South Africa


The Age of Coalitions or the Age of Realignment?

The Age of Coalitions or the Age of Realignment?
President Cyril Ramaphosa (left) and Democratic Alliance leader John Steenhuisen (Photos: Gallo Images / Business Day / Freddy Mavunda | Gallo Images / Brenton Geach)

South African politics sometimes gives the impression of a logjam, as if everything is standing still, partly because the different ANC factions are still trying to resolve the divided outcome of the Nasrec conference — but pressure is building, and leaders will try to use this.

For the first time, the opposition DA appears to be suggesting it could work, to an extent, with part of the ANC. 

This appears to be an attempt to send out several signals. While it is unlikely to herald any immediate change in our politics, it does reveal how constituencies with big similarities are divided by party allegiance, when in fact their interests might be better served by working together. So, it is entirely possible that a realignment does occur at some point in the future.

On Sunday, the Sunday Times published parts of an interview with the DA’s leader, John Steenhuisen (its reporting on this is contested, and the DA says it’s complaining to the Press Ombud over how he was quoted). Later, Steenhuisen spoke to SAfm, explaining his suggestion.

Essentially, Steenhuisen appears to be stating that he and his party are prepared to ensure that the “middle” of our politics is protected from what might be a confluence of the EFF and the “radical left”. In other words, he would join with a segment of the ANC to provide a bulwark against the threat of a left/RET-ANC/EFF coalition.

It is an indication of how deeply personalised the politics of the ANC has become that Steenhuisen is quoted as saying he would work with President Cyril Ramaphosa, but not with Deputy President David Mabuza or ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule.

This is an implicit admission of what the DA’s constituency may already believe: that Ramaphosa is the “clean” ANC while Mabuza and Magashule are the “criminal” ANC. In reality, of course, things are much more complicated.

Steenhuisen is quick to say he is not suggesting a formal coalition, merely some kind of platform on which they can work together.

He may also be suggesting that he understands that part of his constituency respects Ramaphosa and wants him to succeed. 

So far we have not seen very constructive and durable coalitions or power-sharing agreements in our politics. No province has been run by a coalition, and the track record of councils governed by coalitions is mixed, to put it politely.

However, when dealing with situations in which a member of one party appears to want to work with another, one has to be very careful. It is almost never in the interests of one political party to want another to succeed, and thus any deals, or offers of a deal, must be investigated for possible duplicity.

In this case, some may think Steenhuisen’s comments could weaken Ramaphosa within the ANC. By doing this, he could also be weakening perhaps the only weapon the ANC could deploy if it tried to target the DA’s traditional constituencies.

Hence, anyone dealing with such an offer should be very, very careful.

However, there is much to bolster Steenhuisen’s analysis.

It is likely that most South Africans are in the political “middle”, and reject what some would call the confluence of the EFF and the “RET faction” of the ANC (certainly, so far the voting evidence shows this). Thus, he believes that the DA and the reformist wing of the ANC could work well together.

Despite the rhetoric and public debate, it does not appear that the majority of the electorate plan to vote for the EFF. And while Magashule and some who support him hold important positions, there is very little evidence of them being popular with voters.

At the same time, it is true that most politics is won in the middle — getting a cross-section of people to vote for you is what wins elections.

Then there is the fact that the interests of the DA and the reformist wing of the ANC have slowly been drawing closer to each other. Both appear to believe in some form of “non-racialism” (although they differ markedly about whether race is a proxy for disadvantage), both want the state to work, both want economic growth and the creation of jobs, and both claim to be against corruption.

And both believe in the rule of law and support the judiciary. Considering that the leader of the EFF and a former president of the ANC have tried to smear the judiciary, this could be an important factor.

To use a very high-level analysis, it may also be that we are edging closer to two broad constituencies in South Africa. One could be described as those with jobs, income or assets. In other words, something to lose. The other could be described as those without jobs, income or assets, the roughly 12 million unemployed. Of course, this is an over-simplification, but it may be how some politicians see it.

This could then lead to a politics in which those who have something to lose are pitted against those who don’t have anything to lose.

So far we have not seen very constructive and durable coalitions or power-sharing agreements in our politics. No province has been run by a coalition, and the track record of councils governed by coalitions is mixed, to put it politely.

Incidents in which one party has walked out on the other or turned on the other in Joburg, Tshwane or Nelson Mandela Bay are legion. This has led to suggestions that it is simply not possible for political parties to work together in South Africa. Part of this is because the coalitions or agreements have not been agreements of principle and have usually been short-term.

Also, it may be harder to create durable coalitions in South Africa because of our racialised inequality, and because parties represent constituencies with such different interests.

However, other countries have seen successful coalitions that are often underpinned by agreements of principles before the government comes to power. At some point, it may be that our parties use this system to create a longer-lasting coalition (interestingly, one coalition which worked was the coalition led by Helen Zille in the City of Cape Town after 2006).

There are, of course, different ways in which these can come into being. They can come from the top down or from the bottom up.

If this were to happen from the bottom up it would involve agreement at the council level. While we have had exotic coalitions in some of the smaller municipalities, the analyst Jan-Jan Joubert pointed out on Newzroom Afrika on Monday that it appears that the only instance of such an agreement that saw DA and ANC councillors on the same Mayoral Committee was in the Kannaland Municipality in the Western Cape. The agreement recently came to an end.

It is true that our politics can appear jammed, unable to move, with no one group gaining ascendency. That doesn’t mean that nothing is happening. It may be that behind the scenes, pressure is building. That pressure has to go somewhere. And so leaders with constituencies will try to harness that pressure to their best advantage, to ensure that they are not left behind if the tectonic plates realign. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Sam Joubs says:

    Just when we got rid of Kortbroek, out pops Short Pants.. Grow a pair Steenhuizen!!

  • Rudd van Deventer says:

    The key to success is getting strong teams into local local municipalities to carry the flag to the ‘nothing to lose’ brigade for the party. Something the ANC seems unable to do.

    • Sam Joubs says:

      Get politics out of local municipalities and run them like businesses. If you don’t perform in your position, you get fired.

      • Paul Van Uytrecht says:

        You can’t remove politics from resource allocation – reconciling competing interests, is after all what good politics should be all about. Equally, the ‘entitlement’ culture has to be replaced with accountability and performance management. The two are not incompatible.

  • Sergio CPT says:

    Whilst it does appear far-fetched, in reality this is the only hope and solution for the country i.e. a realignment. The anc needs to split as it is now a failed and miserable excuse of a party, trying to please and unite all the disparate factions, who have their own nefarious agendas i.e. to basically steal as much as they can, feather their own nests and turn SA into a Zimbabwe, Venezuela, Cuba etc. where impunity, no accountability and the ruling predatory elite run amok in rapacious theft. The RET crowd, the eff and the thieving anc will join hands to 1. continue the corruption and grand theft 2. to stay out of prison. The little that is left of the decent anc in government, the DA, Herman Machaba and all the other parties, including faith-based groups, NGO’s etc. could form a strong bulwark in keeping these criminals, parasites and thieves out, who want to sow chaos and mayhem in this country. That to me is the reality.

    • Coen Gous says:

      Whilst I agree with you Sergio, this simply will not happen as the masses of ANC voters are too brainwashed by the ANC over 25 years to even consider another option. And both factions in the ANC knows that. The article by Branco Brkic a couple of weeks ago that Magashule could become the next president is now more than just a possibility. The better leaders in the Ramaphosa faction will simply retreat to their farms, more lucrative private careers or retire altogether. The DA itself will continue losing support, after the return of Zille and the election of Steenhuisen. They might even lose their official opposition status. Apart from perhaps Steenhuisen (but not as president) there are only three very credible people in the higher ranks of the DA left, namely Natasha Mazzoni (now chief whip), the hardest worker in politics, Advocate Glynnis Breytenbach, and Alan Wilde, premier of the Western Cape.

  • Paul Van Uytrecht says:

    Talk about a “kiss of death” for CR.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted


This article is free to read.

Sign up for free or sign in to continue reading.

Unlike our competitors, we don’t force you to pay to read the news but we do need your email address to make your experience better.

Nearly there! Create a password to finish signing up with us:

Please enter your password or get a sign in link if you’ve forgotten

Open Sesame! Thanks for signing up.

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options