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South Africa is ripe for a coalition government — but will it succeed?

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Professor Daniel Meyer is economic development specialist and policy analyst, School of Public Management, Governance and Public Policy, College of Business and Economics, University of Johannesburg.

Coalition governments typically require ongoing stability, leading to delays in decision-making and implementation, which can affect service delivery. Finding common ground necessitates compromise, potentially eroding party identities.

A coalition government is established when no single party secures a majority following the tallying of votes in elections at the national, provincial or local government levels. A coalition government typically arises when no political party commands a majority and comprises parties with varying ideological viewpoints. Such cooperation between parties enables the distribution of power and duties.

In such coalition governments, policies and decisions typically emerge from negotiations among coalition members, requiring compromises and the establishment of consensus among diverse interests. Political parties negotiate to establish the coalition government’s framework, addressing matters such as the distribution of leadership roles, policy emphases, and protocols for decision-making within the coalition.

A coalition government is characterised by its fluidity, demanding continual negotiation and concession. Coalition governments find traction in a period of political transition from a single dominant political party to a more politically diverse landscape, including political parties to the left and right of the dominant party.

The advent of democracy in South Africa began with a coalition government in 1994, referred to as the “Government of National Unity”. The ANC emerged victorious in the inaugural election in the same year and has since maintained governance for the past 30 years.

Subsequently, coalition formations have occurred at the provincial level in the Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal and within municipal administrations. However, coalition dynamics have assumed greater significance following the local government elections of 2016 and 2021, during which a rising number of municipalities, including metro municipalities, experienced “hung councils”, signifying that no single party secured a majority of council seats.

After the 2021 elections, about 70 councils found themselves in this scenario, necessitating coalitions. The growing number of possible coalition governments in the local sphere indicates the rising possibility of a coalition government in the national sphere of government in 2024 with the election on 29 May.

Like many liberation movements, the ruling ANC has witnessed a gradual decrease in voter backing over the past two decades, which is evident in electoral data.

In the 2014 national election, the ANC secured 62% of the total votes, whereas in 2019 this figure dropped to 57%, although it remained the dominant party.

Analysing local government elections, the ANC garnered 53.9% in 2016, which dwindled to 47.7% in 2021. These figures indicate a discernible decline for the ANC, with national and local elections yielding disparate outcomes, differing by 8% to 9%.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Zuma’s MK party snatches votes from ANC, IFP in fierce Zululand contest as it gives big parties another huge fright

Projecting the results for the 2024 national election poses challenges, but based on the trends seen between 2014 and 2019, an annual decline in support for the dominant party of 1% was evident.

Extrapolating this decline, the ANC’s anticipated result in 2024 could be about 52%. However, it’s crucial to acknowledge that the pace of decline has accelerated after 2019, attributed to inadequate service delivery, the waning popularity of President Cyril Ramaphosa, and the emergence of alternative parties siphoning ANC support, such as the EFF and the newly formed uMkhonto Wesizwe party in KwaZulu-Natal.

This decline might intensify further as voters, disillusioned after three decades of unfulfilled promises and subpar services, express discontent. The projected final ANC vote share is estimated at between 44% and 48%, suggesting the likelihood of a national coalition government.

History of challenges

Throughout history, coalition governments have been associated with a variety of challenges.

First, voters may be dissatisfied with the composition of the coalition government. For instance, a minor party with liberal policies in contrast with the main party’s policies, could wield significant influence as a “kingmaker”.

Second, coalition governments typically require ongoing stability, leading to delays in decision-making and implementation, which can affect service delivery.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Coalition Country

Third, coalition parties often have divergent ideologies and priorities, leading to potential instability. Finding common ground necessitates compromise, potentially eroding party identities. Disagreements, such as those concerning resource allocation, can hinder project timelines.

However, coalition governments also present opportunities, such as increased citizen engagement in governance and opportunities for parties to learn from each other. Moreover, coalitions may contribute to the deepening of democracy in the long term.

Best-practice principles

Coalition governments have succeeded worldwide in nations like Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, New Zealand and India. The key to their effectiveness may lie in the extensive history and practice of this form of governance, coupled with democratic and political maturity – elements we may lack. What are potential guiding principles for success in a coalition government?

  • A durable and fruitful coalition necessitates a focus on unity, stability, trust and effective governance over the long term;
  • All coalition partners should prioritise the common good and the welfare of citizens and communities, consistently placing residents’ interests foremost. This requires political maturity, with members prioritising citizen interests above those of their party or individual agendas, seeking consensus on all matters, and demonstrating a willingness to compromise and collaborate;
  • Practical and transparent communication fosters trust and contributes to coalition success;
  • A shared vision with mutually agreed-upon priorities is essential for a cohesive coalition;
  • Clear delineation of roles and responsibilities in a formal memorandum of understanding, along with inclusive decision-making processes centred on power sharing, forms the cornerstone of the coalition agreement;
  • Strong, dedicated and ethically sound leadership is indispensable for coalition effectiveness;
  • Establishing conflict resolution mechanisms is crucial, with a commitment to consensus-building through compromise where necessary;
  • Regular assessment by a review committee to evaluate coalition performance against objectives within the shared vision, with partners open to flexible adjustment and adaptation to focus and priorities as needed;
  • Transparency and accountability in decision-making and financial matters are imperative for coalition members, fostering public trust and confidence through robust public engagement; and
  • Emphasising good governance and basic service delivery enhances the coalition’s credibility. Achieving these goals could bolster the coalition’s standing and effectiveness.

Do our politicians have the ability and the will to implement these principles?

Adherence to these best-practice principles could pave the way for a successful coalition government, fostering stability and efficiency. In addition, following these principles would significantly enhance the government’s resilience in addressing challenges.

Read more in Daily Maverick: 2024 elections

At its core, the government’s primary objective is to serve its communities, guide decisions across all levels of governance and promote good governance. The government should create a favourable environment for the private sector and residents to thrive, enabling the private sector to play a vital role in community health through growth and development endeavours.

Moreover, the government’s intervention in the economy should be limited, intervening only in cases of clear market failures. Less government is more in South Africa. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • M D Fraser says:

    A top priority should be to teach 95% of the population, especially the politicians and newsreaders, how to pronounce coalition. The ear-bending and mind-grating “core-allizion”, “cawlision”, “collision”, “colishen”, et al, are simply awful !

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