OPINION | Marius Roodt: SA coalition arrangements - where are the adults in the room?

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The writer argues that instead of working against each other, political parties in coalition agreements should put aside their differences.
The writer argues that instead of working against each other, political parties in coalition agreements should put aside their differences.

Some disagreement between opposition parties in a coalition agreement is to be expected. But battling it out on Twitter, like some sort of cyber Jerry Springer Show, is counterproductive, writes Marius Roodt.


Party politics is a messy business, whether within a party or between rival organisations. Opponents trade insults and question each other's bona fides, while accusations fly left and right.

This messiness is now on full display, with senior officials and public representatives of the Democratic Alliance and ActionSA at each other's throats on social media and elsewhere.

Representatives of the DA have been attacking ActionSA and its leader, Herman Mashaba, for perceived xenophobia, among other issues. But ActionSA and their public representatives have been giving as good as they've been getting.

A notably bizarre exchange was when an ActionSA councillor in Johannesburg took the DA to task on Twitter for a perceived lack of service delivery (particularly potholes) in Fourways. This when ActionSA is governing the city in coalition with the DA, and the person in charge of the portfolio – Funzela Ngobeni, the MMC for transport – is an ActionSA man.

Work together

If the DA and ActionSA want to have any hope of finding themselves in national government in 2024, they will have to work together in a coalition. Although the era of single-party dominance is rapidly coming to an end, the ANC is going to be the single largest party (even if polling below 50%) for the foreseeable future.

A single party outpolling it in the next election is in the realm of fantasy. But there is potential for a coalition of opposition parties to do so and bring the ANC's governance of this country to an end.

The stakes are high, and that makes the recent squabbling between the DA and ActionSA even more unedifying.

READ | Ebrahim Fakir: Collision or Coalition? Why the ANC and DA need to go into coalition

Of course, a political party must distinguish itself in voters' minds and show why that valuable X must be marked against its name, rather than that of another party. Therefore, some degree of contestation between parties, even those pursuing similar goals (as the DA and ActionSA ostensibly do), is inevitable.

However, parties that have the opportunity to form part of a future governing coalition (and which are already in coalition arrangements in several municipalities around the country) should minimise unseemly public spats. Some disagreement are to be expected. But battling it out on Twitter, like some sort of cyber Jerry Springer Show, is counterproductive.

What must the voters think about this undignified spectacle of public representatives taking potshots at each other on social media?

Voters want their parties to get on with the business of governing in the municipalities where they unseated the ANC. Public squabbles are a destructive distraction when governing is the primary concern.

Acid test

But an acid test for both parties is coming up. It'll be something to watch, both in terms of the overall result and how the public representatives of the DA and ActionSA behave. 

A by-election is due to be held in Tshwane in May. The former councillor for Ward 96 in the municipality, Hannes Coetzee (a councillor since 2011), announced in March that he was defecting from the DA to ActionSA. He will now be standing as the candidate for Herman Mashaba's outfit on 5 May.

The ward, in the north of the city, is a relatively safe DA ward. But if Coetzee manages to win his old ward back on behalf of ActionSA it could herald some portents.

In last year's local government election, the DA won 53% of the ward vote, with the Freedom Front Plus (FF+) managing a fifth of the ballot. ActionSA won 6% of the vote but was outpolled by both the ANC and the EFF, with those two parties winning 9.5% and 8.3% respectively. In 2016 the DA won the ward with over 60% of the vote.

If ActionSA manages to challenge the DA in this ward next month it could show that the DA is struggling to hold on to its voters – a phenomenon that has already begun, with the party losing voters to the FF+ in the north of the country and in the Western Cape, to local interest parties, especially among coloured voters. And an ActionSA heist, or strong showing, could well see the online battle between the two parties intensify.

Voters must be wondering why these two parties – which are ostensibly on the same team – are pouring resources into fighting each other in a minor by-election, while their real opponent is electing criminally accused persons into leadership positions and stumbling from one crisis into another.

Political culture

Perhaps these battles between the DA and ActionSA reflect something that is missing in our political culture and in how political parties in coalitions behave towards each other. 

Prior to 2016, coalitions were a relative rarity in South African politics. Even prior to the 1994 democratic transition, the National Party governed alone, without needing the support of other political parties in the whites-only political system of the time (coloured and Indian South Africans were given token representation in the 1980s but they had very little real power).

Before 2016 South Africa's most prominent political coalition was the one that governed Cape Town after 2006, when Helen Zille and the DA cobbled together an initial alliance of seven parties to govern the Mother City. Since then, more and more of our municipalities have been governed in coalition agreeements. Unfortunately, coalitions seem to be a by-word for chaos, with backstabbing and double-crossing the order of the day.

Given that South Africa's political future is going to be determined by coalitions, political parties need to learn how to start working together for the benefit of voters, and not for themselves.

READ | Richard Calland: Avoiding disruption, mess - Lessons from Germany in building successful coalitions

Germany serves as an example of how political parties can work together despite very different ideologies and goals. In that country, political parties rarely win enough support to govern alone, whether at national level or in one of the country's sixteen states (they use the same mixed, proportional plus constituency system we use at municipal level to elect their state and national legislators), making coalitions a necessity. 

However, in Germany very rarely does a coalition not last the full electoral term, normally four years. This is because the coalition partners explicitly agree on the rules of engagement at the outset, with each coalition partner defining in writing what they expect to get out of the coalition and hope to accomplish over their term. Any disagreements are resolved behind closed doors. Fittingly the quote from a famous German comes to mind. As Otto von Bismarck said: 'Laws are like sausages, it's better to not see them being made.' And maybe there is something of this that can said for coalitions too: perhaps it is better to not see political parties in these arrangements go through teething problems in full view of the public.

Our opposition parties need to take a leaf out of the book of the Germans and grow up – not for their sake but for South Africa's sake.

- Marius Roodt is a writer and senior analyst at the Institute of Race Relations.

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