South Africa entered the world of coalition politics in earnest three years ago. In the local election in 2016 three major cities found themselves without a majority party in charge. This forced the formation of coalition governments in Johannesburg, the country’s economic capital; Tshwane, the capital city; and Nelson Mandela Bay, a port city in the southeast of the country.
Over the past month all three have fallen apart spectacularly. The African National Congress “took back” the City of Johannesburg, the United Democratic Movement’s Mongameli Bobani was unceremoniously booted out as executive mayor in Nelson Mandela Bay, and Stevens Mokgalapa was deposed as mayor of Tshwane following an alleged sex scandal, corruption allegations and a water crisis.
Each of the developments has been triggered by different events. In Johannesburg, the resignation of Herman Mashaba as executive mayor, in protest at the return of Helen Zille as leader of the Democratic Alliance’s federal council, opened the space for the African National Congress to take the reins of power in the city.
In Tshwane, a cloud of controversy over the Democratic Alliance’s Mokgalapa created an opening for the African National Congress and the Economic Freedom Fighters to push for his removal as mayor. Through this move, the two parties demonstrated their control over council decisions.
In Nelson Mandela Bay, Bobani – who is a member of the small United Democratic Movement – created a governance crisis. He took far too long to manage the impact of a severe drought. And he was embroiled in fighting allegations of corruption. His tenure created a political problem for the African National Congress, which had helped get him into power. The party could no longer turn a blind eye to serious allegations of corruption against him.
Coalitions are notoriously difficult. Governing by coalition requires individuals, and the parties they represent, to cooperate and compromise. It requires developing a set of informal rules that enable the day to day business of governing to take hold.
It is a delicate balancing act between advancing party goals and creating administrative and political stability to govern with the people in mind.
A key element for a successful coalition government is the rationale for working together in the first place. Was it merely to get the governing party out? Are parties working together with the aim of bringing administrative and political stability? What did political parties bargain for when the coalitions were formed?
Looking at coalition dynamics in South Africa, it is clear that the rationale for “working together” was to get the African National Congress out of power in local councils. The aim of the coalition governments was not necessarily to create administrative and political stability. It was to prove that any party could do a better job than the African National Congress.
This is problematic because it undermines the principles needed to make coalitions work: cooperation, compromise and managing diverse policy agendas.
It’s no surprise that cracks quickly began to emerge.
Smaller parties can wreck the show
Smaller parties are the kingmakers in coalitions because they hold the reins of power in councils. They can hold councils hostage by using their vote to support or undermine the coalition government.
We have already seen this dynamic play out in Nelson Mandela Bay. The Patriotic Alliance, a small political party that ran on a ticket of representing South Africa’s marginalised and poor, flexed its political muscle by pulling out of a coalition with the Democratic Alliance when it did not get the deputy mayorship.
And, having gained no significant political benefit under a Democratic Alliance coalition, the Patriotic Alliance used its position to “negotiate” the deputy mayorship with the African National Congress, but initiated motions of no confidence against the mayor for sidelining smaller parties in council.
Similar dynamics played out in Tshwane and the City of Johannesburg. Flexing its political muscle, the Economic Freedom Fighters, a radically populist party and the third largest in the country, decided it would no longer vote in the two councils because it was “denied” an executive political seat in the name of power-sharing:
…the Democratic Alliance don’t want to vote for us but they want us to vote for them. We cannot keep on voting for people who can’t vote for us, power sharing means give and take. From 2016, still the Democratic Alliance doesn’t appreciate that (we voted for them).
In both these situations, the action of a small party rendered the councils hung. This meant that that couldn’t make decisions. Over time this will affect ordinary citizens as service delivery and developmental projects grind to a standstill.
These examples show that, in South Africa’s case, party interest – rather than governing for the good of the people – shapes coalition politics. More importantly, these dynamics show that the country’s political leaders do not have the political maturity to look beyond party interests for the greater good of the people.
The showdowns in the three metropoles show parties are interested only in gaining as much as possible, and that they are willing to bring governance and development to a standstill. The behaviour of all the parties involved speaks of an all-or-nothing approach in a situation that requires compromise, building relationships, negotiation and cooperation.
Events to date show that coalitions are about acquisition, at the cost of sharing and building.
South Africa will hold another round of local government elections in 2021. Political mistrust in the country is high. Last time round the country’s two biggest parties, the African National Congress and Democratic Alliance, were unable to mobilise their voters to win an outright majority in Nelson Mandela Bay, Tshwane and the City of Johannesburg.
Playing a zero-sum game within councils and turning local government into a political theatre has further undermined political trust. This is bound to lead to increased apathy among voters, threatening to place both parties at even greater risk to smaller ones in the next round of polling.
Joleen Steyn Kotze, senior research specialist in Democracy, Governance and Service Delivery at the Human Science Research Council and a Research Fellow Centre for African Studies, University of the Free State.