Local elections 2016 may see coalitions of convenience

2016-07-27 11:10
Piet Croucamp

Piet Croucamp

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Piet Croucamp

South Africa is often described as a divided society or perhaps more aptly, as a country marred by historical fault lines which evolved as a consequence of social engineering with questionable political intent. It would be naive to assume that during the past 22 years we have managed to erase the consequences of such social engineering and where we have had relative success, it was certainly seldom through prudent social and economic management.

In our case, historical adversaries may well have settled into a constitutional compromise in much the same way as strangers seeking the condonation of higher authority through a marriage of convenience. In the past two decades, we have lived, without choice, with the conflicts we have inherited with no intention of seeking consensus for the failing compromises of the 1990s. South Africans have learned to live with each other rather than to reach beyond race and class for a common destiny. 

In the upcoming local elections, we could once again be forced to form coalitions between historical adversaries as opposed to between contending interests. In most modern, embedded democracies, coalitions are viewed as an arrangement which allows for political managers and communities to remind themselves of that which “made them fall in love with each other in the first place”; in South Africa, coalitions reinforce that which motivates the acrimony of a divorce. However, such hostile “mergers of convenience”, if carefully managed, may well coerce reluctant adversaries to seek social stability in compromises which, over time, nurture a collective empathy. 

Unstable coalitions

The reasons why political coalitions in the metropoles of Nelson Mandela Bay, Johannesburg and Tshwane will almost certainly be either unstable or not durable, vary greatly. Johannesburg has been managed with relative success by the ANC, largely due to the metropole’s significant tax base, while in Tshwane the governing party cohesion has been challenged recently by the prevalence of “strongmen” with contending but vested interests in the city’s distributive regime.

These opportunistic interests burst like an inflamed ulcer when provincial heavyweight, Paul Mashatile, sought to consolidate control in the capital of South Africa through the superimposition of a heavy weight apparachic in the person of Thoko Didiza. The fact that the violence ended as quickly as it started fuelled the perception that it was instigated by strongmen and extinguished with immediate effect once assurances were granted that the existing distributive regime would not be disturbed by the proposed replacement of the master patron, in this case the mayor of the city. 

Nelson Mandela Bay has been a simmering if not fragmented political realm for some time. The rise of the workerists, the United Front of the Eastern Cape, a party conceived in the alienation of Numsa from the tri-partite alliance, may well be telling come August 3. More independent candidates and new political parties, often with a very localised interest only, have registered than ever before; in Nelson Mandela Bay this phenomenon could become important in the design of a coalition. 

In Johannesburg and Tshwane, the EFF will be loitering with intent on the fringes. The third biggest party in the political conundrum of Johannesburg’s industrial economy and Tshwane’s bureaucratic environment will certainly be hoping to hold to ransom the two main players while aiming to extract disproportionate benefits in terms of power and control over the distributive regimes of these metropoles once the dust over the inevitable rhetoric of less than free and fair elections have settled. 

The threat of violence and uncivil contestation has stood the EFF in good stead since the national and provincial elections and it will make no sense to abandon the strategy while negotiating their presence in coalition politics. In most, if not all metropoles, the ANC may only need the co-operation of the really smaller parties for a coalition government, while the DA will avoid the EFF as a coalition partner with great difficulty. If and when a DA-EFF coalition comes about, it will be nothing more than a marriage conceived in the politics of opportunism, with a limited lifespan, as the dominant policy narratives of the two parties are as divergent as a snake’s tongue. 

ANC and DA coalition unlikely

In spite of the rhetorical vulgarities exchanged between the ANC and the EFF, a coalition between them in the metropoles will almost certainly have greater durability as long as the need for good governance does not encroach upon the sectarian interests of a plethora of strongmen operative within the distributive regime of the municipal finance act.

A coalition between the two biggest parties, the DA and the ANC, in most of the large metropoles is highly unlikely, in spite of their ideological similarities and the significant loyalty to the constitutional regime exposed by both parties. While the DA will compromise measurably to keep the EFF from occupying any office in the land, leadership in Luthuli House will be aware that the hostilities between the ANC and the EFF in provincial and national legislatures will inevitably filter through to the frail and fragile compromises in the local sphere of governance.

The DA is good at forming coalitions. They have manoeuvred the relative majority of the ANC in Western Cape out of office on the back of the considerable skills of Helen Zille to design and maintain an artificial connective tissue between contending narratives. The coalition government of 2006, managed by the DA in the Western Cape, lasted long enough for the party, then led by Helen Zille, to consolidate control in distant jurisdictions and over smaller contenders such as the Independent Democrats. Coalitions further north may well be too unstable to benefit either the DA or the ANC sufficiently to establish legitimisation across the historical divides.

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Read more on:    da  |  anc  |  eff  |  local elections 2016

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