/ 3 August 2023

Complicated political minefield on how to approach coalition-forming

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Back in early 2018, I went to see the late, and greatly-missed, ANC politician Jackson Mthembu in his chief whip’s office in parliament. 

I wanted to interest him in a new initiative that I was convening, to create space for South African political leaders to think about how to “do” coalition politics. In the year or so since the 2016 local government election, which had yielded a series of hung councils in important cities such as Johannesburg, Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay, it had become clear that instability was likely to be the defining feature of this chapter of the history of South Africa’s democratic evolution. 

Although an affable fellow, I was nervous about how Mthembu might respond to me. There was a good chance, I reckoned, of him taking a defensive stance, along the lines of the ANC not countenancing any further loss of power. Accepting the need to work alongside other parties to think through the implications of coalitions might be seen as accepting that the ANC was on a steady downward trajectory and, therefore, a sign of weakness. But Mthembu was more than open to my suggestion. He was enthusiastic and realistic. 

“Coalition politics is part of the landscape now and will be so for the foreseeable future”, he said. “And we in the ANC need to recognise this and be smart about it.”

Indeed, the ruling party took the issue so seriously that it even constituted a national executive committee sub-committee in anticipation of losing its majority in the Gauteng provincial legislature at the following year’s general election. 

But, in the event, the ANC held on by its fingernails with 50.2%. At which point, it more or less lost interest in the subject and took its eye off the ball, thinking the threat might pass — after all, this was the time of Ramaphoria. 

But the 2021 local government election outcome moved things on substantially. Much of the air had escaped from the Ramaphosa balloon, and the ANC’s decline hastened, as it lost its majority in further city halls. 

Initially bewildered, apparently rooted to the spot and paralysed by this seismic shift in South African politics, it took a year or two before the ANC began to wake up to the danger and to begin to play the coalition politics game. 

Unfortunately, it is a game in which the rules are not yet clear — at least in a political culture sense. The law is clear enough: get to 51% with whatever motley crew of fellow travellers you can muster, and power is obtained. 

That’s the game the opposition had been playing, more or less, since 2016, with very mixed results. 

Since then, things have got decidedly, exponentially even, worse. Why? 

Because this essentially transactional approach to gaining or sustaining a majority is the root cause of the instability that has subsequently been inflicted on much of city hall governance since. 44, say, plus 2 plus 2 plus 1 plus 1 plus 0.5 plus 0.5 takes you to 51. Basic electoral maths. But it gives each of those 1s and 0.5s a great deal of power and many of them are grifters with little or no experience of real politics let alone governance, and with only — by definition — a modest constituency of voters. 

Yet, some of them have ended up as mayors of major cities, such is their negotiating power. 

It is a complete shambles, almost everywhere one can bear to look. So much for my little initiative, which has involved two study trips by senior South African political leaders (to Germany in late 2019 and Denmark in September last year).  

Then again, Copenhagen “was not built in a day”. Establishing a new way of “doing” politics, when you have to share power rather than dominate it having secured a majority at the election, requires a serious recalibration of one’s thinking and a fundamentally different mindset. 

And, I have to say, the political leaders who travelled to Denmark did so with a clear understanding that the current trend is unsustainable and that great harm is being done to the interests of citizens and businesses across the land. 

There is a serious-mindedness about the realisation that minority government and coalition arrangements require a far more careful, agile and skillful approach. 

But, there is a gap between stated intention and execution. Politicians are hard-wired to want to win or gain power. There is nothing wrong with that; voters want their chosen candidates to have power to deliver on the mandate given to them. 

But, presumably, voters do not want chaos. They want good public services. 

One of the biggest problems is that the public service is far too partisan: cadre deployment — especially, but not only, from the ANC side — has led to a situation whereby if a coalition government falls, then public service is often paralysed. Unlike in Denmark or Berlin, it does not carry on providing a consistent and high-quality service to the public irrespective of what is happening with the political representatives in the council chamber.

The fear, of course, is contagion; that the instability in the local government sphere will spread after next year’s election to provincial and national governments. 

Now the ANC wants to take back control, to try to get a grip of a spiralling situation. Which has led to the convening of a national summit on coalition politics led by Deputy President, Paul Mashatile, which will take place at the University of the Western Cape on Friday and Saturday. 

Mashatile has been the busiest deputy president since the days of Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, who served as Thabo Mbeki’s deputy from 2005 until his unceremonious unseating at the hands of a ruthless, out-for-revenge Jacob Zuma in 2008. 

Mlambo-Ngcuka took the job seriously and was given meaningful responsibilities. Since then a series of deputies have either been sent to faraway places to solve obscure conflicts or, in the case of former DP David Mabuza, have simply idled away their time — too lazy or infirm to actually do anything with the authority of the office.

Of course, Mashatile has far greater ambition. He would like to take over the top job as soon as possible. Presumably, he has calculated that coalitions are going to rise in the public eye under his watch — on the basis that he is likely to take over from President Cyril Ramaphosa relatively soon after next year’s elections. 

He does not want to walk into a mess. Hence, the attempt to “organise” coalition politics, by establishing some kind of framework to govern it. 

If the ANC is to lose power, then Mashatile wants a level of stability in which the ANC, as a minority government in, say, national government and Gauteng — Mashatile’s political base — can remain in power with the help of some political companions who can provide reliable and steady support. 

One should not be entirely cynical about this process. It is worth trying to build a wider consensus about the kinds of principles that should underpin the sharing of power in a coalition. 

Law is not the answer. You can’t legislate culture. But having said that there are one or tweaks in the constitutional system that should be considered — most obviously extending the period of time in which a government can be formed, to allow for more considered and substantive negotiations to take place so as to arrive at a more durable coalition pact. 

A deeper and far more controversial change would be to create a threshold for entry 2%, say, which would reduce the number of parties, and the complicated minefield that fuels the transactional approach to coalition-forming, but which would undermine a founding principle of the 1994 settlement, namely, that there should be maximal representativity given the diversity of the country. 

Voluntary conventions emerge over time, as does good practice. It depends on coalition partners being serious minded and having the intent and genuine desire to create a durable and effective government. 

So, it boils down to good leadership. Because this is in perilously short supply in South Africa, second prize must be to generate better practice: 

  • How agreements are formed and recorded; 
  • How partners interact with each other; 
  • How positions are distributed; and
  • How the coalition is communicated to the public.

Voter understanding is also a crucial issue and something that we will have to be a bit patient with. In Denmark, for example, voters punish parties for actions that destabilise coalitions. 

The threat of electoral consequences is ultimately the best way to change behaviour of political parties. That, after all, is precisely what is driving Mashatile in his quest to change the coalition game. 

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