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Searching for creative solutions beyond coalitions after 29 May elections

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Daniel Silke is Director of the Political Futures Consultancy based in Cape Town. He is a noted public speaker, commentator and contributes to media both in South Africa and globally. Follow him on Twitter @DanielSilke or via his website at www.danielsilkeglobal.com

With national unity (and the much-vaunted social compact) somewhat dead in the water, a collective approach to rescuing the country could provide a game-changing sentiment shift in a way that a more traditional coalition might struggle.

To say that South Africa’s 29 May national elections are the most consequential since 1994 is an understatement. With broad-based failure across multiple measurements, the salvation of the state is now in the hands of an increasingly frustrated and politically fragmented electorate.

Since most polls now put the ANC at below 50%, the permutations of and ramifications from a possible coalition government will make or break the country.

With the publication of the latest Brenthurst Foundation poll alongside a variety of others, the ANC would need to perform something of a political miracle to muster 50% plus one to retain unfettered power.

Although not impossible – should the party run a well-resourced and above-expectation campaign which motivates its splintering support base to return to the fold – it still has a chance to stave off its most serious challenge since the dawn of democracy.

However, with fewer than three months before voting and if polls hold at their current levels, the ANC will lose overall control. The significance of this will extend throughout all avenues of governance in the country.

Most analyses of this scenario conclude with a coalition led by the ANC as the most likely outcome.

Given that the ANC is likely to be substantively still the largest party, it will be in the driver’s seat to find political bedfellows to push it over the 50% mark and provide a semblance (albeit substantially eroded) of political hegemony and patronage-based benefit for the next five years.

Scenarios for the ANC’s choices are somewhat dependent on how well the party does. If it gets relatively close to 50% of the vote, it can reel in one or two smaller parties deemed less obstructionist and thereby politically pliable.

Read more in Daily Maverick: 2024 elections

In this scenario, a weakened ANC limps on in an unsatisfying way, beset with internal recriminations while simultaneously politically emasculated in its new diminished (minority) state. 

If the ANC drops closer to the 40% mark, coalition politics becomes even more complex.

As the still-dominant party, the ANC now must choose which larger entities to do business with. More powerful players – like the EFF or DA/Multiparty Charter – will demand their pound of flesh in any coalition arrangement, creating extreme discomfort for the ANC and even fomenting the instability seen at local government level.

In a scenario where the ANC straddles the 40% mark and its choice of potential coalition partners becomes intolerably polarising, the salvation and restoration of the South African state takes on a new urgency.

Not to mention the longer-term ramifications of an ANC/EFF agreement which could undermine the constitutional state and destroy whatever value was left in the South African body politic.

Although coalition agreements should not be automatically written off as entirely destructive should the parties have a genuine commitment to work for the betterment of the country rather than themselves, coalition partners in this scenario would have to change their own internal culture away from adversarial to cooperative.

While a coalition agreement would aim to codify this, the political culture and cohesion of all parties would be severely tested, with the risk of broad-based political instability ensuing.

Against this less-than-satisfactory backdrop, the option of a new Government of National Unity (GNU) becomes more palatable. Not that any existing party in the run-up to the election would publicly advocate in favour, the election aftermath might force a reboot of the transitional type of arrangement that guided South Africa from 1994 to 1996.

In a scenario where the ANC straddles the 40% mark and its choice of potential coalition partners becomes intolerably polarising, the salvation and restoration of the South African state takes on a new urgency.

With broad-based failure across the SOE sector leading to an energy and logistics crisis, alongside a social crisis of rampant crime and unemployment and a financial risk of rising debt amid flat-lined economic growth, an argument could well be made that we are staring down a national emergency.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Coalition Country

This would call for a more inclusive form of governance reaching out to a variety of political, social and business interests to integrate into government at the highest level.

While the ANC – as the largest party – would continue to lead the GNU, its cabinet would comprise a unity base of political and business skills leading to a more inclusive problem-solving approach. This option is therefore a much broader governance model than the more limited coalition options mooted.

Importantly, a Government of National Unity would enable the bureaucracy to continue to operate without feeling their political masters have deserted them, leaving them directionless.

Of course, the theory sounds positive. Selling this idea back into a wounded ANC would require that party to give up even more power, allowing substantive input in policy and decision-making by players outside its control and ambit.

A GNU also suggests that the governance failure is so great that the incumbent party is forced to admit the error of its ways and consult more broadly. Although the greater good of the future of the country would be better served with a GNU, the ANC would be hard-pressed to walk the extra mile from putting party before country.

Still, the flipside of the leading (incumbent) political party seeking a broad national consensus approach to governance can have untold benefits for the country.

With national unity (and the much-vaunted social compact) somewhat dead in the water, a collective approach to rescuing the country could provide a game-changing sentiment shift in a way that a more traditional coalition might struggle.

Since South Africans increasingly feel that the institutions of democracy have failed them and thereby feel excluded, such a show of unity in resolve would inject newfound hope for the future. The domino effect would extend to South Africa’s external profile and would likely also be a fillip to much-needed foreign direct investment.

Importantly, a GNU would enable the bureaucracy to continue to operate without feeling their political masters have deserted them, leaving them directionless.

For a sceptical ANC, at 40% of the vote, it would have to accept its demise as the majority movement, but a GNU enables it to avoid the potential pitfalls of a more limited (and damaging) coalition and strike a national consensus with a view to better performance in the years to come.

That’s the beauty of a more inclusive approach to governance.

There are no definites in any of the possible outcomes of election 2024. However, should the ANC drop significantly and the electorate fragment, political polarisation can increase. In a broader climate of economic decline, this can result in heightened societal conflict.

Perhaps, then, this is the time to consider a more creative post-29 May option. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Errol Price says:

    It is decidedly odd that the writer ( together with many others ) adopts unquestionably , the paradigm of western- style democracies ( excluding the United States , of course ) where a party fails to reach a majority in an election.
    There coalitions are formed or some form of governing agreement.
    That has never been the case in Africa nor is it likely to occur except as a sham in S. A.
    When liberation movements in Africa fail in government, as almost all do, the outcomes do not not follow the sedate and fairly patterns of genuine democracies. Violence and sometimes militaty coups are unfortunately all too common.
    But we shall see.

  • Steve Davidson says:

    Judging by the really stupid – but not unsurprising – comments by Mashaba and Mckenzie reported in another DM article, the MPC is already dead in the water, so we’ll either get a totally corrupt ANC-EFF combine, or a ideologically fraught ANC-DA one. Maybe we should all vote for the Western Cape Independence party so the only well-run province (apart from Knysna) can cast itself adrift from the rest of this benighted country, as long as they form a coalition with the DA.

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