Menu Close

Coalitions in SA politics a recipe for disaster

Share This Article:

Picture: Itumeleng English|/African News Agency (ANA) – Joburg mayor Dr Mpho Phalatse and DA leader John Steenhuisen campaigned for support in down-town Johannesburg in September last year

By Bheki Mngomezulu

Coalitions have been on the cards in South African politics for some time. Not surprisingly, people hold different views about their efficacy and sustainability – both in the South African and broader African contexts.

On the one hand, there are those who hail coalitions as an important factor contributing towards democratic consolidation. They premise their argument on the fact that coalitions allow various role-players, that is political parties, to participate in governance at all the three spheres of government: national, provincial and local.

On the other hand, some advance a counterview that the coalitions are the antithesis of democracy. The view is based on the fact that when coalitions are negotiated, it is only the political leadership that participates in the discussions.

Voters or the electorate are not consulted to present their views. Instead, decisions are taken in the boardrooms in their absence. As such, their voice is not considered. Recent developments in Gauteng give us a glimpse of what to expect in 2024 in the event that there is no outright winner.

The unsustainability of coalitions has come out in the open for all to see. Following the 2021 local government election, there were many hung municipalities whereby there was no outright winner. In the case of Gauteng, in all three metros in the province – Ekurhuleni, Johannesburg and Tshwane – the ANC had the highest number of seats.

However, the numbers did not meet the required threshold which would have allowed the ANC to form municipal councils. The DA saw the opportunity and capitalised on the fact that many of the smaller parties did not like the ANC.

Therefore, the DA started negotiations with the smaller parties, with the intention to form coalition governments in the metros. Consequently, the DA ended up heading coalitions in these metros even though it had fewer seats compared to the ANC.

In this case, the will of the people, which is one of the pillars of democracy, was undermined. As some of us had anticipated that such coalitions would not last, this is now happening.

A few days ago, Vasco Da Gama was ousted as the Speaker of the Johannesburg Municipality. This took some coalition partners by surprise – perhaps because they do not understand how coalitions work. As long as a political party governs through a coalition, there is no certainty about what will happen tomorrow.

The fact that Johannesburg mayor Dr Mpho Phalatse assumed her position through a coalition is enough reason for her to consider other options in the event that she faces the same fate as Da Gama. Another intriguing observation is the decision by the DA and some of its alliance partners to open cases at Hillbrow police station against some ANC councillors, accusing them of bribery. Several questions arise.

Are they doing this in the interest of justice or are they in a panic mode that they are on the verge of losing control of Johannesburg? Given the fact that the motions against some members of coalition partners have failed in the past, why were the cases not opened at the time when the motions failed? Has the DA done self-introspection to establish why its alliance partners are turning against it? Whether the DA-led coalition wins the court cases or not, for how long will the coalitions last? In the event that the coalitions are disbanded, what is the DA’s plan for its political future in the Gauteng municipalities? These are questions that beg answers.

They go beyond the incident referred to above, about Da Gama and the one pending on Dr Phalatse’s political future. Conversely, the questions force us to look into the nature of coalition politics from a general perspective.

Given the results of the 2019 general election and the 2021 local government elections, it is almost a foregone conclusion that unless something drastic happens, coalitions will be a reality in 2024.

When this happens, it will be a recipe for disaster for the country. Globally, countries like Australia, Germany and India have vast experience in sustaining coalitions. The same cannot be said about Africa in general, and South Africa in particular.

The reason is that our politicians do not seem to understand the essence of coalition politics. Smaller parties make huge demands and hold coalition leaders to ransom. At best, this amounts to political parochialism. At worst, it amounts to undermining democracy and the will of the people. The increased number of political parties and independent candidates make coalitions inevitable.

Political parties need to reposition themselves and come closer to the electorate if they want to avert coalitions in 2024. Given the current state of our political parties, I doubt they will avoid coalitions in 2024.

Mngomezulu is a Professor of Political Science and International Relations at the University of the Western Cape.