Unless a new electoral system emerges in the next few months, we must accept the inevitability of coalitions as the future of South African government.
While this prospect fills many with fear, others argue that coalition governments could be the best safeguard against the demagoguery, dictatorship and one-party dominance that has beset many countries on the African continent.
Regardless of where one stands on the matter, the one thing that is certain is that this new era of governance will be a test of resilience for our young democracy as we shift from the ways of the past, respond to the present and reflect on the future.
This moment requires us to look beyond catchy slogans and party rhetoric and pay attention to the specific individuals we entrust with navigating us out of these treacherous waters.
Coalition governments are not inherently a recipe for disaster, but they certainly have the potential to be when we have the wrong individuals around the table tasked with leading them. The type of leadership and the leadership style required in a coalition government differs markedly from that which is required in a single dominant party state, or an autocracy, for example.
The focus should be on ensuring that the type of leaders we elect match the nature of the problem we are trying to solve. In doing so, we will transcend the constraints of our ideological enclaves, inherent biases, and long-standing party affiliations towards an agreed-upon set of baseline eligibility criteria that is applicable to all public leaders regardless of which political party has put their name forward.
Currently, the gate is wide open, and anyone is welcome. Criminals, liars, philanderers, money launderers, sex offenders – anything goes.
To say we have lowered the bar would be too kind – there is no bar.
But we cannot simply accept this.
We cannot surrender the futures of our children and those of our fellow citizens to those we can plainly see are spectacularly ill-equipped for the task.
There are countless leaders who exist within and across the various political parties and equally outside of politics that, were they given the opportunity to lead, our country might actually be able to avoid its imminent collapse. We, the citizens, must insist that those entrusted with compiling party lists are at all times putting our values and aspirations first.
In 2005, Angela Merkel, a former scientist turned politician, was elected as the Chancellor of Germany and tasked with leading a grand coalition of which her party (the Christian Democratic Union) had not outrightly secured the greatest share of the vote.
During her 16-year term of office, Merkel navigated Germany, and by extension the European Union, through some of the greatest crises of the century including the 2008 financial crisis, Brexit and of course, most recently Covid-19 – all the while maintaining her overall favourability rankings and not being tainted by any noteworthy scandals.
Many attribute her success to her style of leadership which has been described as “pragmatic and methodical”, devoid of ego, democratic but decisive, and consensus-seeking. Like many other great leaders in history, notwithstanding our very own Nelson Mandela, she is known for “leading from behind”, otherwise termed in German “politik der kleinen schritte”, which directly translated means the “politics of baby steps”.
So what lessons can we learn from some of these leaders and what type of leadership is required if we are to be successful in navigating the treacherous and unknown terrain of the next five years?
I would like to offer a few attributes that I believe should be non-negotiables:
- Pragmatism should be the order of the day. We cannot afford performative or ideology-driven politics. We will need leaders who can gently marshal us towards consensus and who are motivated to find solutions;
- We need leaders who demonstrate a cooperative and collaborative approach, leaders who can “play nicely with other children” and aren’t going to sulk and take their ball home because the game isn’t going in their favour;
- Coalition leaders should possess higher levels of EQ than we have become accustomed to and a fair degree of political nous to be able to manage the different personalities, egos and agendas; and
- We will also need leaders who are adept at the lost art of negotiation, but also those who can tread the delicate balance of being consultative and decisive (something sorely lacking in our current political leadership).
Of course, ethical conduct, technical competence and a proven track record of effective leadership go without saying.
This is certainly not the time for “big man”-style politics or ego and personality-driven politics.
Perhaps, it might be time to get more women in the room? DM