South Africa

2021 ELECTIONS ANALYSIS

Coalitions and a government of national unity — a chance to fix the mess?

Campaign posters for the 2021 local government elections. (Photo: Gallo Images / Beeld / Deaan Vivier)

Following the local government elections on 1 November, South Africa faces the reality that its political system is in crisis mode. Is there a way out of this?

By now, following the results of the 1 November local government election, it has become clear that South Africa’s political scene has undergone an extraordinary, sudden change — something akin to what is called a “phase shift” in physics or chemistry. 

The ground is moving, even if its future shape remains unclear, encouraging us to rephrase the words of Antonio Gramsci, the Italian political theorist so beloved of revolutionaries, who so famously said about his own nation nearly a century ago, “The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters.” 

South Africa’s manifold challenges are not, of course, only to be found among the new contours of its political landscape. The country remains beset by the same grave administrative, economic and social circumstances that its political leadership — focused on internal party squabbles and/or internecine struggles with political opponents — has, for the past three decades, been unable to respond to with effectiveness or enthusiasm, although with a tsunami of gauzy slogans and buzzwords.

This recent election amply demonstrated that the formerly Colossus-like African National Congress is now a thoroughly humbled entity. This was not simply because in many jurisdictions, including South Africa’s main cities, its voter support rate dropped significantly below the 50% level. Even more important, perhaps, despite all the tools, blandishments, promises, or even threats of future punishment if the votes did not arrive, the party was unable to gin up enthusiasm among a formerly supportive populace that this time largely did not even bother to vote. 

As numerous observers have already noted, this revealed the party as having a support base that is more rural and undereducated, poorer and older than the country’s more urban, better-educated, and younger electorate. Such indicators spell ever more electoral trouble for it in future. Given the complaints about the ANC-led government’s inability to make good on its promises, it is even more startling that in a recent poll, a majority of people surveyed said they would even be prepared to forgo democratically elected government if whoever was in charge could fix things properly. 

The party’s actual supporters — as measured from among all voters, let alone among all people registered to vote, or, still worse, among all people legally entitled to vote — clocked in well below that halfway mark, around a quarter of the total of those eligible to vote. While the Democratic Alliance and the Economic Freedom Fighters more or less held their ground in percentage terms, growth for those two was problematic. 

But they were beset by a raft of yet smaller (and/or newer) parties across the nation; perhaps most interestingly, the country’s newest political entrant, ActionSA, led by the former Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba. ActionSA gained around 16% of the vote in the Johannesburg/Soweto metropole. As a result, it may well be positioned as the dealmaker for political leadership in the country’s business and financial hub. 

Based on these electoral outcomes, coalition governments for many cities and towns across the nation become inevitable. Cue the inevitable horse-trading. And also cue the equally inevitable naysayers in the public space who insist coalition governments as a solution to electorally divided governments are virtually doomed to failure in contemporary South Africa. 

So far at least, most speculation circulates around the question of who could be the ANC’s coalition partner in many places — the Democratic Alliance or the Economic Freedom Fighters. The argument usually goes along the lines that a partnership with the EFF becomes the functional equivalent of a win for the Radical Economic Transformation faction — aka Jacob Zuma’s graft-ridden crony politics. On the other hand, a coalition with the DA would mean President Cyril Ramaphosa’s somewhat tattered “new dawn”, rules-based, economic realists will have gained the upper hand in building governing coalitions instead. 

Never mind the understanding that the DA has, at least for now, apparently ruled out partaking in a coalition government with the ANC on the implicit grounds that such an undertaking would effectively erase any real rationale for its existence as a separate party, aside from being a vehicle for political ambitions to launch. Moreover, given current animosities, it might well open up even deeper fissures within the two wings of the ANC, along with the infighting that would inevitably ensue from that. 

Similarly, an ANC/EFF coalition would, for most people, probably signal the idea that the tender/contract/well-paid positions troughs are thoroughly open for business to the best-connected politician or best friend of a pol with sharp elbows. And that is without even figuring out how to address the EFF’s seven non-negotiable demands of a coalition partner. Naturally, too, such a pairing would signal furling the banner of Ramaphosa’s brave “new dawn” good and proper. 

At present, for most local governments, a comprehensive grouping of minor parties with all their obvious policy differences and leaders’ political ambitions, or even as a group aligned (as a counterweight) with either the ANC or DA, is unlikely to generate any kind of stable governance. So what is to be done before the two-week period for forming new councils expires?

Surely, these political machinations — no matter which way they go — will absorb virtually all of the nation’s political oxygen. Moreover, such Machiavellian manoeuvres will play out to the detriment of real efforts to address South Africa’s truly pressing problems.

Just for starters, these include the ongoing struggles with the nation’s electrical grid, the urgent need to reignite a distressed, floundering economy, to stimulate productive foreign investment rather than asset sales, to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic crisis and the still larger challenge of decent healthcare, to address the yawning gaps in infrastructure, to finally address the deep crisis in education, and to find creative ways to reduce the country’s disastrous levels of unemployment. All of these and more await an active, energetic, coherent set of government structures not sapped by chronic infighting. 

It is true these challenges are national issues, but they are almost all immediately visible most desperately at the local level. This is where people encounter the problems and where the effects hit them most profoundly. And this is where growing numbers of citizens have come to the realisation: your (local) government is not here to help you. That, pre-eminently, is why so many voters opted out of expressing a preference for whichever abbreviation after a councillor’s name would hold sway.

And yet, there are examples of coalition governments around the world, albeit often at a national level, that should provide inspiration — or forebodings. While Italy’s history of revolving-door prime ministerships and governing coalitions is often held up as the poster child for instability; by contrast, successive stable governments in the Netherlands have often been coalitions comprising up to seven political parties. 

Germany has a long, recent history of stable governing coalitions, sometimes mirrored by coalitions in the different Länder, or states, as well. 

Is this just a pipe dream conjured up from the frustration of watching yet one more essential service race towards collapse? I am writing as our home electrical power has yet again gone off in “load shedding” because yet more generators have gone offline — or, perhaps just run out of fuel. Surely just about every resident of the nation has had enough of the failed services and broken promises, along with the wanton theft, waste and mismanagement?

For that country, it has been decades of either the Christian Democrats or Social Democrats finding a smaller partner to join with them in governing, or even, during Angela Merkel’s time as chancellor, in a grand coalition between the Christian and Social Democrats. Right now, two of Germany’s smaller parties, the Greens and Free Democrats, are trying to establish a joint negotiating and policy posture so they can make the best possible deal with either of the two big parties, thereby forming a stable coalition government. In contrast to Americans, for example, German political parties, it is often said, win elections on an ideologically cogent platform and then through a lengthy process, carefully constructing a governing coalition that contains a formal agreement with partners over how they will deal with policy issues. 

In another example, in Israel, which has been the site of particularly acrimonious politics, Reuters noted when its new governing coalition was announced earlier in the year that the new government was an unlikely partnership.

“Israel’s new government is a hodgepodge of political parties that had little in common other than a desire to unseat veteran right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The coalition, sworn in on Sunday, spans the far left to far right and includes for the first time a small Islamist faction representing Israel’s Arab minority. It is expected to focus mostly on economic and social issues rather than risk exposing internal rifts by trying to address major diplomatic matters such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

But as commentator Aaron David Miller of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace wrote in Foreign Policy, “Israel’s new coalition government is more stable than it looks. With all its parties facing disaster by leaving, the coalition has every reason to make it work.” 

Indeed, without the shackle of ultra-religious parties that had been crucial for Netanyahu’s earlier Likud-led governments pushing for larger subsidies for religious educational institutions, the new governing coalition has managed to pass an actual government budget for the first time in years. And the coalition has, so far, avoided painful diplomatic squabbles, even if the intractable problem of Israel’s relationship with Palestine remains beyond its reach. 

The US, where the political system is usually described as a duopoly between Republicans and Democrats, should be looked at more carefully in terms of the concept of forming coalitions. The contemporary Democratic Party is effectively an often-squabbling coalition of divergent groups, ideas and interests, spanning a leftist progressive wing, through consensus-builders in the centre, to a much more conservative right. 

Or, as Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has said, in any other nation, she and President Joe Biden would not be in the same political party (let alone with Senator Joe Manchin). For Democrats, especially without the kind of formal party discipline in the legislature of a parliamentary system, governing — as the world has observed with Congress’s struggles to pass the big infrastructure and social infrastructure bills — often demands building a precarious consensus coalition for almost every issue.

Britain has had its own problems with coalitions, as with former Tory prime minister David Cameron’s wobbly association with the Liberal Party and then for Theresa May’s even more awkward link-up with an extremist, Ulster-based Protestant party a few years later. 

But there is one British grand coalition that offers a real lesson for South Africa at this dangerous moment. And that, of course, was its government of national unity during World War 2. Labour Party leaders served willingly in Winston Churchill’s Cabinet during what was Britain’s gravest existential crisis. They subordinated themselves to deal with that huge national emergency. Once the war was over in Europe, it was quickly back to politics as usual, as Labour’s electoral success due to pent-up demands for greater social welfare programmes, pre-eminently a national health system, were crucial in defeating the very prime minister who had led the nation through the war years. Here lies a potential pathway for South Africans.

In fact, although it is sometimes forgotten in these hyper-politicised times, at the outset of the non-racial, democratic era, South Africa, in confronting the massive challenge of bringing together a fractured nation that seemed on the verge of real civil war, a government of national unity comprising parties who did not trust each other much was successfully convened. It wasn’t perfect, and it did not endure forever, but it helped bring about the peaceful transition out of the apartheid era — no small achievement.

While open conflict is (hopefully) not imminent, the challenges the nation faces — from providing basic, essential services to confronting the baleful economic landscape — can certainly be framed as the near-equivalent of the political challenges faced by the 1994 government. 

What if the country’s incumbent president chose to rebuild his Cabinet by drawing on the best talent (rather than it being used to balance internal factions) from his own party and from the other parties, as well as from non-party, experienced technocrat-style experts, to face the nation’s challenges?

Moreover, what if the president demanded, even insisted, that his (and all the other) parties’ representatives, down the line to dealing with each local council, followed suit; and if everyone in elective positions signed a binding, explicit pledge to work for the betterment of the nation, rather than partisan political or personal gain?

And then, to make everyone an offer they could not refuse, he promised the full weight of expeditious prosecution and immediate removal from office of anyone who went outside the lines in rigging tenders, contracts, or hiring? 

Is this just a pipe dream conjured up from the frustration of watching yet one more essential service race towards collapse? I am writing as our home electrical power has yet again gone off in “load shedding” because yet more generators have gone offline — or, perhaps just run out of fuel. Surely just about every resident of the nation has had enough of the failed services and broken promises, along with the wanton theft, waste and mismanagement?

A meaningful commitment — not just one more promise — to achieve effective governance could be a breath of fresh air that could finally generate confidence that this nation may yet turn the corner out of the growing darkness and despair. DM

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