OPINION | Terence Corrigan: Coalition gymnastics - time to flip the script

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The author argues that the ANC should consider being the DA's junior partner to ensure the metros function properly.
The author argues that the ANC should consider being the DA's junior partner to ensure the metros function properly.
Tebogo Letsie, Gallo Images

The DA must now carry the not inconsiderable burden of running some of the most important political and economic territories in the country, and its success or failure in doing so will have extensive consequences. To combat this, Terence Corrigan writes, the ANC should consider adapting itself to work with the DA.


Earlier this month, Adriaan Basson wrote a column attacking the Democratic Alliance (and, in passing, ActionSA) for their refusal to consider coalitions with the African National Congress. This would force the ANC into an agreement with the Economic Freedom Fighters, he suggested, to the detriment of the country as a whole.

In effect, he wrote, the DA would be placing selfishly, a short-term party advantage over the interests of the country. I found his argument on the matter unconvincing, and said so

But there is an important point within it, and one that has been made by others: at a time of such profound crisis, where even the viability of much of the state is at stake, is it not incumbent on various interest groups to seek solutions over sectarian interests? Basson – and he is certainly not alone in this – would appear to believe that it is.

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As the dust starts to settle after the elections, the situation is rather different from that envisaged by Basson, and myself for that matter. Despite having received a drubbing of its own, the DA is now in control of several key municipalities, including Tshwane, Johannesburg and Ekurhuleni. For whatever reasons, the EFF preferred to give its backing to the DA rather than to the ANC.

The prospect, as numerous observers have pointed out, is of a period of inherently unstable coalition and minority government. This could mean administrative and policy paralysis along with debilitating intra- and inter-party competition. It is not an appealing prospect.

This follows if we assume the current confrontational mode of politics prevails. But what if an alternative were possible? 

Grave challenges 

The assumption behind the proposed cooperation seemed to have been that the ANC would remain dominant and the lynchpin of a governance arrangement. Given the party’s political stature over the past three decades, this was not an unreasonable assumption. But the circumstances delivered by the votes for mayoralties have shown this not to be the case.

And from that, might it not then be incumbent (again, following Basson’s broad reasoning) on the ANC to work to ensure that the current administrations succeed?

After all, the grave challenges to the country remain, and if the DA must now carry the not inconsiderable burden of running some of the most important political and economic territories in the country, its success or failure in doing so will have extensive consequences. These will be felt not only for the parties’ political fortunes, but for millions of residents and for South Africa at large. 

Moreover, the ANC has pursued a deliberate policy of politicising state bureaucracies through cadre deployment. This was a policy premised at some level on the assumption that the ANC would be the eternal incumbent.

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It was, however, also illegal and counter-constitutional – and at the very least, a moral duty exists on its part to ensure that its 'deployees' comport themselves professionally and dutifully in an administration controlled by another party. 

What this implies is that the ANC would need to do what the DA was encouraged to do: to demonstrate that it is capable of self-sacrificial statesmanship in the interests of the greater good; to be willing to put aside its ideological and political predispositions in the cause of stable and effective governance. It would send an unequivocal message to South Africa and the world that it is sincere about governance reform and is willing to endure a painful period outside formal power (or perhaps included on a subordinate basis) to demonstrate this.

Junior partner 

The ANC would learn to function as a constructive, cooperative opposition party or junior partner (a stance that it has recommended for parties in opposition to itself) and would abandon its by-now implausible claims to representing superior political morality. This can only be good for democracy.

And by adapting itself to working with the DA, it would contribute towards building a semblance of trust between the two. Following Basson’s reasoning, this would help build the foundations of cooperation between the DA and the 'reformist' faction of the ANC, thereby giving the latter some alternative to a deal with the EFF.

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

In short, perhaps it is time to flip the script. While a few weeks ago, cooperation between the ANC and DA was framed squarely in the ANC’s terms, perhaps the moment has come to frame it within the DA’s, at least in those parts where it has managed to take charge?

I, for one, would be very surprised to see this happening. As I have argued previously, cooperation between the ANC and DA is rendered extremely difficult by the ANC’s ideological outlook. It has also failed to perform credibly where it has been placed in opposition. And I don’t believe that there really is a significant ‘reformist’ impulse in the ANC. And there is a strong possibility that these governments will be collapsed soon anyway.

But for those who believe that there are grounds for such cooperation and that the dictates of the moment require it, it would seem only right to press for whatever compromises are necessary – on the part of the ANC no less than (and perhaps more than) that of the DA. And who knows? With reasoned arguments being made by influential voices, there may yet be some in the ANC who will prove receptive.

It will be interesting to watch how this unfolds.

- Terence Corrigan is a project manager at the Institute of Race Relations.

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