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Coalition politics and government – a power and predation roller coaster ride, or means of curbing excess?

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Ebrahim Fakir is a senior research associate at the Centre for African Diplomacy and Leadership (CADL) at the University of Johannesburg and a Director at the Auwal Socio-Economic Research Institute (ASRI). He serves on the Board of Afesis-Corplan, a development NGO based in East London.

Will this weekend’s National Dialogue on Coalition Governments avoid the pitfall of overregulation in favour of prudence?

Contemporary South African politics is a circus populated by clowns, and the National Dialogue on Coalition Governments starting on Saturday promises to be no different. 

As political parties and others gather to discuss the intricacies of coalition politics and government, one cannot help but wonder if the political parties will outgrow the immaturity that animated them this past decade.  

To ensure a stable coalition government, it is essential to understand the distinction between coalition politics and coalition government. 

While coalition politics is focused on the acquisition of power and forming alliances for electoral gain, coalition government deals with the administration of power and day-to-day governance and administration. 

South Africa’s current near-decade-long experience with coalition and minority governments has been marred by parasitic predation where parties prioritise their own interests over public welfare.

Current politics are blighted by schizophrenic political parties pursuing self-referential policies in detached public institutions unresponsive to societal needs. 

This disconnect has led to a loss of public confidence in politics and democratic government with people disengaging from political and public life. 

This leaves parties and politicians (in its crudest sense) to prioritise self-serving agendas unrestrained, and unaccountable, leading to a further trust deficit in political parties and public institutions. 

Hence, South Africa has uneven representation and complete unresponsiveness from elected representatives and appointed officials.

The normalisation of this absurd politics in abnormal social conditions results in democratic reversal and, in extreme cases, combustive and conflictual situations as seen in other African countries like Nigeria, Lesotho or Kenya, where violent conflicts are often based solely on proximity to power. 

Societal fault lines such as race, inequality, unemployment and poverty are instrumentalised to justify capricious policy and manipulation of processes and institutions to the benefit of a predatory political class. 

What could happen? 

To make matters worse, parties resort solely and exclusively to tactical alliances rather than finding compatibility with parties with aligned principles, policy proximity or ideological compatibility. This, as some cases in the world show, is not strictly necessary. 

Parties of different persuasion can work together. But they must have fidelity to the agreements they strike. 

In South Africa, even where proximity and compatibility exist, there is no fidelity to agreements. Rather, brinkmanship and obstructionism become the norm. 

This perpetuates a cycle of power struggles and compromises that undermine the essence of democratic representation.

Ultimately, South Africa’s coalition politics require a delicate dance of compromise, consensus and trust. 

Only by putting the public welfare first and adhering to democratic principles, can this chaotic circus of coalition governments be tamed.

To stabilise coalition governments in South Africa, one approach would be to promote a special type of coalition politics that focuses on serving the public rather than preying on their fears and insecurities. 

The possibilities for coalitions are endless, and some potential combinations are comically complicated. From grand coalitions to prickly personality clashes, the future of South Africa’s governance is a guessing game. 

Looking at past voter turnouts, we can expect a range of possibilities to emerge from the 2024 general elections. In considering the possibilities of regulating coalition governments in this context, four notable scenarios stand out. 

The first is that the ANC continues with a majority, no matter how slim. The obvious consequence is the continued venality and dysfunction in government with the evil of the “P’s” – paranoia, prevarication and paralysis – continuing. 

The second is an ANC-DA grand coalition, which may offer advantages in terms of stability, practicality and the realigning of social relationships of solidarity. However, deep-seated mutual fears and suspicions between the two parties could hinder effective cooperation.

The third is a DA-led moonshot (or pie in the sky) pact minority government. This may even, unthinkably, include the EFF (yes – desperation for power has previously driven them into each other’s arms. It may happen again). 

The usual Moonshot Pact though, which involves the DA, Action SA, ACDP, IFP, FF+ and others, faces significant challenges due to the parties’ prickly personalities and their opportunistic approach to politics. 

The alliance of multiple smaller parties with a larger one may lead to fragmentation, incoherence and instability. Difficulties in constructing a coherent platform and constant leadership squabbles can undermine its effectiveness.

Fourth, an ANC-EFF combination presents a destabilisation of society in the relentless pursuit of power. The EFF’s unpredictable and recidivist behaviour will exacerbate institutional instability and fragmentation within the ANC. 

The symbiotic relationship between the two parties leverages social division for political capital rather than addressing these as public policy problems to be solved. 

But no matter the outcome, one thing is clear: coalitions of sorts, even if not at the national level, will continue to shape the landscape of South African governance. The local level is experiencing close to a decade of it, since 2016. 

As always, South Africa woke up late and is only considering public debate about it.    

What can be done? 

Legislation and regulation could play a role in stabilising coalition governments. Chief among them is to implement a threshold for holding executive office. 

This has become an unpopular view since some people argue that the introduction of a threshold could be construed as unconstitutional and will disadvantage small parties, defy the logic of proportional representation (PR) and inclusivity, and work to the advantage of larger parties since the votes cast for small(er) parties in the electoral system will be discarded and allocated to larger ones.

This view is mistaken. 

The argument for thresholds applies only to the holding of executive office, not to representation. The threshold does not serve to exclude representation, merely precluding the possibility of executive office where there is a failure to reach the threshold. For the stabilisation of government, two concrete proposals should be considered. 

  • At local level, a party must achieve at least 15% of the PR vote, and win at least 25% of the wards in a municipality to qualify for inclusion in the executive. These thresholds indicate marked support across a municipality and in wards.
  • At provincial level, a party must have at least 30% of the votes to be included in the provincial executive.
  • At national level, a party must have won at least 20% of the PR vote and garnered at least 15% of the provincial vote in at least four provinces to hold executive office nationally.

These proposals obviously exclude independents from holding executive office. 

But given the garbled and frankly inappropriate and problematic electoral system that South Africa currently has (the new Electoral Amendment Act included), this is a problem we will have to temporarily live with until there is – and this is urgent – a new and thoroughly revised electoral system. 

In any case, the president has the prerogative to appoint members of the executive from outside the National Assembly, and so those two can be leveraged to include others s/he may wish to accommodate.                  

Then there are other proposals. Enforcing written agreements between coalition partners may help ensure transparency and accountability. But let’s face it – coalition politics in South Africa is a messy affair. Conflicting interests, power struggles, brinkmanship and opportunism are all part of the game. 

To stabilise coalition governments, other regulatory measures could be introduced, such as granting the party with the largest share of votes the first opportunity to form a government, or ensuring there are written coalition agreements with provisions for deadlock-breaking and conflict-resolution mechanisms. This can help enhance transparency and accountability. 

However, the success of such regulations depends on the parties’ willingness to cooperate and respect institutional rules. A culture of compromise, communication and consensus-seeking is essential for effective coalition governance. This is sorely lacking. 

Caution must be exercised in bureaucratic measures, such as registering coalitions with the IEC and a registrar of political parties. While these approaches have been implemented in other countries, their efficacy in South Africa’s political climate remains uncertain.

It is essential to tread carefully and be aware of the potential pitfalls that excessive regulation can bring. 

One of the primary advantages of coalition governments is the opportunity for diverse representation and a broader range of perspectives that address the needs of various communities. But they can have major pitfalls, especially when excessive regulation is involved in coalitions, which can lead to policy paralysis and stonewalling. 

When numerous parties with differing ideologies and priorities are involved, decision-making can become slow and cumbersome. The pursuit of unanimity on every issue can stifle progress, hindering government’s ability to address urgent challenges effectively. 

Coalition governments are also susceptible to internal conflicts and ego battles among coalition partners. Excessive regulation can exacerbate these tensions, as parties may feel their autonomy is being compromised. 

The DA-ActionSA brinkmanship, and ANC-EFF gossip and mutual insults are legendary examples of this.

Overregulation of coalitions and the agreements between parties can lead to a situation where they are forced to work together when they in fact do not wish to. 

It could lead to petty personality clashes or deeper disputes over policy implementation and power-sharing. 

A well-crafted agreement that outlines the roles and responsibilities of each partner, while allowing for some flexibility, can mitigate the risk of friction within the coalition.

Then there may be the counter-intuitive consequence of limited accountability while devising a framework that promotes it. 

An overly rigid framework can have the opposite effect in a coalition government, with power dispersed among multiple parties – scapegoating, finger-pointing and blame-shifting become easier, making it challenging to hold any specific party accountable for policy failures 

It’s always exciting times in South African politics. But we need some stability now. 

We will only get it, as well as effective responsive government – coalition or otherwise – if the discussion at this weekend’s national dialogue is focused on public welfare rather than the crafting of a coalition framework that exclusively serves the interests of predatory political parties. DM

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  • Jacques Wessels says:

    Politicians are all from the same cloth just the colours differ. Citizens need to rebuild our democracy from local levels by exposing politicians & officials alike that way we will build confidence and competence in local structures and subsequently into higher levels of society. Get involved join rate payers and similar apolitical groupings or continue to allow these entrenched self serving individuals to rule your life

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