/ 12 April 2023

SA desperately needs a regulatory framework for coalitions

Graphic Tl Qobo Coalitions Twitter
(John McCann/M&G)

Twenty-four hours can be a long time in politics. The abrupt changes in the political landscape currently illustrate this political truism. Of late, South Africans have witnessed a spectacle of coalition tragicomedies unfolding in the local government sphere. 

In Tshwane, a disgraced mayor, who had hardly been in office for a week, had to make an abrupt exit from office. The week prior to that, the City of Ekurhuleni had to elect a new speaker. Preceding this, a new mayor had to be elected in the City of Joburg, representing a political party unknown to many. Ekurhuleni has just appointed a new executive mayor, who, in a similar situation to that in Johannesburg, leads a minority party — the African Independent Congress, whose claim to fame seems to be its proximity to the ANC on ballot papers and the fact that it has exactly the same colours. This happened just after ActionSA lost one of its provincial leaders in Gauteng, which has extended the ballot paper with another political party.  

All the above played itself out in a space of less than three months, in one province alone — Gauteng. 

The Democratic Alliance in the pseudo Federal State of the Western Cape has affirmed its intransigent attitude to the “rainbow-nation” dream, not only re-electing Matriarch Hellen Zille but vividly asserting the constituency it serves in its leadership.     

These recent decisions and changes give a microcosmic view of what citizens might have to brace themselves for in 2024, citing two inevitable developments in politics.

The first, and probably most precarious, issue is that participatory democracy in South Africa, as we know and understand it to be, is severely compromised and there is growing discontent about the political discourse as it stands. 

South Africa prides itself on a constitutional order that respects the rights of citizens to not just vote, but to choose their leaders democratically. This fundamental right is enshrined in section 19 of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996. The ability to exercise this democratic right has already been placed under constitutional scrutiny in court. 

In the New Nation Movement NPC vs The President case, the verdict of the constitutional court declared that the Electoral Act 73 of 1998 was “unconstitutional to the extent that it requires that adult citizens may be elected to the National Assembly and Provincial Legislatures only through their membership of political parties”. This undermines specifically section 19(3) (b) of the Constitution, stating that every citizen has the right to stand for public office. Parliament has been bestowed with the duty to constitutionally align the Act.

While this amendment might not have been effected by the time we reach the 2024 national elections, it demonstrates that democracy is evolving towards a more inclusive electoral order. The era of a monopolistic regime, favouring outcomes of political parties, is evaporating into the past. 

The ability of political parties to chop and change candidates, and decide on who ascends to the throne, raises concerns about participatory democracy. Reverberations of this much-needed transition are being echoed by a growing discourse on electoral reform led by civil society. Political guilt and the moral weight of the injustices of poverty and inequality have fuelled the desire for bottom-up change.

The second development, which is imperative to the survival or death of the first, is the unstable nature of coalitions at local government level. Joel Netshitenzhe cautions against this frailness in his analysis titled “Strategic Overview of South Africa’s Government Elections 2021”. He states that, “South Africa needs to seriously reflect on how to ensure stable coalition governance. The theory and praxis, in this regard, is seriously deficient.”

The lack of transparency around coalition agreements ought to make citizens anxious. Coalition governments, unfortunately, are emerging in a political culture characterised by corruption, patronage and survivalist politics of self-preservation. The deals and trade-offs characterising coalition agreements are largely driven by individual interests, as opposed to governance, accountability and ensuring that service delivery is not compromised. 

The trend of pushing inexperienced, one-person parties to the executive seat speaks less of affording small parties an opportunity and more of weakening oversight, for those with experience in cheating the system. These choices in leadership are taken in haste by the elite few in politics without wide political consultation. It shows a contumacious disrespect for participatory democracy and citizens.

The local government sphere remains the most critical and hence the first point of retaliation by the voter against the government. The previous local government elections saw a dismal 45.86% voter turnout and a massive loss of metros by the ANC. This inter alia confirms there is growing frustration among the citizenry, who feel less represented and that they are detached from the political decisions affecting them. This unsettling culture of uncertainty precipitates a greater potential crisis in 2024 and has placed the pillars of constitutional democracy in a precarious position.

While coalition governments are a consequence of changes in the political landscape, this should not undermine developing an obligatory legal framework, which not only holds politicians accountable but compels citizens to participate as an extension of the social contract. The low voter turnout is an indictment of our hard-earned democracy, relegating governance to politicians alone. Citizens now, more than ever, need to spearhead the configuration of coalition governments.

There must be standard, uncompromised principles which ensure the protection of efficient governance, whatever changes might happen. It cannot be that an overhaul in the political executive sees a complete paralysis of the institution. 

It does give comfort that academics and researchers have taken on the daunting task of looking into best practices. The Dullah Omar Institute, for example, has compiled a report titled a “Framework for Coalitions in Local Government”. It gives guidelines on how to navigate the problems of institutionalising coalitions. We urgently need to consolidate these initiatives into the national discourse and cement them into legislation — lest participatory democracy become a thing of the past.

Gugu Ndima is a social commentator.