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South Africa: coalitions do not work for opportunistic parties

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Picture: Karen Sandison/African News Agency (ANA) – The unfolding developments in Johannesburg provide us with more insight into a process of political transition, especially since 2016, says the writer.

By Professor Dirk Kotzé

The latest government change in Johannesburg has raised the credibility stakes of coalitions in South Africa. The country has a history of dominant parties and not coalition governments. Several states in the world, on the other hand, don’t know anything else than coalition governments.

For South Africans, therefore, it requires a change in the political culture. Moving from a separation of parties into two opposing camps (government and opposition) to a power-sharing culture requires a new mindset. For the moment, the two paradigms are mixed: politics is now about two opposing alliances, still applying the old rules applicable to two opposites.

This mixing of the rules is a major reason for the instability. Motions of no confidence have become the most used political instrument by the opposition. Although the number of local coalition governments has increased since 2016 to more than 70, an extraordinary number of no-confidence motions resulted in government changes.

In addition to the two recent motions in Johannesburg, another one in Tshwane did not come to fruition, while the ANC-formed coalition in Nelson Mandela Bay, as well as the DA-formed one in Knysna, were removed. A closer look at how such a constitutional mechanism can be used in a more circumspect manner is definitely required.

The unfolding developments in Johannesburg provide us with more insight into a process of political transition, especially since 2016. This transition is from a dominant party (ANC) to a system of pragmatic alliances formed around the ANC and DA, with the EFF still finding its position in this landscape.

Coalition politics in metropolitan areas are substantially different from coalition politics in smaller towns, where local parties or organisations are often quite prominent. The DA’s experience in Johannesburg is an indication of how much local politics is determined by national leaders.

The coalition agreement, which includes the DA, IFP, ActionSA, Freedom Front Plus, ACDP and others, was negotiated by their national leaders, while specific agreements for each metro within this framework were locally finalised. The Johannesburg saga exposed the question of who should have the final say in critical metro coalition matters.

For example, the DA’s provincial leader, Solly Msimanga’s, role in the latest events appears to be limited. The core issue for the DA and Johannesburg is power-sharing and its implications. In Johannesburg, the three most senior positions (Executive Mayor, Speaker and Chief Whip) were all occupied by the DA.

On the other hand, earlier in the year and without any crisis, the Tshwane coalition changed a similar dispensation and allocated the Speaker’s post to Cope. Why the DA in Johannesburg was not willing to amend the coalition agreement but sacrificed the coalition remains unclear. In Tshwane, the coalition partners are divided about two accusations against the Executive Mayor.

They are focused on his integrity and managerial approach. One can expect that the DA will defend him, but a coalition implies a shared responsibility to keep its leaders accountable and go against political instinct. If the mayor or other leaders don’t enjoy the confidence of all the coalition members, the coalition will be unstable, and a motion of no confidence is possible.

The situation will, therefore, develop into a test between the DA’s pride not to be dictated to by its partners and a broader understanding of how power-sharing limits the powers of individual parties but creates a stronger collective. This requires a cultural paradigm shift.

What are some of the lessons learnt from the latest developments? In general, bigger parties in coalitions tend to be more predictable and stable than smaller parties. Seats in a coalition government provide a vested interest for parties. Cope’s role in Tshwane will become an interesting test case. Another lesson is that coalitions require that parties be pragmatic in their conduct. But the problem is when they are opportunistic, quite similar to what happened during the floor-crossing era.

Opportunistic parties who are willing to form coalitions with any party or who are primarily concerned about seats are a risk for coalitions. Parties with internal and organisational instability are also a risk.

If it is unclear who the party leader is (such as the PAC in the recent past or Cope now), the party is unpredictable as a coalition partner. Coalition governments are about genuine power-sharing and broader inclusivity. It is not only about the magical 50%+1 but also about understanding the electoral message that one party cannot govern on its own or dominate a government.

The history of coalitions, starting with the one in the Western Cape provincial legislature in 1999, the Cape Town metro coalition in 2006 and what followed thereafter, is setting the scene for 2024’s election.

A national coalition government would be able to use the lessons learnt from this history, but it will also have dynamics of its own. We are, therefore, now already in the midst of a transition with major implications.

Kotzé is a Professor in the Department of Political Studies at Unisa.