A national dialogue on stabilising coalitions in our democracy was held to find common ground; but was overwhelmingly met with disagreements, walkouts, and boycotts.
Picture this – it is 2026 and South Africa is on its tenth democratic president. Public confidence in the government is at an all-time low shown by well over half of eligible voters not turning out to vote.
Power and water cuts are frequent, wastewater treatment plants are spilling raw sewage into rivers and unemployment, inequality and poverty levels remain on an upward trajectory. Yet, no administration has enough power to implement policy or provide service delivery because another motion of no confidence is around the corner, threatening their tenuous positions in key national departments.
This hypothetical becomes a reality if coalitions at a provincial and national level operate similarly to coalitions in the country’s wealthiest city, Johannesburg.
Since the 2021 local government elections, Johannesburg has seen a revolving door of executives – five administrations in two years. Three of the five have seen partnerships with the African National Congress (ANC), Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and other ideologically aligned parties. The other two seeing coalitions with the likes of the Democratic Alliance (DA), ActionSA, the Inkhata Freedom Party (IFP) and other largely anti-ANC and EFF parties.
This is why a dialogue on developing a framework for stabilising coalitions was hosted by Deputy President Paul Mashatile for political parties on August 4 to 5. However, it caused more friction than consensus – with an expert suggesting that a national referendum is needed for people to democratically decide how coalitions function before next year’s election.
Referendums are nothing new to our country in formulating a working democracy, as evidenced by the one in 1992, when (only) white voters indicated whether they supported the negotiations with newly unbanned political organisations, leading to the proposed end of the apartheid system.
In his analysis of the event hosted at the University of the Western Cape, a senior lecturer of political science and governance at Wits University, Dr. Kagiso Pooe, said that the dialogue did not provide a solid framework for stable coalition governments because “power politics was the main game.”
Quelling the chaos
In May 2023, a conceptual document was created by the Institute of Elections Management Services South Africa (IEMSA). The document identified the dysfunctionality of local government because of coalitions and provided suggestions to stabilise these marriages of convenience to best serve residents rather than party interests.
Instability at the local government level has “resulted in diminishing public confidence, poorer service delivery and allegedly millions of rands squandered.” as said by the author of the document Nkululeko Tselane.
However, coalitions are here to stay. The 2016 and 2021 election results in major municipalities showed no political party emerging with an outright majority. Something the ruling party is alive to, ANC secretary general Fikile Mbalula admitted: “We are fully confident that 2024 will result in not us or anyone having the outright majority to govern.”
The DA, ActionSA, IFP, Vryheidsfront Plus (VF+) and three other ideologically aligned parties have already signed a pre-election coalition pact with one another, in anticipation of this reality.
Infographic: These are the 2021 municipal results in metropoles of Gauteng, with no outright winner, each municipality was forced into unstable ‘marriages of convenience’ to achieve a 50% + 1 to form a government. Graphic: Seth Thorne
Blame game ensues
Although the consensus from parties was that they believed that the issues of coalitions stemmed from their formation, those hoping for an agreement on the way forward were left bitterly disappointed. This is because political party leaders sought to shift the blame of instability from themselves, rather than meet each other in the middle.
As has been the case at the municipal level, larger parties blamed smaller parties for the instability, and smaller parties pointed the finger right back.
The “[root of the issue is] not about the formation of coalitions, but the reality that politics in South Africa is failing and cooperation is going to be needed,” argued Pooe.
Thresholds and boycotts
The EFF boycotted the initial dialogue citing the “ANC’s involvement in the formulation of the framework… [is an] attempt to protect their fading grasp on power.”
The two current largest parties, the ANC and the DA, are suggesting implementing legislation which would ensure that the party that receives the most votes within a bloc governs the coalition. They also argue that should be a minimum threshold for parties to join any coalition (1%).
Pooe said this is an example of power politics on full display, and “gives insight into the fractured nature of power politics in South Africa, the ANC and DA in one corner and other smaller ones [in the other].”
Parties such as the VF+, Good, the African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP) and the United Democratic Movement (UDM) are strongly opposed to these legislative suggestions. Dr Pieter Groenewald of the VF+ said that these suggestions were “not based on true representative democracy.”
Pooe expected opposition given much of the country’s link to kingmaker politics at the local government level – which is a system where smaller parties generally decide the fate of larger parties. “[The opposition to the threshold] only makes sense [because] parties like them and others would want to negotiate what the new rules of the game might look like.”
It is important to note that these suggestions could inhibit the growth of other parties and arguably prove hypocritical from some of the contributors. “It’s rather odd that had… this proposed action occurred in 1994, there would be no DA today,” said Pooe.
The horse has bolted
Backlash arose when Cooperative Governance minister Parks Tau revealed that a bill on coalition governments was already in the process of being developed and is expected to be finished by the end of the year. Pooe believes that this lies at the heart of the problem.
Some parties are accusing the ANC and DA of sidelining contributions from smaller parties and using these dialogues as a coverup of a preexisting deal between the two largest parties in the country.
However, both parties refute this. Mashatile criticised the accusations from opposition parties arguing that “inputs saying that the ANC and DA have a grand deal… there is no deal.” Meanwhile, DA leader John Steenhuisen responded on social media saying “[The DA] want to build an opposition majority that will unseat the ANC, not keep (them) in power.”
In an open letter to Mashatile, UDM leader Bantu Holomisa slammed both the bill and dialogue: “… it is safe to assume that the Bill has, firstly, already taken into account the ANC’s basic ideas and secondly, it does not take into account the majority of opposition parties’ views on most issues, for example on the issue of thresholds.”
A way forward
Pooe believes a referendum is the only way forward. “We have had a multiparty approach, and to change the game so drastically needs a referendum. This referendum should speak to things like thresholds,” he said.
“Unfortunately, the ANC in government has a history of feigning public participation and then simply ramming through policy positions… and given the ANC and DA seem to have a spotted a chance to resolve their failures to map actual coalition talks, it only makes sense for them to create new barriers to entry,” Pooe added.
Coalitions are seemingly here to stay and legislation would shift how our democracy currently operates. With no real consensus amongst parties as to the way forward, maybe it is best for us, the everyday citizen that feel the negative effects of bad coalition deals, to be as decisive as possible at the polls come 2024 to decide how our democracy should operate and function going forward.
Summary of the views of each of the parties represented. Graphic: Seth Thorne
FEATURED: IEC officials alongside political party representatives counting the secret ballot votes at the Joburg City Council on May 5, 2023, electing its 5th mayor in two years. Photo: Seth Thorne
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