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Taking stock of South Africa's fragile coalitions

2018-09-21 08:51

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Leon Schreiber

A little over two years ago, coalition governments took control of four of South Africa's six biggest cities. In August 2016, coalitions gained power in Johannesburg, Tshwane, Ekurhuleni, and Nelson Mandela Bay after 22 years of ANC single-party control in these metros.

The results marked a watershed in South African politics, and signalled the permanent arrival of coalition politics – a form of governance that will become increasingly common at the local, but also at the provincial and eventually national levels, as the country evolves away from one-party hegemony.  

While these were not the first coalition governments in democratic South Africa – coalitions temporarily controlled Cape Town, the Western Cape, and KwaZulu-Natal during the first two decades of democracy – the 2016 metro coalitions amounted to a previously unimaginable paradigm shift. In July 2016, coalition governments still controlled a paltry 2.63% of municipal budget in South Africa. After the election one month later, the share of municipal operating budgets under coalition control shot up to 41.31% – while the share under ANC single-party control halved to 41.73% from 82.1%. 

Over two years into the terms of these metro coalitions, it is appropriate to ask what lessons they offer to the electorate and political leaders alike.

The first insight we can glean from the examples of Johannesburg and Tshwane is that minority governments are likely the most insecure and fragile form of coalition governance. As I outline in more detail in my book, Coalition Country: South Africa after the ANC, minority government arises when (a) no single party attains a 50% majority of votes, and (b) no group of parties are able to constitute a formal coalition that gives them combined control of more than 50% of the votes in a legislature. 

Although the DA in Johannesburg and Tshwane formed coalitions that included smaller parties like COPE, the ACDP, and FF+, both metros ended up with minority coalitions. In Johannesburg, the governing minority coalition only controls 41% of the seats in council, and in Tshwane just under 46%. Since both governments fell short of the magic 50% threshold, they relied on support from the EFF to take power. 

However, since the EFF is not part of these municipal governments, the party cannot be held accountable to any formal coalition agreement. The EFF is thus not compelled to vote in favour of the coalition's proposals in council, and is even free to change its mind and vote the coalitions out of power. 

While the ANC has obviously tried to take advantage of the insecurity of minority governments by trying to convince the EFF to vote with it in order to remove the mayors of Johannesburg and Tshwane, all parties – including the ANC – would do well to take heed from the minority government experiences in Johannesburg and Tshwane: in most cases, it is better to strike a formal coalition deal, based on as detailed an agreement as possible, which binds all partners to a well-defined agenda and terms of cooperation. 

However, in a society that has experienced seven decades of single-party rule (first under the NP and then under the ANC), it is understandable that parties were initially apprehensive about forming formal majority coalitions out of fear for a backlash from an electorate not used to the compromises inherent to a coalition-based system.

But the insecurity of Johannesburg and Tshwane's minority governments should serve as a warning to the electorate that automatically branding all inter-party cooperation as a "sell-out", and allowing parties like the EFF to both have its cake and eat it, will only result in evermore insecure minority governments. 

However, while striking a formal coalition that commands a majority greater than 50% usually provides a more solid basis for cooperation than minority governance, it is no panacea. Even as much of the media attention has focused on the EFF's role as "kingmaker" in Johannesburg and Tshwane (precisely what the party would have wanted when it helped elect these minority councils), the cases of Ekurhuleni and Nelson Mandela Bay – where there are formal majority coalitions – provide another important lesson on the outsized significance of "one-man-bands" in a coalition system. 

As the ANC's hegemony slowly wanes, many coalition governments in municipalities and provinces will initially be balanced on a knife's edge. In the case of Ekurhuleni, the 109 seats garnered by the ANC in 2016 left it short of a majority in the 224-seat council.

It subsequently partnered with the African Independent Congress (AIC), which controls only four seats on the council, to secure a majority of 113 out of 224. However, the ANC's reliance on the small party has caused instability, with the AIC threatening to collapse the coalition if the ANC doesn't meet its demand to move the town of Matatiele from the Eastern Cape to KwaZulu-Natal. Despite being a small single-issue party, the Ekurhuleni coalition has given the AIC an outsized ability to potentially force the ANC's hand on boundary demarcation – a function of the national government. 

Similarly, in Nelson Mandela Bay, the DA-UDM-ACDP-COPE coalition that assumed control of the city in August 2016 initially had a one-seat majority of 61 seats in the 120-member council. Following a fallout between DA mayor Athol Trollip and UDM deputy mayor Mongameli Bobani, the UDM left the coalition. But the DA initially replaced the UDM's two seats with the Patriotic Alliance's (PA) single seat, giving the coalition 60 out of 120 seats – just enough to survive. The manoeuvring in Nelson Mandela Bay again illustrated the influence that relatively minor parties gain under coalitions.

The drama in the Bay also provides a third important lesson: while managing inter-party relationships are vitally important, coalitions can also be undermined through betrayal from within. 

Mathematically, the DA's agreement with the PA would have been enough to ensure the coalition's survival. However, during a vote of no confidence held three weeks ago, the ANC managed to convince a lone DA councillor to switch allegiances, thereby leaving the coalition one seat short. 

The move enabled a new coalition, led by now-mayor Bobani from the UDM (which got only 1.83% in the 2016 election) to take power. Alongside the UDM, Bobani's new coalition includes the ANC, EFF and AIC – with the PA only belatedly indicating its support.

This means that the story in Nelson Mandela Bay is likely not over, as the new coalition also controls only a fragile 60 out of 120 seats, and is entirely dependent on internal party discipline and continued support from the small PA and AIC parties.  

A little over two years into the coalition era, South African voters and their political leaders have already amassed some valuable experience with this relatively untested form of governance. As coalitions continue to move closer to the centre of South African politics, the ability to effectively manage coalitions will become a fundamental prerequisite for both electoral success and improved service delivery.

- Dr Leon Schreiber is a political scientist at Princeton University and author of Coalition Country: South Africa after the ANC (Tafelberg).

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

Read more on:    tshwane  |  nelson mandela bay  |  coalition
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