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Coalitions: grand alliance of major parties a win-win

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Picture: Itumeleng English/African News Agency (ANA) – Reinstated Johannesburg DA mayor Mpho Phalatse takes part in voting during a council sitting in Braamfontein. A vote of no confidence against Phalatse, which was overturned by the courts, is indicative of smaller parties living on borrowed time by getting into power via shaky coalitions, says the writer.

By Bheki Mngomezulu

The increasing number of political parties and independent candidates in South Africa have made coalitions inevitable.

Unfortunately, this new phenomenon found the country ill-prepared to deal with coalition politics. Consequently, political parties with a few votes use these coalitions to usurp power through the back door.

Following the 2021 Local Government Election in Gauteng, the ANC lost some of the gains it had made in 2016. However, it still obtained the highest number of votes compared to other political parties.

For example, of the top three political parties, the ANC obtained 47.90 percent, the DA got only 20 percent while the EFF managed 10.60 percent.

Ordinarily, the ANC should have been afforded the opportunity to invite one party and form a government, given its highest percentage. Instead, it was the DA that pulled together smaller parties and formed a minority government.

This was not a good start on many fronts. Firstly, as mentioned above, the DA seized power through the back door. What happened didn’t reflect the will of the people. The decision taken was driven by political expediency, not the intention to serve the people of Gauteng.

In fact, most of the political parties which joined the DA-led coalition did so, not because they had confidence in the DA, but to “punish” the ANC for whatever reason. Unfortunately, the DA started behaving as if it had won the election and that the other parties were serving at its behest, which was not the case.

Due to this political arrogance and political negligence, the DA mayors have been living on borrowed time. It was a foregone conclusion that these coalitions couldn’t be sustained. The reasons were pretty clear. Firstly, as indicated above, the smaller parties had nothing in common with the DA.

Secondly, some joined the DA either out of excitement or due to the anger they had about the ANC. The problem with both anger and excitement is that they have a short lifespan. Once anger and/or excitement subsides, there is nothing left to bind political parties together.

It is for these reasons that Dr Mpho Phalatse in Johannesburg, Tania Campbell in Ekurhuleni and Randall Williams in Tshwane have been living on shaky ground from day one.

The successful vote of no confidence against Phalatse did not come as a surprise. Although the court temporarily reinstated her, she knew that her time as mayor of Johannesburg was over.

The same thing happened in Ekurhuleni where Tania Campbell was voted out. When this happened, it was almost a foregone conclusion that Williams would be the next one to face the political axe.

This implosion of coalitions in the Gauteng province satisfies the political egos of political parties. However, it does not benefit the electorate. When voters queue on election day, their only hope is that their lives will be improved by those they vote into office.

When leadership changes hands now and again, services are interrupted. These voters are left stranded. As the saying goes: ‘when elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers’. The people of Gauteng are experiencing this first-hand!

What is happening in Gauteng is not an anomaly. The same thing has been happening at the Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality. Leadership has been changing hands regularly.

Whenever these political squabbles happen, the blame game supersedes service delivery. Those who have been ousted claim that the municipality was performing well under their leadership and that it has regressed since their departure.

Similarly, those who have ascended to the throne as it were, argue that they inherited a dysfunctional municipality. This mudslinging doesn’t assist the electorate. All the voters want is service delivery, not the exchange of blows by the political leadership. Lessons can be drawn from the Gauteng situation.

The first lesson is that politicians should be taught about how coalitions are formed and managed. Countries like Australia, India and Germany (among others) could be used as reference points.

These are countries that have had sustainable coalitions for a long time. African politicians in general and South African politicians in particular should learn from these experiences.

Secondly, the South African government needs to promulgate legislation that would regulate and guide coalitions. For example, the party with the highest number of votes should invite another party and form a government.

It can do this through a “grand alliance” where two major parties work together or by inviting one smaller party. This would reduce the number of political parties that form a coalition. Such a coalition would be manageable and sustainable.

Importantly, chances for sustained service delivery would be enhanced. It would be a “win-win” situation between politicians and the general public or electorate. Only if a “grand alliance” fails should smaller parties form a coalition.

* Bheki Mngomezulu is Professor of Political Studies and International Relations at the University of the Western Cape