Defend Truth


Political coalitions are South Africa’s future yet cooperation and shared objectives between parties remain elusive


David Reiersgord works in international higher education, specifically on curriculum development and academic management for US study abroad learners in South Africa. He lectures part-time and is interested in literature, history and politics.

While the lustre of Cyril Ramaphosa’s presidency fades away, revealing rusty blemishes covered up by optimistic promises, imagining a post-ANC future of coalitions has come back into fashion. 

Local government is increasingly characterised by coalitions; it seems like national government soon will be too. Should the ANC fail to secure a majority in 2024, the dynamics of coalitions will become more complex, with implications of greater importance. 

While the ANC’s support declines throughout the country coalitions are becoming the defacto framework for South African politics of the future. Opposition parties will have greater latitude to work together, free from the constraints of the majority the ANC has enjoyed for more than two decades, as they become more entrenched. 

Such developments should be welcomed. Despite the plurality of proportional representation in South Africa, the ANC’s majority for much of the last two decades has left little room for alternative parties and voices to carve out space. More participation leads to more competition, which in theory should lead to more accountability.

Yet, without any party likely to secure a majority at either the municipal or national levels in 2024, there are no certainties about the outcomes coalitions may lead to. No opposition party has come even remotely close to challenging the ANC at the national level. 

The question thus is: if coalitions seem suitable at the local level, how will they translate at the national and provincial levels?

Imagining them as a mechanism for removing the ANC, or as a roadmap for arriving at a post-ANC future, reignite aspirations about what’s possible, when it seems like year after year there are only dead ends. 

But they also overlook the reality of South African politics: The ANC will be a key part of coalitions. The party is obviously not too big to fail. But it’s also too big not to be a central part of how coalitions will continue to develop.

If we are to believe in a post-ANC future, opposition parties and the coalitions they will form at the national and provincial levels run the risk of not having a shared goal, at least beyond removing the ANC. Just like it was when Jacob Zuma’s removal was the paramount goal of oppositional collaboration, viewing coalitions in this way has the potential to lose momentum should the goal be achieved in a couple of years. 

Without a shared vision of what coalitions can achieve, in addition to the sheer number of parties required to even form a majority, there are serious questions about how coherent coalitions at the national level would be. 

In their current form, the local dynamics of coalitions contrast with the national reality of leading the country. The DA and EFF, the only opposition parties with national footprints, would currently struggle to secure a combined majority if the ANC were to fall below 50%, if the 2019 and 2021 elections are anything to go by. 

If the future is to truly be post-ANC, then smaller parties like the IFP, VF+, ActionSA and others would necessarily be critical to forming a majority. These parties, though, struggle to gain anything beyond a provincial footprint (or municipal, in the case of ActionSA). 

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The presence of so many smaller parties works well in local contexts, where community needs can be more readily addressed. In contrast, parties with no national capacity already have and will continually challenge the DA and EFF for votes crucial to forming a majority at the national level. 

A post-ANC future, should it be a reality in the years to come, would be weakened by further distribution of votes among opposition parties because any majority that’s formed could be held together by tiny, fragile, margins.

But still, even if the DA were to experience significant gains and, for instance, secure 35% of the vote, the EFF would need to also more than double its size of the electorate to form a majority — while smaller parties which saw gains in 2021, would have to lose votes. And even if this were to happen, can the DA and EFF be expected to work together when the parties have drastically different visions of and for South Africa?

The size of their organisation and political networks all but require that the ANC will play a greater role in coalitions than just about anyone not affiliated with the party admits, especially as coalitions seem primed to jump from the local to the national level. 

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not happy about it. The party’s legitimacy to govern now rests — perhaps solely — on its legacy as a liberation party. This draw increasingly counts little with young people and voters in metros. They don’t have a good story to tell. Still, in any pull of the coalition slot machine, the ANC will receive the largest share of votes. 

Although opposition parties have eaten into the ANC’s once significant majority, the reality is that the ANC’s share of the electorate complicates efforts to imagine a future without the ANC. 

Foregrounding coalitions without the ANC suggests national aspirations for the future of how South African politics should work, don’t align with the local realities of how they may in fact play out. 

Continuing to ignore this contradiction when imagining the development of South Africa’s political landscape suggests those championing coalitions as a pathway to removing the ANC do so by nationalising local aspirations.

National elections may get more attention for their historical and symbolic significance but local elections, which are for representatives people interact with, are arguably more reflective of people’s immediate concerns. We should thus be more circumspect in how we draw from local examples of coalitions when imagining how they may work nationally. 

Coalitions clearly have a place in the future of South African politics. Nearly 30 years into the democratic project, no party looks likely to secure a majority within the next 10 years — or more. However, opposition parties, former politicians, journalists, analysts and casual voters alike are mistaken to peg the future of South Africa to be post-ANC. DM


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  • Cunningham Ngcukana says:

    You cannot have a dominant party politically and financially and hope when there are tectonic political shifts in the political landscape there will not be chaos. The paucity of scientific political analysis of the nature and character of the South African neocolonial state is at the centre of the failure to grasp the emerging phenomenon of coalitions and the accompanying chaos. The political plumbers some with appellation of professors fail to understand that at the root of the chaos is a constitutional system unsuited for the country given the level
    of educational and political literacy of members of political parties. The South African patrimonial state crafted from a negotiated settlement of unequals was bound at the end of ANC kleptocratic hegemony to produce chaos that must be understood as part of the necessary development of the South African political landscape. This grasp is absent from political parties.
    The point of stability will be reached not throgh legal political thuggery of the Eastern Cape kleptocrats but throgh understanding of polical agency of parties , its members and leaders. The ANC Conference in its organisational report pointed to one dimension of this. The quality of members that Mdumiseni Ntuli very well articulates that it produces outcomes of leaders who have no grasp of the very values, vision and mission of the party they are supposedly to lead. We ought not to insult the electorate as it will correct this.

  • Sue Grant-Marshall says:

    Surely the word in the headline should be: ‘ elusive’? Not ‘ allusive’ which has totally different meaning?

  • Ted Baumann says:

    Allusive? When is the DM going to get a competent editor?

  • Patterson Alan John says:

    A coalition?
    Which party can even get along with their own members?
    ‘Power’ is the word, and everyone wants to be the head honcho to grab the financial spoils.
    I wonder how many words will be used over the coming many years, to no positive effect?

  • Greg Bergsteedt Bergsteedt says:

    Hope the Sub-editor was full of the festive spirit; otherwise he or she should know the difference between “elusive” and “allusive” (the word used in the headline), whatever that means. Merry Christmas and thanks for the wonderful work you people do.

  • Roelf Pretorius says:

    The opposition parties want to read this critical analysis of their attitude towards government. Especially the DA, which has a totally unrealistic attitude of the role they are going to play. Because in national politics the DA will AT MOST be a junior partner in a coalition. Besides, the reaction of the opposition parties towards the Phala Phala myths created by Arthur Fraser implies that the overwhelming majority of them, including the DA, lacks even the most basic sense of responsibility towards the main role of government at national level, namely the preservation of stability. Their attitude towards coalitions mirrors that of the anti-Mbeki coalition inside the ANC had in 2007 – their coalition was built around grievances and blaming others instead of taking responsibility; the result was the disastrous reign of Zuma. So any opposition party that wants to form part of a ruling national coalition (even as a junior partner) has to start to be willing to co-operate with others in the larger interest of SA above its’ own interest. Competition is only good if it plays out within, and while respecting, the greater context of the greater good. If they don’t want to, we as South Africans simply can’t allow them to be part of government (including the DA). And while we talk of organisations being too big to fail: SA may be big, but it can fail, as the disaster of the Zuma years and the consequences we suffer now is testimony of. So let us come back to earth about this.

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