South Africa


A murky pond — SA’s coalition politics turns political minnows into big fish

A murky pond — SA’s coalition politics turns political minnows into big fish
Reinstated Johannesburg Mayor Mpho Phalatse. (Photo: Gallo Images / Luba Lesolle)

It is becoming clear that the biggest beneficiaries of coalition politics are the smaller parties which end up having an outsized influence on who is in power.

The decision by the Johannesburg High Court that found that the Joburg council’s decision to remove Mpho Phalatse as mayor was invalid may have long-term implications for council meetings when coalitions break down in the future. But the situation in that city also reveals some of the inner tensions within political parties about coalitions, and how decisions are made about who and who not to work with.

At the same time, there is more evidence, that as in Nelson Mandela Bay, in Joburg smaller parties have an outsize influence on who is in power. This means that they are able to exercise far more power than they deserve, considering the small number of votes they receive. This appears to be less than democratic in that minority groups will have a far greater voice than parties representing the majority.

Tuesday’s ruling regarding the council meeting that removed Phalatse and elected the ANC’s Dada Morero as mayor may have far-reaching implications. As Ferial Haffajee has already pointed out, the ruling was not about politics, but about whether the rules had been followed. It was also a warning that judges will be called on time and again to ensure that the rules are followed in future disputes like this — even though, as reiterated in the ruling, judges do not want to be dragged into political disputes

And there will be more. 

The disputes seen in Joburg this past month, in Ekurhuleni this week, in Tshwane last year and in Nelson Mandela Bay before that, are likely to be replicated at the provincial level in just two years’ time.

Yet we should not expect that political parties will accept the court rulings. 

Joburg is instructive here again — the leader of Al Jama-ah in the Joburg council, Thapelo Amad, told Newzroom Afrika that he believes the Joburg council is the “ultimate power” in the city, and that the court had infringed upon its independence.

Thankfully, in this issue, because of the nature of the case (the application was brought by Phalatse against the Speaker, Cope’s Colleen Makhubele, which the ANC did not oppose), this will not result in complete chaos. Morero immediately stepped aside as mayor, saying Phalatse can resume the seat. In all likelihood, his stepping aside will be short-lived as he will probably be voted back into the position at the next council meeting.

But one can imagine the chaos that may result in a council or a province in future when one of the major players refuses to accept a court ruling. Think service delivery grinding to a halt as political battles play out in the council and courthouses.

While these situations put more pressure on judges, the courts and the very rules of councils themselves, there is also evidence that they are putting more pressure on the dynamics within political parties.

Before the court ruling reinstated her, Phalatse confirmed publicly that she had wanted to stay in power by working with the EFF. She said she had proposed to the DA that the EFF receive just one seat in the Mayoral Committee, as that would allow the DA to stay in power.

But the party’s Federal Council, and presumably that council’s chair, Helen Zille, turned down the proposal and refused to work with the EFF.

This is not surprising. The DA’s top leadership is well aware that the party’s voters would be hostile to any suggestion that it works with the EFF. And EFF leader Julius Malema may well have other intentions. He would not be the first to try and use a coalition agreement with a party simply to weaken it.

Also, it would be an unholy alliance, in that a cursory look at the two parties’ election manifestos shows they want very different things, and from that point of view, it simply would not work.

However, it also shows how part of the DA, represented by Phalatse, wanted to try this avenue irrespective of their divergent positions. 

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Strange bedfellows

Staying in power is a strong motive to have strange bedfellows. So it may be for this reason that decisions about who to go into coalitions with are made at a very high level within parties and with just a few decision-makers involved.

For example, in the ANC it is entirely likely that the leader of its Ekurhuleni region, Mzwandile Masina, would be very happy to work with the EFF there. In the past, he has tweeted his support for the EFF’s economic policy over the economic policy of his own party. 

It is possible that just debating the question of whether the ANC should work with the EFF would divide the ANC’s National Executive Committee almost down the middle. While it would give the ANC power in more metros in the shorter term, Malema’s stated intention of using coalitions to “destroy” the ANC from the inside may lead to trouble in the longer term.

This suggests that parties are always going to keep the list of people involved in these decisions very small. But it also means that some councillors may be tempted to rebel against their own party just to retain power.

In the meantime, it is becoming clear that those who benefit the most from all of this are the smaller parties. As they hold the balance of power, they are able to extract a very high price.

There are different views on this.

Speaking on SAfm on Wednesday morning, Professor Steven Friedman suggested that some bigger parties need to learn to share power with smaller parties properly. The DA and its loss of support from the smaller parties in Joburg is an obvious example of this. Friedman’s point is that giving a smaller party power is the price you pay to govern in a coalition, and bigger parties should remember they are in coalitions.

But writing in Business Day last week, Municipal IQ’s Kevin Allan pointed out how this can end up.

Using the example of Joburg under the ANC before this week’s court ruling reinstating Phalatse, he observed that four small parties, which together represent just 4.8% of voters in Joburg, occupied four of the eight seats in the Mayoral Committee. One party, the ATM, had a Mayoral Committee seat after winning 0.35% of the vote.

For some, this may not be democratic.

It also means that it is relatively easy to get a few hundred or a few thousand votes in a particular area of a city and end up exercising inordinate power. Worse, it almost incentivises people to switch their support between the bigger parties, entrenching a dynamic which could be termed “instability for hire”.

It is tempting to suggest structural changes to prevent this from happening, such as a law that a party can only occupy a seat on the Mayoral Committee if they win 5% or more of the votes in that council. Or that coalitions can only be formed, as the SA Local Government Association has suggested, after the signing of a public coalition agreement. Or even the introduction of legally binding coalition agreements.

But as Friedman points out, it is very likely that politicians will find ways to get around those kinds of fixes anyway, and they may turn out to limit democracy.

All of this suggests that this kind of politics and the instability it brings may be with us for some time to come. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Dennis Bailey says:

    Fascist ANC – as many have thought/ believed/ tauted for years. The very nature of fascism is that it is popularity and personality-driven.

  • Eunice van Wyk says:

    I would like to suggest that when a party/group of parties bring a motion of no confidence and the motion succeeds, there should be a by-election. That way, the people can decide which party should govern the city. Otherwise, this type of “high jacking” will always be with us.

  • Derrick Kourie says:

    Fringe parties purport to serve some special interest. Their claimed differentiating attributes have to do with race or tribe or language group or religion. Generally, these special interest can be supported by forming internal coalitions within the broader policies of one or more of the larger parties.

    But fringe parties are usually led by people with inflated egos. They leave other parties precisely because they are not good at compromising or sticking to the disciplines of the larger party. So it is not surprising that they tend to be unstable partners in coalitions.

    Voters should be aware of this and avoid voting for fringe parties.

  • Cunningham Ngcukana says:

    I think to blame the outcomes of the elections and not the conduct of the political parties and their leadership is a direct insult to the South African democracy. That the DA has no outright majority and the EkuRhuleni had an accidental Mayor from the DA thanks to ActionSA and EFF we have no tears to shed for he but words of warning that to ignore how she occupied that office was her downfall. She herself never expected to be a Mayor but now she has the temerity to call people names and frankly she is a nobody in the scheme of things. The EFF leader recently made it clear that they would not be voting for the ANC in that metro. The ActionSA may take the mayoral chain if the coalition of Zille agrees as the EFF would support such. Alternatively, the EFF may put its own candidate with the support of the ANC to continue to have EFF support in Johannesburg. However, it must be borne in mind that all parties have an eye to the 2024 elections and their actions are informed by that. The DA would like to regain lost ground with high profile resignations in the province to hold on its support by running councils through coalitions. The EFF and ANC are aware of this and would not want that to happen. ActionSA remains a bit naive rather than leave the DA out of power and eat in its constituency as they are basically propping up the DA.
    When it is said every vote counts it means that parties have to ensure that their supporters show up on election day and it is an international norm.

  • Steve Stevens says:

    Should the bar not be raised to prevent the formation of ‘minnows’ in the first place? Local politics is a reflection of our fractured Opposition at national level – a constant recycling of the once powerful who naively think that hundreds of thousands of us will miraculously rally behind their latest wheeze. Alternatively, similar to the French system of proportional representation, a series of runoffs that progressively weed out second and third choice candidates.

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