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Five principles for the DA to consider in approaching coalition talks

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Ben Graham Jones has served on more than 30 election observation, assistance and advisory missions, including as Head of Mission, Media and Social Media Analyst and Online Campaign Analyst. He has advised senior figures, including multiple former heads of government. He holds degrees from the University of Cambridge and King’s College London’s Department of War Studies and is a Churchill Fellow.

If the DA is met by a critical mass of ANC leaders willing to take courageous steps to modernise their party, the partners may have the opportunity to lay the foundations of decades of empowering government that finally unlocks South Africa’s potential.

Wary of suffering the consequences of coalition failure at the 2029 election, some in the DA are understandably wary of forming a deep partnership with the ANC. Any coalition implemented with an ANC unwilling to address its internal challenges may result in government paralysis. 

South African faith in the politics of collaboration may incur a fatal blow.

However, as both parties have underscored, the challenges South Africans face demand ambitious collaboration. 

If the DA is met by a critical mass of ANC leaders willing to take courageous steps to modernise their party, the partners may have the opportunity to lay the foundations of decades of empowering government that finally unlocks South Africa’s potential.

There is plenty of global insight for the negotiators to draw on. 

In 2010, the junior partner of the United Kingdom’s first coalition in a generation made compromises during negotiations that were anathema to its electors. In 2015, the party was crushed at the ballot box. 

A decade on, UK confidence in coalition government is yet to recover. 

Given the likelihood of coalition politics in South Africa over the coming years, democracy here can ill afford such a depletion of confidence. 

Negotiators can help reduce this risk.

Based on my experience from more than 50 elections globally, I would invite DA negotiators to consider the following five principles:

Negotiate 2024; think 2034

Transforming South Africa’s economy requires reform on multi-decade timescales. Problems such as power shortages, a decaying transportation network and rampant crime may not be solved in one parliamentary term. The DA can only plan on such timescales in an era of coalition politics if there are multiple choices of future partners.

A successful agreement with the ANC provides this stability. It diversifies the DA’s future options for government, offering the potential for future accords with the former Multi-Party Charter partners, on the one hand, and, if this is not numerically possible, in a proven formula with the ANC. 

The DA becomes the pragmatic backbone which enables successive governments to retain strategic focus around key multi-decade transformations.

Politically, this positioning neuters the main threat to multi-decade transformation: a future government including economically irrational parties such as the EFF, MK or their future variants. Even the threat of their future involvement casts a permanent lead ceiling atop South Africa’s potential. 

A DA demonstrably capable of partnering with all other options removes this threat, ensuring that reforms 2024-2029 will not simply be undermined 2029-2034.

ANC reform is an asset, not a liability

If ANC spoilers eventually cause a coalition government to disintegrate, the DA may credibly be able to blame them for all the administration’s shortcomings. 

But South Africans do not want excuses for failure – they want a government that improves the country.

If DA leaders perceive that ANC reformers will prioritise intra-party reconciliation over a modernising crusade against corruption and vested interests, the DA must reassess the depth of partnership to which they aspire. 

An ANC that treats corruption with impunity is not a sustainable partner for delivering long-term change. 

If, however, this election has sparked lasting will for reform within the ANC, the DA can bolster the hand of modernisers.

First, the DA should make no compromises on taking its zero-tolerance approach to corruption right into the heart of the coalition.

Second, it should support ANC modernisers when spoilers hit back, even when doing so benefits the reforming ANC minister more than the DA itself.  

Third, the DA must demonstrate to Cyril Ramaphosa that, provided he stays the course on ANC reform, he can totally rely on his coalition partners to sustain his presidency through the entire term. 

If Ramaphosa suspects the DA will simply abandon him when doing so seems electorally advantageous, he may hedge his bets by avoiding alienating himself from old allies who oppose ANC modernisation.

This does not mean DA leaders staking their credibility on ANC reformers winning a decisive intra-party victory within one parliamentary term. 

As long as Ramaphosa’s faction can bring just half of his MPs to parliamentary votes, the DA and IFP have the seats to outvote the combined forces of ANC spoilers backed by the EFF and MK. 

The prize, ultimately, is a victory for the centre ground heading into 2029.

Own concentrated success

The parties may end up in an arrangement that does not divide out ministries and instead sees one party taking oversight of the legislature and another the executive, or a confidence-and-supply arrangement. 

Such formulations may work, though when coalitions are not formed around a clearly communicable division of policy responsibilities, the junior partner can be more easily blamed in the court of public opinion for the perceived failures of the coalition. 

If the DA judges this a risk worth taking, it must communicate its remit in the partnership to the public.

If the DA seeks to take charge of certain ministries, it should consider how to mitigate risk. 

Some ministries which will be attractive to the ANC, such as International Relations and Cooperation, pose obvious risks to a DA minister. 

Major overarching positions with high dependence on the functioning of other government ministries also allow the DA to be blamed for failures outside of its control, leaving them dependent on internal ANC factors.

The DA may consider avoiding this by taking on smaller ministries which can produce clear evidence of success that can clearly be attributed to its minister. 

This may mean, for example, choosing transport, and getting the trains running. 

Doing so means that even if reformers lose a battle to reform the ANC, the DA will nonetheless be able to show evidence of achievement for its part in the government.

Deepen the partnership with the IFP

The DA and IFP have made significant progress in recent years to build trusting relations. They also share compatible political stances. 

Although the Multi-Party Charter did not deliver a majority, with strategic investment, a DA-IFP alliance has the potential to be a regular fixture of South African governments for years to come. 

The upcoming Parliament is an opportunity to deepen connections, strengthen vision and forge experience between the two parties.

The parties’ joint commitments to the Constitution, rule of law and service delivery have now been supplemented by a new shared objective: pushing back MK, which has thrived partly in a space that a more strategic IFP could have occupied. 

To deepen their long-term partnership, the DA may consider championing the role of the IFP in any coalition and empower their ally to own achievements and visibility that will win votes back from MK.

Devolve, devolve, devolve

This is a risky time to be in national government. 

Coalition politics is here to stay, so everyone loses if the first coalition of the era fails. The DA can de-risk a coalition by prioritising in negotiations the swift devolution of key powers, such as policing.

Global experience suggests that devolution often improves governance outcomes. For the DA, this also brings greater control over the jewel in its campaigning crown, the Western Cape, allowing it to go into 2029 with strong evidence of competence regardless of the outcome of the national coalition.

In provinces where no party holds a majority, national partners should consider sharing power to minimise political conflicts of interest and maximise overall government efficiency. DM

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  • Nnete Fela says:

    Good take, but I think it ignores the histories of both parties and the constituencies they represent. What the country needs right now is unity of purpose from our politicians and that requires bridging the trust chasm between the parties and their constituencies.
    W:scrap BEE and AA it’s reverse racism
    B: it was only fair when you were the beneficiaries to the detriment of the majority
    W: You had 30 years to ….
    B: 30 years isn’t enough to undo 300 years of blah blah

    We could have an endless litany of grievances and injuries and corresponding counter grievances on land, wealth etc.

    The negotiators have their work cut out for them, I wish them wisdom and open hearts for all of South Africa’s sake

    • Tumelo Tumelo says:

      It would serve the DA and the non-black minority to have a proper look at the Constitution concerning transformation/affirmative action- it is not only permissible under the constitution, it mandates it and calls for it. The transformation agenda in this country is imperative .

  • District Six says:

    Great, except that the DA under its current leadership has one firm ideology: it is “the official opposition.” Under this approach, its only role is to whine, whine, whine. It has no positive role in SA politics. An historical anachronism doomed to wilt away.

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