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Disunited we stand: Coalition politics in South Africa is jinxed when politicians behave badly in pursuit of power


Susan Booysen is Director of Research, Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (MISTRA), and visiting and emeritus professor, Wits School of Governance.

Coalition politics and governance in South Africa epitomise instability. Vacillating and opportunistic party interests prevail over accountable, constructive and developmental government. Coalition governments have not been responsible for creating the country’s dismally performing, unaccountable local governments, yet coalitions have often exacerbated the poor showings.

Coalitions are the answer when political parties in democracies do not win by outright margins and majority governments have to be constituted. Yet, the way in which political parties and politicians practise coalitions in South Africa means coalitions are, at best, a fraught alternative.

A study by the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (Mistra) has been investigating prospects for getting a stable, pro-people, coalition government in South Africa. It explores prevailing South Africa practice in African and global contexts, analyses the “coalition culture” that has been taking hold in South Africa and synthesises the changes and reforms, including legal, that are possible.

Such stocktaking is important as South Africa veers towards the next set of local government elections, any time from late this year into 2022. Electoral and coalition prospects are framed by the reality that the main political parties, the African National Congress (ANC), Democratic Alliance (DA) and Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), are unstable and suffering credibility issues.

This condition spawns a host of microparties and independent candidates and councillors. Discordant and divergent coalitions result; the biggest unifying factor being the prospect of being part of a council majority – the politics of the arithmetic that will deliver the municipal spoils.

Coalition politics and governance in South Africa epitomise instability. Vacillating and opportunistic party interests prevail over accountable, constructive and developmental government. Coalition governments have not been responsible for creating the country’s dismally performing, unaccountable local governments, yet coalitions have often exacerbated the poor showings.

Coalition government has been present in South African politics since the start of democracy, across several provinces and many local municipalities. The 2016 elections propelled coalitions into the centre of local government attention when they became necessary in the major metropoles.

The ANC’s decline in overall electoral standing informed this change. Its uncertain recovery from this decline, and the institutionalisation of opportunism as part of coalition culture, mean that local government coalitions are likely to persevere. The challenge is to improve coalition practice so that citizens need not suffer because of the misdemeanour of the parties in coalitions.

The 1994 government of national unity was a grand coalition which helped build transitional unity. This was as close to constructive and mature as coalitions in South Africa have been. It lasted for a few years, until party interest and strategic manoeuvring took over. In the bulk of other cases since, coalitions have been a tactical and strategic game: conquering opposition parties and consolidating power have been driving forces.

The ANC has used coalitions to help it consolidate provincial power. The ANC and erstwhile New National Party (NNP) formed a coalition. In the Western Cape it helped the ANC into power temporarily, before elections revealed that NNP supporters had rather migrated into the then Democratic Party. The ANC could not hang on to the power it had gained fleetingly. 

The ANC had better coalition fortunes in KwaZulu-Natal. Here, it used provincial coalitions as a vehicle to gradually capture the province from the Inkatha Freedom Party.

Mistra’s study includes reference to countries where coalitions have matured as a way to do stable government. Both in Africa occasionally and further afield internationally, there is evidence of successful, stable and policy-inspired coalition practice.

Political parties commit themselves to a governing alliance in which they find ideological and policy resonance. Chances are they had spent considerable time negotiating a coalition agreement, which is anchored in policy convergence or agreement on legislative and policy programmes. The parties in mature coalition cultures regard the agreements as politically and morally binding. Direction given by the party leaders is crucial. 

Parties that are successful in coalitions are normally also stable internally.

Such signifiers of successful coalition practice appear to be diametrically opposed to much of what has become synonymous with coalition politics in South Africa. 

Motivations to enter into coalitions have been based on, for example, pressure to force the ANC to rid itself of former president Jacob Zuma, or simply to be part of any majority that will have the numbers to be in power. The major deterrent to successful coalitions has been interparty competition that does not subside once elections are over.

Instead, coalition governments have been the instrument in destabilising interparty contests: what political parties had not achieved in elections will be attempted via coalitions. It is elections by another name. New majorities may be constructed; the bigger parties can be defeated by cobbling together a handful of micro parties or individuals who are elevated to be major kingmakers.

“Big man” politics, and parties being dictated to by higher-level political bosses, is the name of South Africa’s coalition game.

South Africa has not been alone in the game of disgrace by coalition. Both further afield and in countries such as Malawi, Lesotho and Kenya, coalition politics has also run wild, demonstrating the extent to which policy and governance suffer when the coalition elephants fight. For example, where party and presidential aspirations can be served by varying coalition formations, governance has burnt.

Local government in South Africa is where these ugly coalition faces have revealed themselves most graphically. Motions of no confidence have become Trojan horses through which government changes are imported. Council tricks of thwarting quora and preventing essential decisions and even budgets from being passed have become standard repertoires of councillors who play and fight rather than govern. Speakers are no neutral positions that can bring sanity to municipal proceedings. Rather, they are the bearers of deciding votes.

Personal competency and leadership skill, along with party credibility and integrity, are seen as optional if contestants for the position of speaker, mayor and deputy mayor can help construct a council majority. Ability to ring in quality governance simply does not feature. It is majorities, access to positions and leveraging party or personal resources through the control of municipal portfolios that count. This is the reputation that coalition politics has built for itself, particularly in local government in South Africa.

As the ANC support base contracts and outright majorities generally shrink, this “ugly” coalition format of future government becomes increasingly possible. Even if the ANC sustains itself in the next local elections, it is likely that South Africa will have in the region of 30 local and metropolitan councils governed by coalitions. This has been the pattern since 2000.

While there is time before the next local elections (Covid-19 permitting), is it possible to bring in reforms to help ensure that coalition politics will be used to leverage constructive, developmental local governance?

As this analysis shows, most of the activities that discredit coalitions are in the domain of party politics. Little enforcement of better practice is possible: ingrained political cultures and practices of competition and subjugation of opponents stand in the way, except if voters and public opinion will implore parties and leaders to stop behaving badly. Opportunism, brown-bag imperatives and coalition-induced pilfering of public resources need to be subdued.

The local government legislative framework also enables self-stabilisation, even in the face of coalition governments. Existing legislation permits that the municipal executive system can be one of two types: collective executive system or the mayoral executive. Most South African municipalities have been opting for the mayoral executive, which gives more power to the mayors, opportunities for one-party control and bargaining chips to enrol parties in coalitions.

In contrast, the collective executive boasts ingrained proportional representation. If this system were prescribed rather than optional, all municipal executives would be proportional and cooperative.

A range of other interventions is possible to help rescue coalition politics from itself, short of the unlikely route of constitutional change. If a relatively autonomous local government is to be controlled, provincial intervention is possible – and proven to be politically driven and largely ineffectual. The courts have intervened, but these are short-term options.

It is inescapable. Unless South Africa’s parties and their leaders assume responsibility and enact coalitions that serve stable and constructive governance, coalition futures will be harrowing. DM


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