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On the power-sharing spectrum, a confidence-and-supply deal is the middle way

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Richard Calland is a visiting adjunct professor at the Wits School of Governance and Director of the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL)’s Africa Programme.

Faced with a wide range of power-sharing options, mature and wise leadership is needed, to consider which plausible and realistic option will deliver a sufficiently stable and accountable government on which to serve our political interests and those of the country.

The starting point is simple: if you fail to win a majority, then you have to share power if you want to stay in government. The only questions are how the power is to be shared and with whom you will share it.

The end point is far more complex, because these are not straightforward questions. There are myriad options.

The process of determining the outcome will go up a gear, once the ANC’s National Executive Committee (NEC) has met today (Thursday). Since it is the structure of the organisation with the highest decision-making authority between national conferences, its view of life matters a lot.

But, an 80-person committee can’t conduct the negotiations; it can merely steer the ship by providing guidance and, then, later, sign off on any final agreement, if indeed agreement is reached.

What if no deal is reached? Patience please. I will get to that in a moment. First, however, an additional word about the NEC, which will apparently receive an initial position from the National Working Committee (NWC) of the ANC – a 15-person “exco” elected by the NEC that generally meets weekly.

In its wisdom, the NWC has suggested that because voters have decided that they want all parties to work together in government, then the right response is to have an all-encompassing “government of national unity” (GNU).

Every party elected to the National Assembly – all 18 of them – will be invited to join. This is self-evidently absurd.

First of all, the electorate decided that it did not want any one party to have a majority and, therefore, that power must be shared. But it provided no mandate as to who should share power.

Do MK voters want to share power with the DA? Methinks not. Nor so the DA with the EFF or MK.

Second, does any voter want their vote so diluted in government that nothing can get done because it will be well-nigh impossible to agree a policy agenda with so many players involved?

Any coalition needs to go through a very careful, clear and candid phase of exchanging “redline” issues – the policies and principles that are non-negotiable to it, and which must be sufficiently catered for in the agreed programme for power-shared government. Such a process will be impossible with so many players.

Hence, such an all-encompassing GNU will be a never-ending negotiation at a time when South Africa needs a decisive government that can confront the myriad challenges the country faces.

Accordingly, it would likely lead to the sort of transactional approach to coalition-building that has been the hallmark of the unstable and unsavoury coalitions in several local governments in recent years. The negotiations will be centred on who gets what, rather than what is it that the new government should do.

Besides, politically it will fail to get out of the starting gate. The DA will walk away. Perhaps the IFP too. MK may refuse to participate in any case. What will be left will be the ANC and the EFF, and a bunch of mice and rats.

Not an edifying prospect. And one that will place a high degree of influence in a party that is not known for its reliability as a coalition partner, and with the support of less than one in 10 voters, and a disproportionately high degree of power in the hands of some very small parties.

Is that what the electorate decided it wants? Probably not. 

Perhaps the NWC knows that this will happen and wants first to show that it is fully open-minded to all parties and options before returning to a more sensible and stable option or options.

Which takes us to the range of options available. There is a spectrum. At one end is a full coalition agreement. Think of it as wedlock, with the deal wrapped up with a bow, and a commitment to share power through thick and thin and until death do us part.

Potentially very stable and with potential to increase accountability, both within and without government, with the married couple keeping a close eye on each other.

Of course, eyes can wander. Not every marriage lasts forever.

Or it might be stronger as a threesome. For example, the IFP might join a “grand coalition” between the ANC and DA – “grand” because it contains the two biggest parties. One might call this a “mini-GNU”.

At the other end of the spectrum there is no deal at all. Or, at least, no deal that can be struck within the tight time frame that the Constitution imposes: a new president must be elected at the first sitting of the National Assembly, which must take place 14 days from when the election result was declared last Sunday.

In this case, the ANC will no doubt nominate a candidate for president. With 159 of the seats, it is still by far the biggest party in the National Assembly. It would take 160 MPs from the other parties that make up the balance of the other 60% of seats in the National Assembly to agree to support the nomination of another candidate for president in order for the ANC’s candidate to lose. That, of course, is highly unlikely, because it would require a deal, at the very least, between the DA and the EFF or the DA and MK, as well as some others. So, in one form or another, Cyril Ramaphosa should emerge from that first sitting as President.

But, in the absence of any agreed support for Ramaphosa from other parties, it will be an inherently weak government. And yet it may be preferable to having to negotiate complex coalition agreements with potential partners, all of whom bring political discomfiture of one sort or another.

Which brings us to the middle way: a confidence-and-supply agreement or framework. Such an agreement is one where the smaller party or parties agree to supply their support for as long as they have political confidence in the bigger party and its president (and Cabinet).

There is no power sharing in terms of executive power; the support parties do not take seats in Cabinet. The support parties would be given some other benefits as an incentive to stick to the arrangement, such as key positions in other parts of the state apparatus, including the legislature, or another executive (such as a provincial one); and/or a commitment that the minority government will pursue some specific points of law and policy, but not necessarily all.

Stable and accountable or unstable and unaccountable? It depends. On the precise terms of the confidence-and-supply agreement or framework. There are such agreements that are vague or obtuse, such as the ones that have existed in some city halls in South Africa in recent years, and which tend to be shallow and unstable.

Or they can be deep and detailed, and potentially far more stable. The devil is in the detail, especially in relation to what does or does not constitute “confidence” and, specifically, when and on what basis a no confidence vote can be triggered – because that is the ultimate sanction for a minority government that does not have a coalition agreement in place.

Political history is littered with both categories of confidence-and-supply arrangements. In Canada in 2022, for example, the smaller National Democratic Party (NDP) agreed to support the biggest party, the Liberal party, on an agreed – and published – confidence-and-supply package, which included agreement about when and for how long it would provide support, as well as agreement from the minority Liberal government as to which NDP policies it would advance in government. But, the NDP did not take up positions in the cabinet.

One upside of such a confidence-and-supply framework agreement is that one party in government decides on the government’s programme. So, there should be greater policy coherence, at least in theory. Another is that the smaller parties can retain the independence and preserve their own political brand, and not risk having it diluted through power sharing in government.

Transparency in relation to the terms of the arrangement and the reasons for it will be crucial for public legitimacy.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Elections dashboard

There is a great deal to think about. Current positions, some of which are trenchantly held, will have to either solidify or dissolve. Compromise will need to be the name of the game, otherwise no deal of any sort will emerge, and the period of uncertainty will be extended.

Mature and wise leadership is needed. Political leaders will need to rise to the moment.

The right questions will need to be asked. Not “do we like this party?” nor even “which is the least bad option”. But rather, “which plausible and realistic option will deliver a sufficiently stable and accountable government on which to serve our political interests and those of the country?”

Depending on which question is posed, the answer will be determined. There is everything to play for, but the clock is ticking fast. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Random Comment says:

    What we need in Government is ACCOUNTABILITY.

    Unfortunately, this is the opposite of what the entrenched powers want, which means that gamblers would be in favour of ANC-EFF+?; and discount the odds of ANC-DA.

    Things get very tricky at provincial and metro level, however…

  • Colin Braude says:

    Some folly for the Great and Good to consider:

    PW Botha’s Rubicon speech: His dashing of raised expectations seems a possible precedent
    Zuma’s “weekend special” finance minister
    The disasters in Joburg & Ekhurleni with ANC+popcorn parties
    The policy logjam within the ANC “(too-)broad church”

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