Making coalitions work: weight of responsibility rests on ANC - News24

Prior to 2016, coalitions in South Africa were a comparative rarity, with the two most high-profile examples being the DA-led coalition which secured victory in Cape Town in 2006 and an ANC-IFP coalition which governed KwaZulu-Natal for a decade between 1999 and 2009.

Marius Roodt and Terence Corrigan

Prior to 2016, coalitions in South Africa were a comparative rarity, with the two most high-profile examples being the DA-led coalition which secured victory in Cape Town in 2006 and an ANC-IFP coalition which governed KwaZulu-Natal for a decade between 1999 and 2009. 

However, since 2016 coalitions have become common across the country and even more so since the 2021 local government election. Five of our eight metros are governed by coalitions, but coalitions are also common in a large number of smaller municipalities across South Africa.

In several places, not least Gauteng and eThekwini, coalitions have become bywords for misgovernance, corruption, and infighting. See the merry-go-round that has been the Johannesburg mayoral office, or the complete disintegration in governance in eThekwini. 

Despite this, according to a Social Research Foundation survey published last year, two-thirds of South Africans are in favour of coalitions. Even broken down by party support, most voters, no matter which party they actually vote for, say that their party should be willing to compromise – to at least some degree – to ensure stable coalitions can be formed.

This is good – coalitions are a feature, not a bug, of our electoral system.

However, Melanie Verwoerd, in her latest column, pooh-poohs the idea of coalition politics working well in South Africa. She looks to the recent experience of the Netherlands, where a coalition recently collapsed and saw the end of the 13-year-stint of Prime Minister Mark Rutte, which had made him one of the longest-serving heads of government in Europe.

She laments the fact that a country like the Netherlands, which has been a stable democracy for over a century, cannot keep a four-party coalition stable, and asks how South Africa would be able to do the same?

She also says that keeping smaller parties happy in coalitions in South Africa at local government level has been "impossible" and leads to "chaos and instability".

Fairly stable coalitions

Verwoerd is incorrect on several counts. Outside the metros, coalitions have been fairly stable with the mayoral turnover in places like Johannesburg not being generally reflected in smaller municipalities (this is, of course, not to say that it doesn’t happen).

In addition, there is also some 'recency bias' in seeing the chaos in metros and believing that this is how things have always been and always will be. The Cape Town coalition (mentioned above) was a seven-party government, led by the DA, which had a razor-thin majority of one seat over its opponents on that city's council. However, this coalition was held together (not without some hairy moments) and soon became much more stable when the Independent Democrats joined it. It also gave the DA the springboard to go on to win the Western Cape relatively easily in the 2009 provincial election. 

There is nothing to say that large coalitions like these cannot be made to work in future.

And, indeed, coalitions will need to work for South Africa to have anything like stable governance. And – as noted above – since coalitions are now a necessary part of our politics, they are going to become even more common as the current party alignment continues to fracture.

And for coalitions to work, there might need to be some new (and maybe some not new) ideas and out-of-the-box thinking.

Verwoerd says that any putative coalition would probably have some trouble selecting a presidential candidate. She is right, but this is where some innovative thinking becomes necessary. 

For example, in Israel, a number of coalitions have been formed where the head of the executive is changed periodically. The Israelis call this a 'rotational' government.

Rotating prime minister 

This is a formal agreement between coalition partners where the position of Prime Minister is rotated among the parties. For example, someone from one of the coalition partners will serve as Prime Minister for an agreed-upon period. This person will step down once this period comes to an end, and an individual from one of the other coalition partners then serves as Prime Minister, again for a period that is agreed upon beforehand.

Ireland is also now using this rotational government, where the two biggest parties in that country's governing coalition will take turns to head the government. Maybe this is something South African parties should consider too, where different parties each have a set period at the head of the executive.

Verwoerd also bemoans the 'plethora of small parties' that complicate coalition-building. This, too, is a genuine problem. In many countries, such as Germany, New Zealand, and Denmark, minimum thresholds for representation help limit the proliferation of small parties and keep coalitions manageable. 

South Africa's straight PR system by contrast, sets a very low floor for entry: less than a quarter of a percentage point of the votes cast in a national election earns a seat in the National Assembly. This was intended in the 1990s to ensure that all interests were accommodated; now, it may be necessary to revisit this with an eye on government stability. 

In addition, countries such as Germany, which have long experience of coalition politics, demonstrate that properly thought out, negotiated and formally agreed coalition agreements are important elements of their durability and resilience. In this respect, Verwoerd errs in dismissing the 'Moonshot Pact', since it would seem to represent at least an attempt to do this, whatever its prospects may be. Can other parties, such as the ANC, say the same?

Electoral reform – real electoral reform, not the malicious compliance that recent legislation denotes – needs to be on the table.

Political maturity and willingness to act

And it should be remembered that as carefully considered as law and policy may be, they alone are insufficient to ensure stable governance. Much hinges on political maturity and a willingness to act – again, as Verwoerd phrases it – 'for the good of the country'. (An aside: Verwoerd's concern here is that the DA should be willing to work with the ANC. But the ANC’s recent Gauteng Local Government Summit was explicit that its present coalition arrangements are aimed 'against the DA'. 'The ANC will continue to dislodge the DA wherever it raises its ugly head in our province,' said Panyaza Lesufi. Perhaps the ANC might be prevailed upon to revise this position? For the good of the country?) 

This is incumbent on all parties, but frankly, the weight of responsibility here rests on the governing party. Its assumption of a moral claim on power, its tolerance of corruption and maladministration and its illegal repurposing of the state to serve its own interests ('cadre deployment') have destabilised South Africa more fundamentally than fragile coalitions have. The damage done by all this will be especially hazardous as South Africa moves into an era that promises to be more competitive while also requiring more cooperation. It will be necessary to keep a close watch on how South Africa's political actors approach this.

Marius Roodt is a writer and analyst at the Institute of Race Relations. Terence Corrigan is a project manager at the Institute of Race Relations, where he specialises in work on property rights, as well as land and mining policy.