Crumbling DA-EFF coalitions a sign of things to come

DA leader Mmusi Maimane. PHOTO: TEBOGO LETSIE
DA leader Mmusi Maimane. PHOTO: TEBOGO LETSIE

Daniel Silke

With election 2019 looming, it’s time again for political parties to cover themselves in (in)glory in a fight to gain some sort of competitive advantage in what is likely to be South Africa’s most fractious vote to date.

In years gone by, it used to be floor-crossing that shifted the political control in local councils and was used not only to buy patronage but to embarrass political parties and sew confusion in the minds of voters.

This year, instead of floor-crossing, it is the vulnerable DA-led municipal authorities that are now in focus. And, given the changing political winds in the post-Zuma South Africa, it’s the DA that now bears the brunt of marriages of convenience with smaller political parties but predominantly with the EFF.

Put simply, it’s simply not surprising the agreements between the DA and EFF are now crumbling. Coalition-style agreements should be concluded between parties with some synergy – be it values or policy. Clearly, the DA and EFF had nothing in common from the outset. The two parties could not be more diametrically opposite in every respect.

For the DA, the EFF was merely a conduit to put their mayoral candidates in the pound seats of the showpiece Johannesburg and Thswane metropoles thereby conferring on the official opposition the narrative of a growing party controlling some of the largest and most important local authorities in the country.

The second key pillar of the Tshwane and Johannesburg agreements was an attempt to keep the EFF away from making deals with the ANC and perhaps, returning to the mother ship. With Jacob Zuma as the only common issue on which the DA and EFF could largely agree, the longevity of the co-operation was always likely to be tested once Zuma was out of picture.

But of course, the new political dynamic of the Ramaphosa era plays an important role changing these dynamics. For many in the ANC, they rue the day that Julius Malema was excluded from the party of Liberation. As this was largely due to the breakdown in relations between Malema and Zuma, the demise of Zuma has motivated a large portion of the ANC to call for a mechanism to restore longer-term co-operation or even re-unification with the EFF.

With an ANC that has struggled to gain electoral traction, there is increased pressure to find common ground with the EFF. And, with a possible change to Section 25 of the Constitution to effect expropriation without compensation, the ANC is clearly looking for greater synergies with the EFF. These synergies have already born fruit in Nelson Mandela Bay earlier this week with the dismissal of DA mayor Athol Trollip albeit under dubious legal circumstances.

But for all of this Machiavellian manoeuvring, the ultimate aim over the next few weeks will be to undermine the ability of the DA to project a narrative of power, control and delivery. With the election perhaps 10 months away, removing the prime mayoral chains from Trollip (and perhaps Tshwane's Solly Msimanga) provides both the EFF and ANC with similar benefits.

Both parties are therefore able to change the narrative from DA power to DA decline. With a particularly competitive election slated for Gauteng, keeping the negative narrative about Msimanga is political game-playing par excellence. And this is especially pertinent since Msimanga is the DA’s premier candidate for the province come 2019.

With an accompanying storyline of corruption, arrogance and associated racial invective broadly directed at the DA, both the EFF and ANC find common ground in belittling the DA and diminishing its growth prospects in Gauteng.

Both the ANC and EFF will seek to keep the pressure on Msimanga with daily accusations of wrong-doing across a variety of speaking points.

Despite severe denials from both the ANC and EFF, their script increasingly looks as though it's co-ordinated between the two parties perhaps pointing to synergies not only in strategy but in public statements as well. Both parties want a weakened DA. Both have obvious historical and emotional ties to the Liberation struggle. With a DA struggling to gain traction, they smell blood. Both can gain electorally from a weakened DA.

But, for the ANC and EFF, their co-operation also holds dangers. The DA can (and have) already conflated support for the ANC with support for the EFF. They have also questioned the process of no-confidence motions which itself – if illegal – can harm the credibility of President Ramaphosa’s leadership and more rule-bound approach to governance.

Should these criticisms stick (and even be upheld in our courts), the ANC will have to defend itself against this damaging critique that a vote for the ANC is a vote for the EFF whilst the EFF will have to increasingly differentiate themselves from the ANC.

And, should local governments be destabilised as a result of the political shenanigans, voters will increasingly become frustrated as election day advances.

Remember, incumbents are more likely to be punished and a dysfunctional Nelson Mandela Bay or Tshwane can destroy the best of the EFF and ANC’s plan. Similarly, endless attempts to unseat the DA equally pose dangers to their ability to deliver over a more volatile pre-election period.

The messy events unfolding in Tshwane shows that the EFF and ANC still have a long way to go to co-ordinate a successful strategy. And the DA also hold some trump cards even if they are removed from multiple leadership positions.

The only good news is that South Africa is not alone in suffering the often intolerable games of its elected politicians. From India to Italy to Israel, coalitions have come and gone leaving a bitter taste of deceit and despair on all sides of the aisle. Ultimately, we are seeing the effects of volatile coalition politics play out and this might well become a new normal for the country – warts and all.

Daniel Silke is director of the Political Futures Consultancy and is a noted keynote speaker and commentator. Follow him on Twitter at @DanielSilke or visit his website

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