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South African needs to prepare for coalition government in 2024

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Picture credit: Itumeleng English/African News Agency(ANA) – In this file picture, Gauteng Democratic Alliance leader Solly Msimanga, Patriotic Alliance (PA) head of strategy Charles Cilliers, (Action SA) and MMC of Transport Funzi Ngobeni and COPE national spokesperson Dennis Bloem address the media outside the Hillbrow Police Station. The multi-party coalition is represented in the city of Joburg.

By Dr Sizo Nkala

SOUTH Africa’s 28-year-old democracy has shaped up to be a bona fide dominant party system. Political scientists define a dominant party system as a political system characterised by the electoral dominance of one party over a long period of time.

This is different from a one-party system, where only one party is allowed to exist, as in China and Cuba, or a two-party system where only two parties have a reasonable chance of winning an election, such as what happens in the US and the UK, or a multiparty system where electoral support is distributed more or less equally between the three or more parties, as is the case in countries like Germany, Sweden and Italy.

South Africa’s ruling party, the ANC, has been in power since 1994 and has comfortably secured victory in the past six national elections, getting over 62% of the vote in 1994 and 1999, 69% in 2004, 65.9% in 2009, 62.1% in 2014 and 57.5% in 2019.

South Africa uses a proportional representation electoral system, meaning that a party’s share of the seats in the legislature is directly proportional to its share of the vote in elections. As such, the ANC’s share of the vote has been enough to secure the majority of seats in the National Assembly.

The party’s members in the Assembly go on to elect the president and form the executive without having to court the support of any other party.

South Africa’s Electoral Act of 1998 gives the National Assembly the power to elect the president through a simple majority from among its members.

While the party’s share of the vote has declined in the national elections, the decline has been more drastic in the local government elections. While the first four local elections in 1995, 2000, 2006 and 2011 had seen the ANC get an average of just more than 60% of the vote, it was driven down to 55% in 2016 and further down to 47.9% last year, failing to secure an overall majority for the first time.

Over the past two election cycles, the ANC held an outright majority in only two of the country’s eight metros, Mangaung and Buffalo City.

Cape Town is controlled by the DA, while the other five metros – Tshwane, Nelson Mandela Bay, Johannesburg, Ekurhuleni, and eThekwini – have no party with an outright majority.

The political shift is not limited to the metros. There are 52 municipalities that did not have an outright winner in the 2021 local government elections in provinces like KwaZulu-Natal, Free State and Mpumalanga, among others. This means that different parties have had to find ways of pooling their votes together to form a majority to govern these municipalities.

The political complexion of South Africa’s lower administrative units seems to be shifting from a dominant party system to a multi-party system, which has necessitated governing coalitions in their municipalities.

Many have argued that the political shift at the local level signifies an imminent shift at the national level.

The ANC’s performance in the local government elections has emboldened the opposition parties to entertain the idea of pushing the ruling party’s vote share below 50% in the next national elections in 2024.

The likelihood of this happening becomes more likely when one considers that the metros, where the ANC’s political appeal is waning rapidly, are home to over a third of the South African population.

Barring any other party getting an outright majority, if the ANC fails to get more than 50% of the vote in 2024, it would mean that the national executive can only be made up of a coalition of parties represented in Parliament.

The prospect of a national coalition has gained so much traction that a delegation of South African representatives of various parties visited Denmark recently to understand how coalitions work.

Denmark has had coalition governments for over a century, as no party has managed to obtain an absolute majority in the legislature.

The country has managed to develop norms and systems which have made coalition governments more stable over the years, and able to govern effectively.

Picture credit: Timothy Bernard/African News Agency(ANA) – Multi Party Coalition. A launch and signing of a document that was meant to see several political parties come together in Johannesburg and Ekurhuleni.

It is important that South Africa prepares itself for the possibility of a coalition government at the national level. Judging by the spectacles we have witnessed in the coalitions at the municipal level, South Africa has a lot to learn in managing coalitions.

Leadership is changed every so often as parties disagree on issues.

Motions of no confidence – a tool used to withdraw support for an incumbent government through a vote of no confidence – have been the most consistent nomenclature across South African municipalities governed by coalitions. The implications of this happening at the national level will be more serious.

For political actors accustomed to a winner-takes-all principle, having to share power in a coalition can prove challenging. Instability in the coalition can paralyse the government and create an atmosphere of uncertainty and ineffective policy implementation, which would have a negative bearing on the economy and the public welfare.

Moreover, in coalitions minority partners can hold the bigger partners to ransom and exercise disproportionate influence on government policy, which may not reflect the wishes of the majority — thus diluting the democratic will.

Further, if not properly managed, coalition government distorts accountability as coalition partners can trade blame for things that may have gone wrong. As such, South Africa must find innovative ways of handling a coalition government, if it happens, to ensure that the national government is not reduced to an arena of endless and counter-productive political bickering.

Nkala is a Research Fellow at the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Africa-China Studies.