/ 12 June 2024

Challenges, strategies and the will of the people in forming political coalitions in South Africa

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The 14-day period to form a government is one of the issues that has been identified as a stumbling block in the formation of well-considered and stable coalitions. (Esa Alexander/Sowetan/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

South African law dictates that once the result of an election is announced, the first sitting of that legislative body must be held within 14 days. At that first sitting, be it of a municipal council, a provincial legislature or the National Assembly, the legislative body elects the government. The executive positions of that body, including the positions of mayor, premier and president, respectively, are voted on and elected. 

Following the Electoral Commission of South Africa’s (IEC’s) announcement of the 2024 election results on 2 June, the clock is ticking to the 16 June deadline. When there is an outright winner, the formation of government is a foregone conclusion.

That party’s majority will always provide a clear path to electing the executive and supporting policies and passing budgets and legislation. But when no party emerges victorious with a clear majority — which is now the case in three provinces (Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and Northern Cape) and nationally for the first time since democracy — it necessitates the formation of coalitions, to collectively produce a majority.  

What will happen in the next two weeks with respect to coalition building? 

Political parties have been holding discussions to form coalitions that can secure a majority in the three provincial legislatures referred to above. With respect to the National Assembly, it is less clear, because a government of national unity is touted, which will be somewhat different to an ordinary coalition. While the headlines are dominated by “coalition talks” and everyone has an opinion on what parties should be doing, the public has little specific information about the nature of these discussions, what agreements are being negotiated, how parties are considering sharing power and potentially compromising on policy positions.  

The 14-day period to form a government is one of the issues that has been identified as a stumbling block in the formation of well-considered and stable coalitions. To expect such a short period to produce long-lasting partnerships that need to collectively deal with complex political issues, while still representing the interests of their constituents, and needing to compromise, has been shown to be unrealistic and set for failure.  

One of the effects of the 14-day period is described by Professor Jaap de Visser, the South African Research Chair in multilevel government, law and development at the University of the Western Cape, as “the tail wagging the dog”.

Without sufficient time for realistic agreements to be developed, parties negotiate in haste to create a majority. The coalitions that are formed may not be sufficiently based on a shared vision, an understanding of how the parties will work together and what potential compromises parties will make. The 14-day period may also be insufficient because the membership of each party should be consulted, and it should be a collective decision to enter a coalition, not merely the prerogative of leadership.  

South Africa’s recent coalition experience at the municipal level is marred by high levels of instability, coalitions collapsing and service delivery problems. While over-generalising does not help, some of these failures are caused by poorly considered coalitions that were formed on shaky ground, or without a proper consideration of how parties would work together. There is now the concern that some of what we have seen unfold at the local level will be replicated provincially and nationally. 

What can happen when parties enter coalitions without a meeting of the minds? 

There is no legislation, and nor should there be, to dictate how parties create coalitions. Parties must be given the room to negotiate. They need to be nimble, to respond to political developments. What was once considered a viable partner may not be the case any longer. Parties should be and are free to enter into a coalition with whomever they choose. 

But political parties need to act with maturity, with respect for the electorate, those who voted for them, their members and for the overall benefit of the country. Our coalition politics has become inherently transactional, which is unacceptable. When there is no outright winner, one would expect that parties that share more in common are likely to gravitate to each other.

But this is not always possible, depending on the share of the vote in that election. Sometimes parties will need to work with others that may be dissimilar to them in various ways. When this happens, unless there is a clear agreement and plan, problems are likely to emerge.  

But even when parties are more in unison on issues, stability is not a guarantee, because egos and power plays can quickly disrupt things. When one partner in a coalition sees a potential to gain by throwing their lot in with other parties, coalitions can collapse as we have seen in municipalities across the country, perhaps best exemplified by the City of Johannesburg’s “musical chairs” coalition experience.  

Parties will argue that if they do not win outright and have a chance to be in power as part of a coalition, this gives them the best chance to implement their programmes and to represent the interests of their supporters. That they need to negotiate and compromise on policies is simply an inescapable political reality. There is truth to this.

But the problem emerges when parties join forces not based on at least some degree of a meeting of the minds, but purely to get power. It is a tight balancing act, and parties take the risk of deepening or alienating their support base depending on their choices.  

It would be naïve to think that parties do not consider these issues or do not understand the consequences of joining with party A over party B. Political expediency and winning are powerful forces, however, and may override principle and long-term considerations. It is also worth noting that parties already have pre-existing relationships with other parties.

Not just in the coalitions that have been a common feature of our local politics for years, but public representatives are forced to work with each other, sitting on committees together and through the general work of legislatures. It is not the case that when parties need to consider their coalition choices, they are beginning from nothing.  

How can parties deepen public trust through coalition building? 

The degree to which the Multi-Party Charter will be a force remains to be seen, but the grouping of almost a dozen parties must be commended for its work before the elections, and its public release of its pre-election agreement. As we develop our coalition politics we need to develop a culture of greater transparency, and knowing before we go vote what coalitions have emerged, or are being considered, is a vital part of the voting calculus.  

It would have been incredibly powerful for the electorate to know before the elections the party or parties that their party of choice was considering or may already have entered into some form of coalition arrangement, and on what basis. How can one vote, from a meaningfully informed position without this knowledge? Just as we have established the right to access information about the private funding of political parties, political parties’ coalition plans are essential for the voter. 

But there is no legislation to compel parties to do this. Politically, they do not want to limit their choices pre-election, because they want to be free to join whomever they want. But the problem is that if a party, post-election, enters into a coalition it is possible that they will have to, to some degree, water down the votes of their supporters. The platforms that the voter supported may have to be compromised. There is the same amount of power, of jobs, of access to the state, that a single party would enjoy, but now it must be shared, and this will inevitably lead to negotiation. 

Compromise is an inescapable political reality when it comes to coalition politics, and this is not necessarily problematic. Our proportional representation electoral system was designed knowing that it could produce coalition governments. Such partnerships can be positive and beneficial for the country, because parties are forced to work together, and can lead to developing policies and passing legislation that is palatable to a wider section of society.

And despite the negative press and associations with coalition governments in South Africa, they are not inherently bad. They are not doomed to fail, if parties conduct themselves with maturity, if they develop well-considered agreements and act with the interests of the public in mind. But the rights of the electorate, to participate meaningfully and from an informed position must be balanced with the rights of political parties.   

What now? 

We cannot expect a political party to poll its supporters and voters each time a decision needs to be made, and this includes coalition building. That is what its membership and leadership must do, and parties must be free to take decisions, to change their minds. When you vote for a party, you are giving them a level of licence to operate on your behalf, to represent your interests. Voters are not forever beholden to a party, and the decisions that their party of choice takes will determine whether they continue to give their support, or sanction them by not voting for them next time.  

While this is with reference to the post-election period, it is encouraging that Ramaphosa has noted that coalition agreements should be made public. This has been one of the major proposals touted by civil society, government, and academics. Until now, when parties built coalitions, the agreements were not public and we had very little insight into what deals had been cut, and what compromises had been made. Agreements will provide us with crucial information that will assist in holding coalition governments accountable.  

This is a move in the right direction, but it is not enough. It is imperative that the electorate is apprised of this information before they vote. With the local government elections two years away, My Vote Counts will work towards this objective. We are entering a new politics and regardless of which parties come into power, the principles of transparency and accountability, as well as the rights of the voter and the public, must always be considered, upheld, and developed.  

Joel Bregman is a senior researcher at My Vote Counts.