The Democratic Alliance has long premised its prospects for growth and its view of the future on coalition politics. This is not surprising and, until recently, you would have been hard-pressed to think the strategy was wrong.
After all, the DA was launched into being by a coalition of sorts. In the heyday of the ANC’s dominance, a sliver of opportunity opened when the ruling party failed to win the Western Cape in 1999. This would prove to be a great fillip for the then very small Democratic Party (DP), which was invited to form a minority coalition government and anti-ANC front with the party of apartheid, the National Party (NP).
That first coalition showed that the party would collaborate with just about anyone and everyone against the ANC, including the last remnants of apartheid.
Just in case you have found yourself wondering in recent times what the DA ever thought it had in common with Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters, remind yourself that the simple criterion has always been: “Not the ANC”.
The 1999 coalition also eventually led to the collapse of the party of apartheid. Its public representatives, activists and ideologues, and the entirety of its electoral machinery, defected to the emerging new voice of white resistance, the DP. That eventually became the Democratic Alliance when the merger was formalised, and the DP swallowed up the NP, which by that time had taken to calling itself the New National Party (NNP).
But the real lasting legacy of the 1999 coalition was the impetus it gave to the idea that coalitions would be the future of not just opposition politics but also the only hope to unseat the dominant ANC. It is an idea that, even this week as the strategy seemingly lies in tatters, the DA embraces and places at the centre of how the party sees the future of electoral politics in South Africa. It has been pursued with unerring vigour by its three successive leaders, Tony Leon, Helen Zille, and now Mmusi Maimane.
Over the years, some success has resulted from this belief. The first coalition with the NNP established the party as an electoral force in the Western Cape. It is by and large the result of that first “opposition coalition” that the DA is, like the ANC nationally, now the dominant ruling party in that province.
The second major success of the coalition strategy delivered the City of Cape Town, the nation’s legislative capital and the second-largest municipal budget, to the DA.
It followed the same script. The smaller (dying) Cape-based Independent Democrats was wooed and enticed until it delivered an important constituency, one to which the DA did not have natural access points, until it, like the NNP, was finally subsumed under the banner of the bigger party.
The DA has managed to drive organic growth in both membership and electoral support since its formation in 2000, quite apart from its early tendency to eat its alliance partners. The party is now comfortably the second-largest one and dominant not just among white voters but also among all the national minorities.
But therein lies the double bind. To have any chance at winning national and provincial elections outside its Western Cape base, the party must make a serious play for black voters. To do so honestly and sincerely risks its standing among the minorities, as various controversies caused by policy and political confusion have shown.
But then came the third wave of success, the stunning coup in 2016. It seemed, two years ago, that the script for the outcome of the 2024, or even the 2019 national poll (and at least one provincial election), was being written and rehearsed. As millions of ANC urban voters stayed at home in disgust at the state of the ruling party, the DA emerged as the largest force in some of the metro councils.
Mainly with the help of the EFF, the party took control of four of the country’s eight metros. Only half, but it got the plum ones: the economic heartland, the national capital and the symbolically important Nelson Mandela Bay. More importantly, it controlled a combined metro budget of R155-billion compared with the ANC’s R95-billion.
With a general election looming, this was final proof (if proof was necessary) that coalitions were the key to future realignment in our politics.
“Indeed, 2016 was a watershed moment for South Africa, as a new era of coalition politics was ushered in when South Africa rejected the ANC in favour of change in major cities across the nation,” read a joint statement from some of South Africa’s opposition leaders last year. “Come 2019, we will work towards building the alternative: a coalition government at national level that represents all South Africans and is committed to fighting corruption, delivering services and creating jobs for all.”
It all seems premature, and maybe just a little silly, this week. One of the three metro councils the DA got to govern is now gone, as the party has lost the support of the EFF. The other hangs in the balance. The most important of them, Johannesburg, will eventually go too as an inevitable result of the fallout of this week’s events.
DA-EFF coalitions collapsed in Gauteng and the Free State, leading to by-elections in those provinces. The same happened in KwaZulu-Natal with the Inkatha Freedom Party, and even with the ANC in the Western Cape. So the dramatic fall of two DA mayors is only the culmination of the instability and rancour that has accompanied the process almost since the start of the third wave of DA coalition-making.
From a seemingly unwavering belief in coalitions as the future of our politics, this week we are all asking: Can coalition governments work in South Africa?
What happened? It may be that our politics is insufficiently mature to handle the complexities of managing coalition and minority governments. Perhaps the DA, especially, is unable to lead any partnership in which there exists no possibility to swallow up its junior partner. Perhaps they are simply too arrogant, as has been alleged. Speculating about the causes is for another day, and I do suspect that we will find the causes are many and complex.
For the DA at least, what matters now is the regrouping and recalibration the party needs heading into 2019. Clearly, there will be no DA-led coalition government after next year’s election (the possibility of that was small once the ANC elected a new president). Given the state of the post-2016 experiment, that’s probably the good news for the party.
The bad news is that a party that faces such a stubborn growth ceiling as the DA needs to find ways to break through. All along, the plan has been to grow and make its governance pitch with coalitions. If that avenue is closing, what then?
Vukani Mde is a founder and partner at LEFTHOOK, a Johannesburg-based research and strategy consultancy