/ 20 April 2023

How South Africa can prepare itself for coalition governance

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A general election campaign poster for the Democratic Alliance party, center, sits between posters showing Cyril Ramaphosa, South Africa's president, and Julius Malema, leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), on the road side in Pretoria, South Africa, on Thursday, April 18, 2019. The governing African National Congress has dominated national elections since the end of white-minority rule in 1994, with the DA securing about 22 percent of the vote in 2014. Polls suggest the ANC will keep its majority in the May 8 ballot. Photographer: Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg via Getty Images

South Africa is in a coalition-government era. The increase of diverse views and interests, desperation for ethical and progressive leadership and a yearning for “change” is highly likely going to see an increase in coalitions in the 2024 national election in South Africa. 

A positive aspect of coalition governments is that they enable large and small parties in South Africa to have a chance at participating in the government and hold important positions of leadership. For example, the new mayor of Johannesburg, Thapelo Amad, comes from a small party called Al Jama-ah. 

This comes at a time in which coalition governments are finding their relevance within our government structures and small parties are able to find a voice within our government.

While coalition governments sound exciting in terms of inclusive governance, by the look of things, South Africa does not seem to be ready to handle challenges that come with coalition governments nor does it appear like the country understands what is about to unfold in coalitions at provincial and national level. 

There is a false assumption that there would be cohesive consensus among parties in the convening of council and committee meetings and following legislative rules — but under coalitions, this has proven to be challenging.

Since 2016, coalitions have formed in most metropolitan councils — for example the City of Johannesburg, City of Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay Metropolitan — however, they continue to be unstable. 

Sadly, the country is seeing a rise in fragile and unstable coalitions at local government level, which raises uncertainty for future formations of coalitions at provincial and national government level because this will become a key feature in our democracy after next year’s national elections.

Among others, these are the challenges that we have seen at local government and expect to see with the upcoming national and provincial elections:

  1. Weak political leadership leads to fragile coalitions and frequent changes in political control in council chambers. There is instability in the retention of elected leaders due to conflict of interest and collusions. For example, in the City of Johannesburg, the coalition faces a lot of threats of disintegration due to collusion and there is constant resort to motions of no confidence for removal of leadership. Between 2021 and 2023, the City of Johannesburg has seen approximately eight acting and officially elected mayors.
  2. Strained administrative-political interface is becoming problematic due to political interference in the administration. There is a danger in not being able to separate elected leadership and the continuity of an administration of a government institution. In order for services to continue being delivered and government institutions to continue effectively functioning amid leadership changes, it is crucial for the administration to function even when leaders are being changed. There is a tendency for the administration to become dysfunctional as a result of leadership change. Timelines of service delivery are affected and budgeted priorities are likely to change.
  3. Coalition governments consist of political parties that have different sizes and ideologies, meaning that more often than not, there will be a clash in decision making. Decisions take longer to make and the complexities that come with intention aligning are tedious. This affects timelines and often leads to volatility within the councils.
  4. Smaller political parties cannot enact much of what they promised before the election. To govern, they must compromise with the parties with bigger voter proportions. Although they campaigned on specific policies, they often may not be able to implement them. Even though small parties typically pursue their own distinct policy goals, they don’t always succeed in communicating their policy stances.
  5. Adversarial inter-party relations are a reality. Although we do not want to admit it, coalition governments become very emotive and vengeful. Decisions, votes and public administration tend to fall in the hands of coalition governments that involve parties that don’t like each other and tend to make decisions based on who they like or don’t like. Further, egos get in the way, thus leading to a disregard of public interest.
  6. Due to little consideration for smaller parties’ policy goals, they tend to opt out of coalitions quite quickly to stay in the opposition. The challenges of being in opposition appear to be much better than those experienced as a coalition member. Oppositions play a clearer role in governance, mainly voting on existing public policy and holding the majority accountable, as opposed to fighting to have their policy goals considered within the coalition government. This makes coalition governments extremely unstable.
  7. The dynamics of one party with a large majority but fractured and factionalised party group loyalty and cohesion and another party group with slender majority give effect to a lot of ideological and policy conflicts within the coalition governments. The country needs to find conducive systems to resolve such ideological and policy conflicts.
  8. Every new leader brings new agendas and policy goals, which means there is a lack of continuity in dealing with social and economic issues. Upon new leaders coming into office, they have new priorities and abandon the policy goals of the previous leader. This makes service delivery extremely unsustainable.
  9. Potential conflict and security instability may exist because parties in a coalition govern in the shadow of electoral competition where they will typically compete directly against each other for votes. Public interest is often ignored in these contexts, leaving people power to a minimum.
  10. The country needs to be careful of weak committee systems, including weak public accounts and the reduced inability for the council chambers to provide oversight of the executive. Reforms expanding committee power are most likely to occur when ideological or policy conflict within the coalition government is greatest. Preventative steps should be taken to manage ideological or policy conflict within the coalition governments.

Coalition governments require governing parties to cooperate over the production and implementation of public policy which becomes the binding factor for coalitions to come together. Coalition governments are only possible when parties are willing to compromise on these preferences in order to govern jointly. 

According to the Public Affairs Research Institute, oversight in local governments is going to be required whereby councillors who are not the council’s executive can play an influential role in the shaping of policy and decisions that will have a real benefit on behalf of the community they represent. 

Further, this includes the development of oversight committees monitoring performance, reviewing and evaluating services, questioning decisions and plans made by the council’s executive, listening to the concerns of local people, and where appropriate, making recommendations for action and change.

Advanced democracies with experience of a coalition government and strong committee systems tend to develop rules and institutions to mitigate executive unaccountability, subjecting them to committee and legislative scrutiny and oversight over policy proposals and passing of legislative regulations. 

The South African government needs to start taking steps now, or the country will find itself in messy provincial and national coalition governments which will negatively impact the economy, businesses, institutional continuity and human development.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.