Beware of coalitions where power is everything and ideology goes out the window

By Stephen Grootes 8 July 2019

Illustrative image sources: JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA – JULY 03: Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) leader Julius Malema addresses the media at his party’s Braamfontein headquarters on July 03, 2019 in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo by Gallo Images/Sowetan/Veli Nhlapo) / ANC, DA and EFF logos

An insidious and dangerous new dynamic of coalitions has emerged since the 2019 elections, the one where political parties give up on their ideologies and beliefs, and make any kind of deal to stay in power.

Last week the Commander-in-Chief of the Economic Freedom Fighters, Julius Malema, said he was no longer going to work with the DA in the cities of Tshwane and Johannesburg. This move came as no surprise: the DA appears to have been preparing for this move for some time.

The development highlights one of the more worrying new political realities, where political parties enter into coalitions that are based only on self-interest rather than on principle. The problem with such an approach is that could lead to political stagnation, resulting in few of our problems ever being solved, and staying in power trumps everything else.

It was always obvious to pretty much everyone, including those involved, that a coalition between the DA and the EFF was never going to work. That is why Malema himself never entered into a formal coalition agreement with the DA; he needed to give himself some wiggle room.

Politically, and ideologically, he and the EFF were always closer to the ANC, and so it seemed that he would end up in a coalition with them.

So far, however, the ANC does not appear to be playing ball. The party’s leadership in Tshwane has said they want the EFF to first take some responsibility for what happened to the city’s finances while it was a part of this informal coalition.

Still, it seems entirely possible that in the future the ANC and the EFF will be a part of a coalition in a formal manner (in the meantime, they are both part of a coalition administration led by the UDM in Nelson Mandela Bay).

Some people applauded when it became clear that coalitions were likely to play a big part in our future. Coalitions could lead to a situation where all the political parties had to stop attacking one another and rather work together. There were some (including this writer) who hoped coalitions could reduce corruption and even political violence; it would be difficult to engage in large-scale corruption and loot the state coffers or engage in violent acts if someone from a different political party was looking over your shoulder in government with you.

However, those hopes are in danger of being dashed, replaced by something more insidious and rather dangerous, a dynamic where political parties relinquish their ideologies and beliefs and make any kind of deal, just to stay in power.

If this were to happen, it would be a dynamic that is impossible to root out. Worse, it would make it harder to get any governance solutions done (which always involve trade-offs) to the problems we face.

The director of programmes at the Auwal Socio-Economic Research Institute, Ebrahim Fakir, has given this issue much thought.

He suggests that, “Coalitions, even of politically and ideologically disparate parties are possible and workable, provided they are underpinned by a set of principles and the parties to them are committed to achieving certain outcomes based on genuine fidelity to a set of principles (in the higher order) and commitments to achieve them (in the lower order).”

But the problem comes, he says, when we examine the situation SA is in at the moment.

Given our current politics, the dual consequences of this kind of purposeless and capricious politics render coalitions susceptible to predatory capture, or redundancy (for the purposes of addressing social problems).”

In other words, people form coalitions just to stay in power.

Fakir says this would require two particular conditions. The first is “the use of ideology to mask rapacious interests” and the second is when “fidelity to any set of principles is lacking”.

If these two conditions are met, then “any set of coalitions or working arrangements that are struck are done solely for the purposes of satisfying personal interests or the pursuit of purposeless power, rather than to address any of our seemingly intractable socio-economic problems in any meaningful way.”

This could open the door to looting in plain sight, where voters are able to see what is happening, but are unable to stop it through voting any party out because parties no longer fear losing elections.

It could be argued that something like this is already happening in Nelson Mandela Bay. There, elements of the ANC (led, it seems, by Andile Lungisa, who has refused to obey an ANC national executive committee instruction to resign from the mayoral committee) have combined with the EFF under the mayoralty of the UDM’s Mongameli Bobani.

In the national picture, one of the worst scenarios could involve parties that have the same interest in weakening institutions coming together to give each other legitimacy in important national debates. If leaders of two parties both had something to fear from the National Prosecuting Authority or the Public Protector, they could combine to weaken that institution.

How likely is this to occur? In the case of the DA and the EFF informal coalitions, it would appear their interests are too far apart for them to stay together. These coalitions are being disbanded. But it is possible that at some point other coalitions of interests could come together. It could also involve certain factions of certain parties in certain places (as in Nelson Mandela Bay).

This would present voters with a problem: Do they abandon voting altogether (as some already are doing), or do they try some other course of action? In the longer run, this would lead to a huge advantage for any political party whose members have not been accused of corruption. But they might find they first have to get people to vote, which could be an insurmountable hurdle.

It also suggests that the next few moves in our metros will be very important. They may sow the seeds for what happens at a provincial and national level in the future. DM


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