Parties need to dance to the coalition tune

Marriage of convenience: The precarious alliance between Julius Malema's EFF and Mmusi Maimane's DA hangs in the balance (John McCann/M&G)

Marriage of convenience: The precarious alliance between Julius Malema's EFF and Mmusi Maimane's DA hangs in the balance (John McCann/M&G)

Is this a time of crisis or opportunity for South African opposition parties? Well, it depends.

If you are a bigger opposition party — the Democratic Alliance (DA) or the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) — it has become a time of crisis, partly of their own making and partly because Cyril Ramaphosa’s victory in December at the ANC electoral conference and subsequent ousting of Jacob Zuma in February has created a strategic conundrum and an elemental political dilemma.

DA leader Mmusi Maimane and EFF “commander in chief” Julius Malema appear disorientated by Ramaphosa’s ascent to the top of Benjamin Disraeli’s “greasy pole” of politics.

In Parliament, when Zuma was still around, for Maimane and, especially, Malema, it was like shooting fish in a barrel. You simply couldn’t miss because there was so much to hit.

Now, you can look down from the public or press gallery and what you see coming out of Malema’s head is a big thought bubble: “How on earth am I going to tackle this guy?”

Things may shift, if and when Ramaphosa’s reform programme begins to get stuck in the mud, held back by either the residual rump of the Zuptas, the obstructionist nationalists in his own party or just simply governmental inertia and inefficiency. But for the time being the opposition are being forced to recognise that the political zeitgeist has changed so fundamentally from last year that it requires of them a substantive recalibration of strategy.

This is the dilemma: hammering Zuma was a strong political strategy because there was ample evidence that many traditional ANC voters were turning their backs on the party out of disgust with Zuma’s leadership.

But the rebuttable presumption now is that many of those disenchanted ANC voters will come flooding back, filled with approval for Ramaphosa’s reform programme, his restoration of core ANC values, and his determination to rebuild both governmental integrity and ANC unity.

It’s a rebuttal presumption because there is little evidence yet that this is so.
It is just as likely that those voters remain deeply suspicious of the ANC and that working-class voters in particular do not share the chattering class’s enthusiasm for the leadership transition.

This may benefit all opposition parties, which are desperately hoping for a hung legislature in provinces such as Gauteng that will bring complex coalition arrangements into play.

But the DA and the EFF are deeply divided over strategy and tactics, and also, it would seem, over ideology and values. In both cases the uncertainty runs so deep that it could justifiably be described as an existential crisis.

What exactly does the DA stand for? What is its ideological pivot? Is it a traditional liberal party with social democratic tendencies? Or is it just a liberal party? This ideological confusion plays out most obviously in its attitude to transformation. Some DA parliamentary caucus members were spitting blood about the City Press front-page story on Sunday concerning a backlash against Maimane’s Freedom Day observations about white privilege. Politically this is disaster for the DA.

If it wants to continue to entertain any hope of increasing its share of the black vote, let alone become the biggest party in Gauteng, it cannot be seen to be equivocating on this fundamental issue.

White privilege is a fact of South African life, born of the country’s apartheid and colonial past, and sustained by stubborn structural socioeconomic constraints. If Maimane’s white colleagues are unwilling to accept this unconditionally and back him wholeheartedly, then the DA is in very deep trouble.

Ramaphosa inevitably jumped on the issue during Tuesday’s presidential question time. Instead of putting the new president under pressure, it was the “official opposition” (a curious term, by the way, which serves little purpose) that was on the back foot.

Meanwhile, the DA has made a complete mess of removing Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille from office. This, too, will harm it. De Lille’s move to the DA was always going to end in tears; a misconceived liver transplant, it was only a matter of time before the body rejected the new organ.

In private, she would always speak of “them” rather than “us”. But she is widely respected, across race and class and other sectarian lines. It is too crude an analytical point to suggest that removing De Lille will necessarily harm its support among coloured working-class voters in the Western Cape, but the DA would be wise not to lose sight of a golden rule of politics: you should not lose touch with your base and never take it for granted.

In Nelson Mandela Bay, the DA-led coalition is hanging on for dear life, proving just how tricky coalition politics can be — a notion that prompted an initiative to support the building and sustaining of coalitions in South Africa, and which on Monday convened a high-level dialogue between six senior politicians from across the political spectrum in Germany with the leaders, chief whips and other senior members of political parties here, including the ANC.

Smartly, instead of lazily assuming that its leadership transition heralds a period of new-found dominance, the ruling party is recognising that not only is it already in coalitions in various municipalities but also that it will continue to have to find ways of working effectively with other parties.

Coalition politics, it recognises, as should we all, is now a part of South Africa’s political landscape.

One of the many fascinating lessons from Germany’s decades-long history of coalitions is that a key strategic element is to present co-operation with other parties in a positive light — that the necessary compromises that coalition arrangements entail are a sign of strength, not weakness.

Too often, coalition agreements have been projected as “sellouts” by one or other party. This derives from an unhealthy political culture that defines other political parties not as opponents but as enemies. This enmity can have serious, even deadly, consequences in a society in which violence is too readily resorted to.

Hence, political leaders have a responsibility to organise coalition discussions and agreements in a careful, respectful and measured fashion. In turn, this requires them to explain fully and openly why and on what basis an agreement has been reached. In Germany, the often long and very detailed coalition agreements are published, so that the electorate can see what has been agreed on, and they serve as an important accountability mechanism in case deals later break down.

Although it has some experience in coalitions, South Africa still needs to develop the conventions and practices that will enable coalition politics to succeed in delivering stable government, rather than the reverse. As one of the German politicians put it: “If you fail to manage your coalition carefully and it becomes unstable, the electorate will likely blame you and you will be hurt.”

Coalitions require flexibility and a special form of political craft. At the moment, these are largely conspicuous by their absence in South Africa. They must be developed urgently and there is much to be learnt from the experience of other countries.

To return to the original question, if you are a smaller opposition party — such as the United Democratic Movement, the Freedom Front Plus or the African Christian Democratic Party — it is a time of opportunity: the weakness of the “big three” is manna from heaven, providing openings that were unimaginable before the 2016 local government elections that disturbed the status quo in such a game-changing fashion.

Coalitions can come in all shapes and sizes. Ideological alignment is just one dimension. As the secretary general of the Greens said, his party is in coalition arrangements in nine provinces in Germany, eight of them in different political configurations.

Now, in an electoral system in which every vote counts, the tail can wag the dog. Look at how a single-issue party — the African Independent Congress (AIC) or the Patriotic Alliance, both with single-digit representation in the Nelson Mandela Bay council — are exercising enormous influence, punishing in the AIC’s case the ANC for failing to deliver on promises made to it elsewhere in the country. This is further evidence of the complexity of coalition politics.

The EFF was absent from the coalition symposium. For the other parties it was the right topic at the right time but for the EFF it is simply too delicate a subject. No doubt they would love to be the main kingmaker after the next election but they are too divided on the question of who to choose as a coalition partner.

As he looks for an exit strategy, Malema is inclined towards the ANC. But another faction strongly opposes this idea, recognising that it would be the death knell for the EFF and its anti-establishment credentials.

How, and when, the EFF untangles this particular political predicament will have significant implications for the future of multiparty democracy in South Africa, as well as its political culture.

Richard Calland, a partner at the Paternoster Group, a political risk consultancy, is working on a new book: Cyril’s World: The Politics and Ideology of the New South African President

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