC, for instance, he envisages the land issue being used as a major bargaining chip. But with the ANC having adopted land expropriation without compensation as party policy, with Parliament having voted in favour of exploring amending the Constitution to achieve this, and with the EFF having made clear its uncompromising position on the matter, it is unlikely that concessions on land would now become the make-or-break deal he proposes.

Recent events around the death of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela have also cast new light on the possibility of an alliance between the EFF and the ANC. While the EFF publicly remains steadfast that no such partnership can exist, the role played by Malema in reportedly negotiating between the ANC and Madikizela-Mandela’s family members is another reminder that Malema’s ties with the ANC are deep and strong.

Relations between the EFF and the DA, meanwhile, have seemed noticeably more fractured since their common goal – the removal of President Jacob Zuma – was achieved.

Schreiber points out, however, that both the DA and the EFF have one major advantage to the ANC going into a scenario where the ANC fails to win a majority vote: both opposition parties are used to coalition situations and have successfully navigated such negotiations in the recent past.

As for the ANC? In 2017, the party’s head of political education Nathi Mthethwa told journalists that to lay the ground for potential coalitions was “defeatist”. Come the 2019 elections, the party may regret that stance. DM

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