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Sandile Mzilikazi Khumalo
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Collective for Democracy or Collapse of Democracy

19 December 2013, 15:00

Coalition politics are not in the best interest of the electorate and a vibrant democracy. Having a shared enemy does not necessarily make friends.

On Tuesday the COPE, IFP, ACDP, UCDP and VF announced a decision to form a coalition for next year’s elections. As has been the case when such news are announced they are meet with great fanfare from the largest sections of the media as heralding "the end of the dominance of the ANC.” True to form, we live through the narrative once again.

 Putting aside the poorly managed announcement of this “marriage” and efforts to conceal the haste which accompanied its formation, one would trust that the leaders of this coalition would have given serious consideration to the value proposition they bring to the electorate. Once the drum roll and pageantry has subsided, these organisations will be faced with a number of difficult questions which have been the Achilles heel of electoral coalitions, even of established ones, in South Africa. What are the values that unite this ideologically and philosophically diverse group, besides the desperation desire to retain their seats as parliamentarians? What exactly does a traditional supporter of the IFP, VF and ACDP have in common, what would unite an organisation of Zulu Nationalists, with that of Calvinist Afrikaner Nationalists, Evangelical Christians-cum- politicians and that of a failed “born again” modern mass based party with liberation movement traditions?

 Confronted with this question, the leaders of this hastily conceived marriage of convenience retort that these organisations are founded on the principles of “constitutionalism.” Perhaps under the spell of “Madiba Magic” this group has decided to overlook their differences and instead chooses to focus on the “20 key areas which unite us.” As benevolent as this principle may be, this unholy alliance may find it more difficult for consummate this marriage than the leaders may let on.

 Sooner will they realise that, what unites them pales in comparison to what has defined them. Some of the more difficult questions which they will need answer to discerning electorate in unison will include establishing which individual and party will assume the leadership role of this coalition? Having overcome this hurdle the organisation of conservative nationalists, Christian conservatives and self-proclaimed progressive nationalists will have to grapple with the political hot potatoes which still stump established South African political parties, such as the land question, affirmative action, gay rights, termination of pregnancy to mention but a few. As to how they will agree on these questions without alienating their traditional support base will require them to draw on the herculean strength of Madiba. This is no easy fete. In the final analysis, when they tally up their numbers, this may prove to a case of the whole being far less than the sum of its parts.

 Contrary to what most analysts may argue, smaller political parties stand to gain very little from coalition politics particularly in a country as diverse as South Africa. In fact, they will realise that the decision to form a coalition may in the end result in the individual parties being punished in the polls by their traditional supporters. This is because coalition politics are in their nature about compromise. The science, art and discipline of managing coalitions are one which can only be learnt over years of trial error. Experience that the continent's oldest liberation movement, which also happens to be a coalition albeit of a special type, is still struggling with to this day.

 In a radio interview announcing the coalition, the ACDP put forward Germany and Britain as examples of coalition governments lead by christian partiers. Using these as examples of coalition governments we should aspire for in the country. As factually truthful as these examples may be, these examples are historically and socially inadequate a justification. Not only are these examples drawn from far more mature democracies, but importantly are examples from societies far more socially, culturally and economically homogeneous than ours. As noble as the ideal of uniting behind “constitutional values” may be, however the idea will from all indications prove itself to be ahead of its time.

 Over the course of the last 19 years, there have been numerous attempts to establish electoral coalitions, established as a crude counter hegemonic alliance against the ANC and a platform for mass mobilisation. Notable examples of these coalitions include short lived marriages between the IFP, DP (later DA), NP, ID, MF. These coalitions have culminated in the erosion of support from the established base of one of the parties to the coalition, or worse the co-option of the smaller into the ranks of the larger partner. 

What these small opposition parties fail to appreciate is the concept marketers call "the long tail". Owing to the diverse nature of the country’s people as a result of the class, cultural and religious plurality, small opposition parties play a significant role in mobilising the sections of society whose political aspirations cannot be expressed in the main stream mass based political parties.

As a result, their traditional supporters continue to vote for them, irrespective of whether they stand a chance of winning the of majority seats in the legislature. A person who votes for the VF or ACDP does not do so under the illusion of that Rev Moshoe or Dr Mulder might miraculously emerge as the president. They vote simply to ensure that their own sectorial interests are represented in the law making processes of the country, without being watered down by the trappings one might find in larger parties like the ANC and DA.

Smaller parties have a responsibility and the potential to continue to enjoy the support of fringe groups in society who’s religious and cultural interests cannot be expressed in the main stream. The project to homogenise the electorate which is being attempted will in the final analysis work against these smaller organisations and further entrench the perception amongst the electorate that "they are no political parties that speak to my issues.”

This political secularisation of the electorate, often based on vulgar constitutionalism, as attempted by this unholy coalition will lead to the demobilisation of some sections of society and ultimately dull down the vibrancy of our democracy as is the case in the USA.

There is nothing a tragic as seeing an idea born ahead of its time; for it is destined to die a premature death.

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