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Coalition government may yet prove to be South Africa’s road to political salvation

Coalition government may yet prove to be South Africa’s road to political salvation
(l-r) Modiri Desmond Sehume, president of United Christian Democratic Party, Prince Nkwana, president of the Unemployed National Party, John Steenhuisen, federal leader of the Democratic Party, Prof Jannie Rossouw, Velenkosini Hlabisa, president of the Inkatha Freedom Party, Zukile Luyenge, president of ISANCO (Indepenent South African National Civic Organisation), Herman Mashaba, president of ActionSA, Winston Coetzee, deputy president of Spectrum National Party, Neil de Beer, president of the United Independent Movement and Mahlubi Madela, president of Ekhethu Peoples Party at the Multi Party Charter for South Africa press conference to set out how a Charter government will grow the economy and create jobs at the Royal Natal Yacht Club on January 24, 2024 in Durban, South Africa. The Charter's approach to generating inclusive economic growth and tackling unemployment represents a distinct departure from the status quo. (Photo by Gallo Images/Darren Stewart)

In post-independence Africa, coalition governments have produced the highest economic growth rates and highest levels of peace. Dominant liberation movements, military, religious and single-leader governments have produced catastrophic failures causing state collapse, civil wars and kleptocracy.

Fears that coalitions at provincial and national government levels following the 29 May elections will bring instability, paralysis and service delivery failures are misplaced. 

Coalition governments are arguably more fit for purpose than dominant-party governments for South Africa, one of the most diverse nations on earth.

Coalition governments involving multiple parties are prominent in more than 40 countries and are therefore a significant form of governance globally.

Since the end of colonialism in the post-World War 2 period, it has been the most successful form of government in Africa’s modern history.

Of the 54 African states, and apart from Botswana, the two most successful countries since World War 2 – in terms of peacefulness, economic prosperity and inclusivity – are Mauritius and Cape Verde, both extensively governed by coalitions.

In the post-independence period in Africa, coalition governments have produced the highest economic growth rates, most inclusive development and highest levels of peace.

And in many mature democracies such as Germany, Switzerland and Finland, they have produced stability, economic prosperity and rapid industrialisation.

In Africa, dominant liberation and independence movement governments, military governments, religious governments and single-leader dictator governments have produced catastrophic failures causing state collapse, civil wars and kleptocracy.

This is the reason that the majority of African countries, since the coming of independence, have become poorer and more dependent on development aid, while their peers in Asia – such as South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore – have become developed countries.

Therefore, any argument that coalition governance results in instability, incoherent delivery and division is misinformed.

Coalition governments can either be established when no party secures a majority, or they can be formed when one party gains a majority but includes the losing parties in a form of government of national unity (GNU). 

Coalitions can also be formed pre-election – before the parties have taken part in an election – or post-election, based on the results of the election.

Former South African president Nelson Mandela presided over a GNU, a form of coalition government, to promote reconciliation, inclusiveness and participation when – even though the ANC won the 1994 elections – he included all the major opposition parties into government, including the National Party, the former governing party. This was a relatively successful period in South Africa’s post-apartheid history.

Zimbabwe had a GNU at independence in 1980 until 1982. In February 2009, Zimbabwe’s ruling Zanu-PF formed a GNU with Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change and Arthur Mutambara’s faction of the MDC. The two GNU periods, 1980-1982 and 2009-2013, were the most peaceful in Zimbabwe’s post-independence history.

Coalition governance is particularly useful in ethnically, regionally, religiously and politically diverse societies, and low-trust societies. In such multiple diverse countries, as in the case of South Africa, governing parties must be inclusive of all political, ethnic, language, regional and local differences.

Coalitions have been particularly critical in countries rebuilding after war, ethnic conflict and civil war. 

Following its defeat in World War 2, Germany had long periods under coalition governments as parties spanning the ideological and religious divides worked together to rebuild the country, foster national unity and boost industrial recovery. 

In fact, in the post-World War 2 period, Germany was only governed for one term by a single party. The great German post-war growth miracle happened under coalition governments.

Coalition governance allows for greater participation of minorities in governance, helps cater for the interests of all groups in a country and for the adoption of policies that cater for marginalised constituencies, as dominant governing parties often only deliver to their constituencies and exclude the interests of non-supporters.

Furthermore, because coalition governance forces participants to regularly engage with each other, get to know the other side, and build relationships, it is a good institution to build trust across political, racial and class divides if done effectively.

Successful coalition governance cultures also affect the rest of society, making diverse societies more open to compromise, looking after the interests of all communities and stakeholders, and encouraging a culture of conflict resolution. This means coalition governance is likely to lead to more peaceful societies.

In Brazil, it took coalitions of parties to band together in the post-World War 2 era to push out military rulers and restore constitutional rule.

Coalitions can be successful even if the partners have different ideological outlooks, policies and stances. 

Switzerland has been governed by coalitions since 1959. The parties represented in the Switzerland Federal Council include such disparate ideological organisations as the Liberals (FDP/PLR), the Social Democratic Party (SP/PS), The Centre (DM/LC) and the Swiss People’s Party (SVP/UDC).

The cabinet of former German Chancellor Angela Merkel, between March 2018 and October 2021, consisted of widely ideologically divergent parties, including the Christian Democratic Union, Social Democratic Party and the Christian Social Union in Bavaria. 

The German economy expanded dramatically, unemployment dropped and exports boomed during the Merkel years of multi-ideological coalition governments.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in 2021 put together the most diverse coalition in the country’s political history, made up of eight parties from across the political spectrum with strong ideological differences. Bennett was from the right-wing Yamina party. The coalition also included an independent Arab party for the first time since Israel was created as a state in 1948.

Brazil’s Lula da Silva regained the presidency in October 2022 in a coalition of 10 parties, defeating incumbent Jair Bolsonaro. 

The broad coalition, led by Lula’s left-of-centre Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores) included implacable political enemies united by the goal of getting Bolsonaro out of power. 

The Lula coalition included the centre-right Social Democratic Party (Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira, or PSDB), the centre-right União Brasil and the Brazilian Democratic Movement (Movimento Democrático Brasileiro, or MDB).

Coalition governments have failed in many cases in South Africa because dominant parties are not making enough compromises; smaller parties are often made to feel excluded, and coalition pacts are wrongly based on agreeing first on the government positions or contracts each partner gets, rather than on agreeing beforehand on a joint policy programme.

Furthermore, South Africa has so far been unable to foster a coalition governance culture which includes parties making compromises, coalition partners giving each party a success story to report back to their constituency, and coalition partners seeing the coalition as almost a political party on its own that needs to be nurtured by all the members of the coalition. 

Many of the leaders of parties in coalitions often lack maturity.

The challenge with coalitions is that they need compromises for the greater good of public service delivery; leadership maturity to rise above ego, pettiness and self or individual party interest, and effective conflict-resolution mechanisms.

Many failed coalitions have not built conflict resolution mechanisms into their governance structures as part of their partnership deals. 

In many coalitions, the basis of the coalition partnership is allocating government positions and contracts to coalition partners. They often “own” these positions, only appointing their “own” members and supporters and implementing their “own” policies.

This increases silos in the governments over which coalitions preside, undermining public service delivery. This is why many coalitions have not improved service delivery.

There is often no firewall between party politics and the public administration. This means that if a coalition collapses at the local level, public services often also collapse. 

In many mature democracies, the public service is a professional one. And if coalitions collapse, the business of government continues uninterrupted.

Coalition governments must put together a coalition policy platform based on the shared inputs of all partners, almost creating an entirely new policy programme which is not an individual party programme, but a collective coalition programme. 

Coalition partners – and the coalition itself – must transparently explain coalition policies to their constituencies and report back on their achievements.

Some parties opposing opposition-led local government coalitions often deliberately plot to bring down the government. 

Some opposition leaders wrongly believe that opposing a governing opposition-led government means collapsing it, which is not the case.

Many others, within and outside, deliberately attack coalitions as a form of governance, either out of ignorance or to sway voters not to vote for smaller parties. They wrongly create public sentiment against coalition governments.

Ultimately in South Africa, the failure of many coalitions is not a failure of coalition as a form of governance, but a failure of the way they are structured, managed and nurtured. DM

Prof William Gumede is Founder and Executive Chairperson of the Democracy Works Foundation and Associate Professor at the School of Governance, University of the Witwatersrand.

He co-chairs the SA Local Government Association dialogue, “Strengthening Inclusive Coalition Governance for Effective, Efficient, and Transformative Service Delivery”, aimed at coming up with proposals for a coalition governance legal framework for all spheres of government, and taking place on 28 and 29 February 2024 in Pretoria. The dialogue is supported by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.

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  • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

    “Coalition governments are arguably more fit for purpose than dominant-party governments for South Africa, one of the most diverse nations on earth.”

    Possibly, but only if the involved parties are grown up and put South Africa first, and the track record so far is not great.

    I remain of the position that the best outcome for South Africa is a single strong competent party ruling or in opposition. And that the DA is the only party with that ability.

    To all other opposition parties I would like to know:

    1. what is so bad about the DA policies that is forcing you to start your own party? (or is it a personal ego trip?)

    2. why are you wasting money introducing multiple replicated party structures when a single one would be so much more efficient?

    3. it is obvious that splitting the opposition vote dilutes its effectiveness – why on earth would you do this?

    4. why are you introducing needless complexity and bickering potential into the running of our country

  • Dietmar Horn says:

    In my view, the DA is currently the only party in South Africa that has the maturity and competence to be comparable to the European parties mentioned. In the political spectrum there, I assign them to the liberal center. After 1994, under Mandela, I was hopeful that the ANC would evolve towards a social democratic party, with a clear anti-corruption agenda. South Africa, with a coalition government of ANC and DA, could have developed like the previously oppressed states in Central-Eastern Europe. Unfortunately, the South African people, like the Russian people, turned down a unique gift from history. Mandela and Gorbachev will go down in world history as tragic figures.

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