The ANC has not been sitting on its political laurels in recent months and years. It has not been waiting patiently for the day of reckoning – as it turns out, 1 November 2021 – at the hand of South Africa’s (shrinking relative to the eligible voters) electorate. It has been working from many angles to ensure that its days as a governing party, or predominant party and unchallenged leader in governing coalitions, are not counted.
While this analysis takes stock of the survival-by-coalition repertoires that have been materialising around the ANC, the ever-present subtext is the rewards that motivate the coalition parties to band together.
The possibility that the ANC could have been solidifying its support, in its own right, since the heady Zuma abyss days of the preceding 2016 local elections, has to be considered as prologue to coalition analysis.
President Cyril Ramaphosa had redeemed the ANC electorally, so it seemed, in 2017. The party tasted the benefits of the electorate’s belief in the existence of the cleaner-better ANC in the 2019 national and provincial elections. Much has happened since.
In recent times, voters have been reminded that the ANC is no behemoth anymore. Ongoing corruption revelations (and practices) cancel out the uber promise of a new ANC. Organisationally the ANC has ostensibly been running out of money; it has self-embarrassed by factional strife and an inability to nominate candidates of good repute in good time. Its internal feuds elicited the KwaZulu-Natal riots, which brought unparalleled financial repercussions.
We are waiting to see how this battery of recent developments has affected the ANC’s credibility in the eyes of the electorate. Voters could have been repelled from voting; it could also have placed seeds for support of small, micro or maverick parties and independents.
The August 2021 Ipsos survey showed that a bigger percentage of respondents than the block that anticipate voting for the ANC give a barrage of non-party responses: many are not sure whether they will vote, whom to vote for and so forth. The ANC remains by far the most widely endorsed of the political parties, even if they reach only 49%. Fact is, that type of support level will be sufficient, once a handful of the uncommitted votes are added, to give the ANC outright majorities in the bulk of the councils where it has held power from 2011 to 2016.
Beyond this scenario in which the ANC largely holds municipal power on its own, the ANC could at quite a number of municipal sites come to rely on the “Ekurhuleni model” of coalitions. This is where the ANC falls short minimally of an outright majority; it needs only the support of a small party, or two, to reach the level of 50% of council votes. Ekurhuleni made for the easiest of ANC coalitions – the four votes of the African Independent Congress (AIC) gave the ANC its 50% plus 1. The one-councillor parties of the Patriotic Alliance (PA) and the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) tagged along as little coalition spare wheels.
The “miracle” of this coalition was that the AIC could persevere in believing that the ANC would make good on the coalition agreements in which it promised to deliver the Eastern Cape’s Matatiele to KwaZulu-Natal. Alternatively, the AIC knew that, as a gullible kingmaker in a powerful metropolitan council, it had unsurpassed limelight and bargaining power for patronage.
It is especially in the small local municipalities scattered around South Africa that the ANC has been rehearsing how to stay in power – it weaponised coalitions with minor and community political parties. Occasionally a few independents came in handy too.
With many more community parties and independents in the field in 2021, the ANC may be spoilt for choice of coalition partners. The small contestants too have learnt from the class of 2016: the position of tiebreaker party can bear gifts of positions, portfolios and perks such as business opportunities.
Micro-parties in governing coalitions enjoy disproportionate power – way beyond anything the electorate had ever bestowed.
In several of the 2011-2016 coalition councils, the ANC edged the Democratic Alliance (DA) out of coalition power by grabbing power through “hijacking” small parties into ANC coalitions. The antics, for example, in the municipalities of Knysna (with the help of the Knysna Unity Congress and the Congress of the People), the Karoo Gemeenskap Party in Prince Albert, Kgatelopelo Community Forum in Kgatelopelo, and the Metsimaholo Civic Association and Forum 4 Service Delivery in Metsimaholo demonstrate the range of tactics the ANC has applied to win over the elected representatives from small political parties. The exact quid pro quos for coalition-hopping into the ANC coalitions are the stories that remain to be told.
It can only be expected that in several of these localities the ANC has, by now, worked to establish firm relationships with these coalition partners of the last few years. Reports from the ground suggest that the ANC has been striking preemptively, working to form agreements with some of these parties. If the election results remain comparable to 2016, post-election coalition formation could be a breeze. Post-2016 by-elections and other community events have suggested, however, that not all of the small and micro players have been retaining community favour.
Further variations on this model emerged through a report in Mail & Guardian (1-7 October 2021) where Al Jama-ah divulged that it had been in talks with the ANC on sharing a pool of councillors, should the Electoral Commission have barred the ANC from supplementing its candidate nominations. The sites range from Cape Town to small KwaZulu-Natal councils. A broad cooperative thrust emerged; it will probably be rekindled should the ANC need coalition top-ups.
Of course, the opposition parties do not necessarily operate by one centralised coalition dynamic. The Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), for example, can be the ANC’s majority top-up party in one council (as in Mogale City and Johannesburg) and an opposing coalition bloc participant at sites in KwaZulu-Natal.
Another coalition model comes into play when the biggest political parties – hitherto the ANC and the DA – fall far short of outright majorities. Both of these parties can then build 50% only through co-opting the third biggest player, probably still the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), into a governing coalition. The EFF is a difficult, erratic coalition partner. When convenient, it invokes national policy differences as a reason to break an existing coalition (Johannesburg, Tshwane with the DA). Alternatively, it will stay the full coalition term with the DA and Freedom Front Plus (such as in Modimolle-Mookgophong). Should the EFF be determined to remain non-aligned, unstable minority governments will be the result. ActionSA may in places emerge as a mini-EFF.
These are the coalition models and party political antics that South Africa will see unfolding across the 257 councils in the days following the day of reckoning (or not) for local government failures. These are the superstructures of party political power plays.
Veiled in the backrooms of party negotiations, done and dusted or still to be completed, will be opaque and unaccountable deliberations. That is where the deals will be sealed to determine who, from which party, gets coveted municipal portfolios to control, seats on the mayoral committees and influential, lucrative positions of mayors, deputy mayors and speakers.
Little of the details of the formal or informal municipal coalition agreements will become public. Barely anything will be divulged beyond vacuous statements of the pursuit of common goals pertaining to, of course, “citizen and community interest”.
Coalition agreements in South Africa are not obligated – and in terms of available law their contents need never be revealed unless voluntarily, in full or in part, by the parties to the coalition agreement. Given the likely looming curve in coalition formation, this is the time for voters to know the details of the deals that will follow in local government formation, after the casting of the votes. DM
Susan Booysen is visiting and emeritus professor, University of the Witwatersrand. Her latest book, ‘Precarious Power: Compliance and Discontent Under Ramaphosa’s ANC’, explores the question of how the ANC, discredited and disgraced in so many respects, sustains its popular following and electoral support. It is published by Wits University Press and is available for sale and to order from bookshops and online retailers.
This analysis uses insights from Marriages of Inconvenience. MISTRA. 2021. Booysen, Susan (ed.) Marriages of Inconvenience: The politics of coalitions in South Africa. Johannesburg: Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection. Marriages of Inconvenience launches on 8 July 2021.