The C-word is for coalitions, not centrism

In politics as in life, you should be careful what you wish for. At the very start of the local government election campaign, President Cyril Ramaphosa made a bold statement. If you don’t trust your councillor or you don’t think your municipality is doing a good job, then vote for someone else, was the gist.  

This was a far, and welcome, cry from his predecessor’s preposterous claim that the ANC “will rule until Jesus comes”. Yet the faux humility that was the hallmark of the lacklustre ANC campaign that followed didn’t cut it with the electorate. 

Either by boycotting the poll altogether, or by turning to a growing market of opponents — but mainly the former — voters have turned their backs on the ANC, ushering in a new period of even greater uncertainty and instability, but also opportunity.  

At the centre of this shifting landscape sits coalition politics. In 2017 I went to see the ANC’s chief whip, the late Jackson Mthembu, to talk about a new coalition politics initiative I was convening. I was far from certain that the ANC wanted to hear the “C-word”; I didn’t think it was ready to countenance the idea that sooner rather than later it would be in the position of having to scrabble around for partners to keep them in power. I assumed that they would see it as a sign of weakness.

But, ever sage and reasonable, Jackson was welcoming of the idea. “Coalitions are going to be a big part of the future political landscape of this country,” was what he said. 

And he was absolutely right. Just four years later, and it looks as though coalitions will be the defining feature of not just the next five years of local government, following Monday’s fragmented electoral outcome, but of national and provincial politics for the foreseeable future. 

The local government election delivered a double first. Not only did the ANC’s share of the vote across the country fall below 50% for the first time but turnout was also less than half of registered voters, falling at least 10% from the last local government elections  in 2016. 

This was a yellow card not just for the ANC but for the country’s electoral democracy. The alarm bells went off in 2019 when 25% of eligible voters did not bother to register. Of those nine-million people, six-million were “young” — aged 18-29 — 50% of the youth vote. 

This time almost a third of the 38.57-million eligible voters did not register to vote; so only three out of every ten eligible voters actually voted on Monday. 

This means that, in turn, in the many “hung” municipalities, including four of the eight metros, the biggest parties are hoping to form governments on the back of a “mandate” — if one can even apply that term in these circumstances — of less than 15% of the electorate. 

This stretches government legitimacy to breaking point. It means that the burden on political leaders to constitute stable and sustainable coalitions is even greater. Ideally, those coalitions should not just be about securing the necessary 51% combined majority needed to govern, but should attempt to include as many parties as possible, even though this will add to the complexity of both the negotiations and the management of the coalitions. 

In any case, such has been the fragmentation, in many places it will not be possible for two parties to make it without a third or a fourth. In Johannesburg, for example, even if the ANC and the EFF wanted to get into bed together — and the ANC will approach such a deal with justified trepidation — they will not have won enough seats to get over the line together; they would need to find a third play-mate. 

This is perhaps the most remarkable feature of Monday’s outcome. While it was clear that none of the big three parties, the ANC, Democratic Alliance (DA) and Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) were in form in the run-up, it is still extraordinarily rare in electoral politics that both a dominant ruling party and its two biggest rivals would all suffer such disappointing results. 

It creates an opening; the possibility emerges for a “fourth way” to offer a fresh, more diverse political platform.  

But even this chink of light in an otherwise dismal scene is fraught with difficulty, not least because voters are being drawn away from the centre ground. The flanks continue to rise. When parties splinter off the ANC or DA and try to adopt central/rational positions they don’t succeed. Noisy populism is more likely to prosper, although EFF leader Julius Malema will be desperately disappointed with his party’s failure to gain any substantial ground. 

Building coalitions with such potential partners will involve a lot of nose-holding. Who would want to break bread with this election’s break-out party, ActionSA? Its arrival on the scene indicates a further disintegration of the middle ground of SA politics, since Herman Mashaba — a kind of Donald Trump-lite — offers a toxic mixture of free market economic policies and xenophobic anti-immigrant rhetoric. 

Like Trump, Mashaba is a  transactional politician. When he was mayor of Johannesburg he asked the EFF what its price was for keeping him in power and unsurprisingly they opted for portfolios in City Hall that unlocked procurement “opportunities” for them. That was Mashaba’s trade, and one of the reasons why the DA subsequently spat him out. 

Coalition-building is an art-form, and provides a real test of political wit and leadership nous. The conventions and practices that can under-gird stable coalitions can take decades to establish. 

Germany is a case study in this regard. Its national election was on 26 September. Since then various parties have been testing the water with each other to decide, as a first stage, whether they even want to form a coalition. 

Hence, it is only the last few days that the expected “traffic light” constellation of social democrats, liberals and greens have turned to phase two: figuring out the programmatic detail of their coalition deal, and working through the details of what will bind them during their time together in government. 

There is no panic; instead, a careful and painstaking process of building the necessary trust and guard-rails to govern the coalition to ensure that it will not easily fall off the rails — like most of the new coalitions that formed in Tshwane, Johannesburg and Nelson Mandela Bay after the 2016 local government elections. 

The stakes are very high for those locked in the negotiating rooms at the moment, and they face tricky political questions, such as, for the ANC: should it risk a deal with the volatile EFF or does it dare enter a “grand coalition” with a right-leaning DA? Different risks will need to be weighed in the balance, guided by strategic principles, such as: what is the most workable coalition partnership and which will provide the most stable and capable form of government?  

Political leaders and their negotiating teams should not rush. They are tired, no doubt, from the campaign. They would be well advised to move slowly, testing the ground every step of the way. Residents of the towns and cities where they will govern have every right to expect that the new coalitions will not be entered into promiscuously and without careful forethought. 

Otherwise it will likely be very messy. 

This is the future — full of uncertainty and fluidity, but ripe with new possibilities. Even allowing for the fact that local government elections tend to have lower turn-outs and are less forgiving of the ruling party, it is now more likely than not that the ANC will fail to secure a majority at the next national election in 2024.

This will give pause for thought for an awful lot of people inside the ANC, where it will provide ammunition to Ramaphosa’s opponents, who will seek to pin the psychologically significant drop beneath 50% onto their reform-minded president. The 2016 result was a nail in Jacob Zuma’s coffin. It is unlikely to have the same direct, negative impact on Ramaphosa, although the ANC is an even more unstable, divided and unpredictable organisation that it was five years ago. 

Yet, Ramaphosa will have to impose his authority and insist that the result the ANC got is the result that it deserves after so many years of shoddy rule – otherwise he may lose his grip on power. The radical economic transformation gang may be too weakened and inchoate to muster a serious challenge. But future pretenders, such as Deputy President DD Mabuza and his mate Paul Mashatile, will be watching closely. They will be mindful of the fact that there is little point in playing a long game if come the time of their coronation the ANC is no longer in power. 

Their political calculus will focus on whether it is better to move now to install new leadership capable of restoring the ANC’s electoral mojo or to continue to back Ramaphosa as the best bet to rebuild public trust in a liberation movement that has so badly lost its way. 

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Richard Calland
Richard Calland is an associate professor in public law at the University of Cape Town and a founding partner of the Paternoster Group.

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