South Africa


Is this the end or a new phase for coalition politics?

Is this the end or a new phase for coalition politics?

Despite the collapse of DA-led coalition rule in Nelson Mandela Bay and the threat to the DA-led government in Tshwane, the emergence of coalitions to rule the country as a whole, after the 2019 elections, remains a possibility. Since this is dictated by numbers and not anything remotely approaching an emancipatory programme it does not bode well for democratic life in South Africa.

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The results of the 2016 local government elections revealed the possibility of the ANC being defeated in the 2019 national elections. This would not be through an outright victory of any one opposition party, but by the ANC falling below 50% of the vote. Opposition parties would need to combine to win control of national government as DA-led coalitions succeeded in doing in three metros, (having already held Cape Town, on its own, for some years).

The parties that came together to govern or support local government in the three metros agreed on keeping the ANC out, but did not share a clearly elaborated programme. Even within each party there is not clarity on what they want to do in order to remedy the key problems of South Africa, or even what these problems are, with the DA often having quite different answers among themselves and from some of their partners.

At the time of writing the executive mayor of Nelson Mandela Bay (NMB), Athol Trollip has been ousted mainly by an ANC and EFF combination. Tshwane mayor Solly Msimanga has been given a reprieve due to procedural issues, but the no confidence motion may be resurrected.

Even though Msimanga remains for now and Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba may have escaped the wrath of the EFF “king breakers”, there is a great deal of fragility attached to the coalitions that were formed. Within the DA itself there are complaints that Mashaba has earned this support by reportedly being too willing to listen to the EFF. (This link goes to a story behind a paywall)

But the two years that have passed have revealed a range of uncertainties, not only on the side of the then victorious opposition parties, who sought to teach the ANC a lesson and show that they could govern better. The ANC has also undergone more than one transition, from the removal of Jacob Zuma as president, followed by apparently considerable public and media confidence in the leadership of Cyril Ramaphosa. That, too, has come under strain in the recent period. What can we look forward to in the 2019 elections?

Why are DA coalitions under threat?

There is more than one reason for the fragility of the various DA-led governments, for they do not operate in the same way. In all cases of which I am aware, the EFF does not form part of the local government, but offers or withdraws its support. The relationship in most cases is closer to an alliance than a coalition, where parties share varying degrees of responsibility for the implementation of an agreed programme. There are agreed programmatic goals, but these are often ill-defined and the EFF has sometimes tried to supersede these with new demands, demanding undertakings of support for national demands on land, the South African Reserve Bank and other questions.

One of the reasons for instability relates to leadership style, the ability of the coalition or alliance partners to work together and find one another through one or other compromise or concession. In NMB it appears that Athol Trollip does not engage in consultations with his coalition partners and has expressly said that he does not have to. (See quotation)

But this appears to be a wider problem with the DA’s understanding of how it should relate to coalition or alliance partners, with Trollip saying he did not have to consult on the state of the city speech because his partners were confused who was the tail and who was the dog.

The criticism of Mashaba is – according to sources in the Sunday Times (cited above) – couched in similar terms, that Mashaba is allowing “the tail”, in the form of the EFF, to dictate to him. It is astonishing that the DA does not appreciate that this language is disrespectful towards those whose co-operation and support it needs.

The DA leadership appears to have an uneven appreciation of what is necessary for a coalition to survive, in terms of the way it relates to partners. It does not appear to appreciate that for the relationship to be sustained, the strongest party often makes the biggest concessions, having the greatest stake in the coalition surviving. The smaller parties have less to lose and can walk away losing few if any jobs. There is more at stake for a member of a larger coalition especially one that has a mission to show, as the DA purports to claim, that they deliver and get things done.

Not only at the level of NMB but also at a national level, the DA has lost ground insofar as it hoped to be the strongest partner in a coalition of all anti-ANC parties. Whether or not one is the strongest partner is not determined by one’s numbers alone. For much of the period prior to Zuma’s removals it was the EFF who made the running and the DA often followed, albeit with a different tone.

Also, there are members of the smaller parties like General Bantu Holomisa and Mosiuoa “Terror” Lekota who are very experienced political figures. Even if one disagrees with them one needs to listen to what they say. That is why Holomisa often appeared to be a go-between in the Zuma period, helping hold together various components of the opposition, when they may have disagreed with one another.

Right now, the DA appears to be willing to forego the UDM being part of their coalitions/alliances. That may be what is ultimately decided, but their most serious grievances in relation to Mongameli Bobani (elected executive mayor after the ousting of Trollip) in NMB have never been put in the public domain. If he was implicated in corruption, what does the report of Price Waterhouse Cooper say? Why is it not made public, after some 18 months or more? Surely it is a lapse in governance to withhold such a report?

It is true that Bobani is also reported to have voted with the ANC on various issues. What was the reason? What has the UDM said is the reason for this? Was it part of the co-operation agreement that parties could never vote outside of agreed coalition positions? To what extent did the DA drive the UDM into this position?

ANC and coalition politics

After the early honeymoon, following the removal of Jacob Zuma as state president, much of the sense of optimism that surrounded Cyril Ramaphosa, that he would be the key to the ANC returning as the majority party in the elections has evaporated. That is not to say it will not win a majority. But the fact that a sense of despondency and pessimism in relation to electoral chances of the ANC has arisen again is not because of the power of the opposition that was manifested in 2016, but because the ANC itself faces multiple crises. It is very divided insofar as Jacob Zuma and his followers are having an afterlife, and this often paralyses Ramaphosa’s leadership group, preventing it from doing what it might want want to do, forcing him to retain non-performers or allegedly corrupt people from the Zuma-era cabinet and making him tread carefully within the ANC itself, because of uncertain support.

There is no doubt that the new leadership has taken some very important steps in cleaning up state owned enterprises and, albeit unevenly, towards restoring regularity and legality. There remain many question marks surrounding the operation of various sections of the police services and the NPA, with much of the prosecution of the Guptas apparently having been bungled or allowed to be so.

But the ANC leadership does not advance a coherent plan to address the plight of the poor, the homeless, the landless, the unemployed and others who have insufficient food to eat or do not have access to clean water or safe and hygienic toilets (the elimination of pit toilets is aimed to be realised only in 2030!). It appears to operate on an ad hoc basis on some of the most vital questions. Very often Ramaphosa makes statements that appear decisive, by setting deadlines. But they reveal a lack of planning, failure to map out the steps needed for their realisation, to ensure that any deadline will be met or that a problem is satisfactorily identified and addressed.

The ANC has not been a coherent political force, with a clear vision that can attract adherents and guide its members, for some years. The composition of its top leadership is a mix of some with considerable integrity and others with a record of state capture and other forms of corruption. There is little concerted political discussion and analysis and introspection of what it is that the ANC understands itself to be.

There is also little compassion towards the poor. It is ambiguous on most things that are important to what used to be its constituency, notably its relationship with the poor, the category of people who previously formed the core constituency of the ANC, from which many of its leadership derive.

In this situation the ANC may not easily secure more than 50% of the vote. It is looking to the EFF for electoral support. It is likely that the EFF will drive a hard bargain and may also push the ANC into ill-considered steps, as it has already done over land and the potential amendment of the constitution. The reason why land was not distributed adequately related to political will. That there is a diversion towards constitutional amendments that are superfluous, illustrates another variant of absence of real concern for the issue at hand. Taken together with both parties appearing obsequious in relation to King Goodwill Zwelithini (and the future of the Ingonyama Trust), and other traditional leaders, there is a real possibility that what emerged as populism can become betrayal.

Part of this process is the sanitisation of the role of Mangosuthu Buthelezi by both parties. Buthelezi was responsible for many deaths, with the assistance of the apartheid regime, especially in the 1980s and early 1990s. (See Mondli Makhanya).

Being in partnership with the EFF also has implications for the character of the ANC. In recent times, the EFF has demonstrated that it may not be firmly committed to foundational values of the democratic South Africa. It now spreads racism and anti-Semitism, not continuously but it is apparently testing the waters, seeing if the message receives a receptive response. It attacks those who try to purge the corrupt (Minister Pravin Gordhan and Ismail Momoniat, of the Treasury, among others) and sides with and sometimes receives funds from those who are actually or allegedly corrupt, including an alleged gangster. It is not averse to violence and repeatedly speaks in a language that borders on incitement to violence.

Those who suffer most from the various problems of inequality and poverty in South Africa watch as the ANC addresses these issues not through carefully planned approaches but often in response to the EFF, desperately trying not to be outflanked by it. If the ANC sees the EFF as the key to remaining the governing party, it will probably secure its power. But it will not be based on an emancipatory vision or programme that has a definite plan for addressing the burning issues that ground continuing inequality. That will be another shameful moment in the once proud history of the ANC. DM

Raymond Suttner is a scholar and political analyst. He is a visiting professor and strategic advisor to the Dean of the Faculty of Humanities, University of Johannesburg and 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 was reissued with a new introduction in 2017. He blogs at and his twitter handle is @raymondsuttner


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