What a coalition could mean for the future of Gauteng, South Africa and the 'big 3'

2019-05-07 05:00
Nqabayomzi Kwankwa, Julius Malema and Mmusi Maimane at Mary Fitzgerald Square during the the 'secret ballot march' from Newtown to the Constitutional Court on May 15, 2017 in Johannesburg. (Photo by Gallo Images / Beeld / Felix Dlangamandla),

With all eyes on the national ballot, one should watch carefully for how the coalitions unfold in certain provinces, writes Mike Law.

On Wednesday, South Africans face a monumental moment and the choice that we make may shape our future for decades to come. But it is the choices of the political parties themselves following the final result that may have an even greater impact on South Africa's future political trajectory.

With the ANC likely to secure a majority in the national vote, the most contested battles lie in some key provinces where a majority for any single party is not beyond doubt. The ANC is most vulnerable in Gauteng. All indicators point to the fact that the ANC risks losing its majority in South Africa's most populated and resourceful province – forcing parties to band together to form a coalition as we saw in the major metropolitan councils of the City of Johannesburg, Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay following the 2016 municipal election.

Those cases provide clear examples of the complexities of coalition politics as power politics takes centre stage and foes become friends. They also demonstrated just how tricky it is to both build and sustain a viable and resilient coalition. Get it wrong and it can be very messy, and can prompt a backlash from citizens and, later, from the electorate.

ANALYSIS: Don't overestimate the EFF

To analyse the potential coalition options for Gauteng, it is worth recalling the current composition of the legislature as it stands today. In addition, this is supplemented with a hypothetical composition of what the landscape may look like following the election.

The word "hypothetical" is chosen intentionally. This is not a prediction. There are several potential scenarios for the electoral outcome in Gauteng, some of which yield a majority for the ANC. The most likely scenario if no party wins a majority is the ANC falling slightly short of the 50% mark with small but significant gains for both the DA and EFF.

Gauteng composition

This hypothetical scenario leaves several options on the table. Unlike the initial situation in Nelson Mandela Bay, the DA is unlikely to have the numbers to form a governing coalition without the help of the ANC or EFF.

In theory at least, the ANC may form a coalition with those "others" – as it would probably prefer to do. But with the threshold for representation higher in provincial legislatures than in the National Assembly, and with the current smaller parties here consisting of what have proved to be trusty allies for the DA in their coalitions, this too is unlikely.

This will mean at least two of the "big three" have to work together to govern Gauteng.

DA (and others)/EFF

Following the 2016 municipal elections, the EFF and DA co-operated to elect DA mayors and predominantly DA municipal councils in the three hung major metros. Yet in the strict sense of the concept this was not a coalition. The EFF simply co-operated with the DA on this single issue of government formation, but did not accept positions in the executive themselves.

This allowed them to continue to criticise the former government (ANC) but also, when the time was right, to act against the new government (a DA-led coalition) without compromising themselves – politically, a very smart arrangement, at least for the EFF.

Whether the DA and EFF can form a coalition essentially goes to the question of whether ideological alignment amongst coalition partners is a necessary condition for its success. In some cases, parties unite for the purpose of pursuing policy, but the more common motive in coalitions is simply to acquire and hold power.

International experiences have several success stories of stable coalitions formed between parties of differing ideological views and polarised supporter bases. Where common ground in terms of policy is lacking, parties can overcome this through a strong commitment to detailed structural measures that promote constant communication, collegiate decision-making and fair, internal dispute resolution procedures – something that was notably absent in Nelson Mandela Bay, as the first coalition unravelled.

Whether the DA and EFF can work together in this way for a full term of five years is doubtful at best. Even so, there are two other primary risks to this approach.

The first is a risk to the relationship of trust between the electorate and the elected, due to the potential destabilising effect that such a coalition may have on the governance of Gauteng. Such a coalition is more vulnerable to in-fighting and legislative immobility as governing parties simply cannot agree on the best way forward.

The second is a risk to the parties themselves. With such opposed supporter bases, the risk of backlash from these parties' voters is high, as many may see this partnership as undesirable or even a betrayal – especially as both parties will be forced to compromise on their manifestos if they are to find common ground.


If the ANC seriously fears the EFF as a viable opponent in the elections to come, this, ironically, may be the best way of getting rid of them. Research shows that smaller parties in a coalition are at risk, and stand to be swallowed by the larger partner if they cannot maintain their uniqueness.

What future is there for the EFF, a party that has formed its core identity on opposing the ruling ANC, if it now switches course and comes to the aid of the ANC in its pursuit to retain power?

Both the then National Party (primarily consumed by the ANC) and the Independent Democrats (consumed with the DP into the soon to be DA) failed to survive coalitions around the turn of the century in the Western Cape, for primarily this reason.

Many also fear this alliance as the worst scenario for investor confidence in South Africa's economic hub. The EFF will be a powerful kingmaker with a significant amount of bargaining power being indispensable to the ANC's position of power. The ANC will likely be forced to make considerable compromises to the EFF and its more populist policies, which if they fail to do so will result in the EFF withdrawing their support for the ANC and potentially making the province ungovernable.

The 'Grand Coalition': DA/ANC

Somewhat ironically, these two parties which have spent most of the past two decades vehemently opposing each other probably have more in common in terms of raw policy than any other two of South Africa's most prominent political parties. A grand coalition such as this is likely to be the most stable option for Gauteng, if the two parties can swallow their pride and work together. Again, however, the risk of electoral backlash is high, especially if the respective parties fail to communicate the need for this alliance to their voters – many of whom view the other as the primary enemy.

Whatever decision is taken, it will have monumental significance for both the parties and the citizenry. With all eyes on the national ballot, one should watch carefully for how the coalitions unfold in certain provinces. They may be prophetic indicators of the South Africa that we are must become accustomed to in the important years ahead.

- Law is the project co-ordinator and chief researcher of the Political Party Co-operation and Building and Sustaining of Coalitions initiative – an engagement between South African political leaders and from elsewhere intended to build South Africa's understanding of coalition politics. He is also research associate at political risk consultancy The Paternoster Group.

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. ener is a specialist reporter for News24.

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