It’s time for fresh thinking on governance options, like a non-coalition cooperation agreement - Daily Maverick

Five years of ANC-EFF government – or some permutation – could well leave devastation and institutional damage that would take decades to repair.

Terence Corrigan 

Five years of ANC-EFF government – or some permutation – could well leave devastation and institutional damage that would take decades to repair.

An interesting turnaround has taken place in public commentary on South Africa’s opposition: where once opposition parties were chastised for focusing on the failings of the ANC and failing adequately to present an alternative vision of their own, now they may be chastised for having too great a sense of their own vision for the country, and not being sufficiently focused on the interests of the ANC.

This is called to mind by Melanie Verwoerd’s Daily Maverick column, “If we end up with an ANC-EFF coalition, blame it on the DA” (16 April 2024). She treads a well-worn path – trod not least by herself – of holding the DA responsible for maintaining the ANC in power as a means of fending off an ANC-EFF coalition (or presumably an ANC-MK or ANC-EFF-MK coalition).

The DA, she avers, will be responsible for South Africa’s downfall if it declines cooperation with the ANC and should approach the matter with an appropriate sense of humility.

I would note in passing that her premise is flawed. If the ANC chooses to enter a coalition with the EFF or MK, it will be because the voters have delivered a result that made this possible, and because the ANC has exercised its agency, something the party has never been shy to do in the past.

After all, the ANC is, in its own conception, the “leader of society at the heart of our 30-year democracy”. As a party with an overblown sense of historical mission, it will need to shoulder the responsibility for the decisions it takes.

It’s also not apparent from Verwoerd’s article whether the DA would offer anything of value to a coalition arrangement beyond making up the numbers to keep the ANC in power. Certainly nothing in this piece speaks of a useful contribution it might make, and much describes its shortcomings.

It would need to show “humbleness” as a minority partner, and one assumes act as a loyal subaltern to the ANC – being willing to accept what the ANC deigns to concede, as “the positions of deputy president, minister of finance or foreign affairs would be a no-go from the start”. Call this the “Stop Malema” approach. Or a refurbished “Stop Zuma”, perhaps?

Verwoerd does correctly point to the polarisation and trust deficit between South Africa’s various political groups – though, again, apparently ascribing this to the DA. But one could describe in length the conduct and rhetoric of the ANC that has driven this, not infrequently in relation to the DA itself or to those associated with its constituency.

This was standard fare for the ANC when Verwoerd represented the party as an MP (President Nelson Mandela’s speech to the ANC’s 1997 Conference in Mafikeng being a prime example) and remains so today.

At various times, the ANC has damned the DA – and many other critics besides – as racists, as “counter revolutionaries” (an odd obsession for the leader of a constitutional democracy), as “the enemy”, as shills for “imperialism”, as “reactionary and inhumane” and so on. To my mind, this is somewhat more excitable in tone and dire in implication than a tasteless remark on a talk show.

Nor does the ANC’s record in office over the past decade or more inspire much trust – which is partly why the country is at this impasse.

Nevertheless, Verwoerd does base her column on a real danger. The entry of the EFF (or MK) into government would do untold damage to South Africa, which is already a country in steep decline. Five years of ANC-EFF government – or some permutation – could well leave devastation and institutional damage that would take decades to repair.

So, if confronted with circumstances that gave the ANC access to office in coalition with either the DA or the EFF, the DA would simply have no good options. Either throw the ANC a lifeline or see South Africa’s decline accelerate – and take the fallout for either.

Verwoerd was less than diligent in neglecting to mention that the DA has not in fact taken the option of a coalition with the ANC off the table, though it describes this as the “least-worst option” (Michael Beaumont of ActionSA, a partner in the Multi-Party Charter, took the DA sternly to task for this, justifiably so.)

The real difficulty is that the DA entering government with the ANC as its senior partner, deprived of key ministries (the important stuff would be “non-negotiable”, remember?), and faced with a hostile and deliberately politicised bureaucracy, would probably be unable to effect any meaningful change, while facilitating the ANC’s existing pathologies. The ANC has simply had a lot more experience inside the state and has repurposed it to do its bidding.

Indeed, things might deteriorate ever more rapidly as cadre networks sense the fraying of their incumbency and extract what they can while the opportunity exists. And, ideologically, it’s doubtful that the ANC could bring itself to regard the DA as a legitimate co-governor of South Africa. A comparison with the ill-fated 2009 Zimbabwean Government of National Unity is not unreasonable. 

But perhaps a non-coalition option exists.

The idea here is that while a coalition government might not be possible, the DA – perhaps (and ideally) along with its partners in the MPC – would offer the ANC the chance to form a minority government with very limited backing. This is described as a confidence and supply agreement.

The DA and its allies would agree to refrain from votes of no confidence and to support annual budgets. The ANC would pledge to not form a coalition with the EFF or MK.

On legislation and pretty much everything else, things would plod along, subject to constant negotiation. Essentially this would mean freezing South Africa in its current foetid quagmire for the coming five years.

The predictable outcome would be that South Africa would face ongoing decline, but this might not be terminal. And each party could retain its “integrity”, at least as each defines it. During this period, perhaps, some part of the ANC could be brought around to the necessity of reform, and the case for reform might be made clear to the public. This might be described as a “less than least-worst option”.

Politics, in common with the framework of political analysis, is changing. The interests of the ANC can no longer be seen as coterminous with those of South Africa – they never have been, but they are now in ever-starker opposition to the needs of the country, and any course forward has to acknowledge this.

It’s beyond time that fresh ideas are considered to deal with the existential challenges that South Africa faces. 

Terence Corrigan is a project manager at the Institute of Race Relations.