Brett Herron | If you want coalition governments to work, there needs to be trust

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During a study tour, the writer met several coalition parties in Denmark who said the arrangements work because of trust between the leaders. Photo: Archive
During a study tour, the writer met several coalition parties in Denmark who said the arrangements work because of trust between the leaders. Photo: Archive

When coalition governments operate on the basis of trust and principle, as they do in Denmark and many other countries around the world, stability and accountability are possible, writes Brett Herron.


Among the most profound wisdom shared by our hosts on a recent multi-party study tour to Denmark to examine coalition governments was that of a deputy mayor who stood down from the mayoralty on the basis of trusting her opposition candidate and in the interests of a stable government.

She said that for coalition governments to work, "the larger you are, the more humble you need to be". 

Denmark has had a few more years to develop democratic processes of government than we have. 

Among its innovations to maintain steady governments is that mayors elected by council majority may not be removed (unless impeached for serious misconduct). They serve a full four-year term, even when they lose the support of the majority of councillors on council decisions.

Government remained intact

In Copenhagen, the mayor's recently proposed budget didn't impress her coalition partners, who formed a legislative coalition with other parties to pass a budget not supported by the mayor or her political party.

It didn't break the government, and the sky didn't fall on anyone's head.

The one lesson that was repeatedly shared with us was the importance of personal relationships in sustaining effective coalition governments. Every coalition government we met emphasised that these governments work mostly because of personal trust between leaders.

In South Africa, where personal relationships across party barriers are scarce, eleven months is a long time in the life of the average coalition government. That's how long ago it was when the Johannesburg Council sat to elect its new mayor after hotly contested elections.

READ | Helen Zille:  Coalitions in SA are not working. What needs to change?

DA Mayoral Candidate Mpho Phalatse was elected mayor by a majority vote that included the EFF.

The DA had 71 seats in the 270-seat Johannesburg council, whereas the ANC had 91. But Phalatse was elected mayor thanks to the support of ActionSA, the EFF and several other parties.

However, besides spouting anti-ANC rhetoric on their social media accounts and parking their cars in the same garage at the office, members of the coalition government that emerged had nothing in common.

Similar stories have played out in one in four municipalities run by coalition governments since local government elections 11 months ago.

Two-horse race 

A large part of the problem is the idea that South Africans should continue to view the future through the binary prism of the old two-horse race between the ANC and the DA.

Citizens deserve better than having to choose between the lesser of two evils. They must challenge the potion the old parties peddle that voters whose values align with those of smaller parties are essentially wasting their votes. 

When voters vote purely based on keeping the ANC or DA out, they forfeit the opportunity to express their true values and principles, and questions of value-for-vote fall away because they are not voting for anything. Only, against. 

When you look at the present state of inequality and poverty in the country, at the unemployment rate and the spluttering economy, there is surely an abundance of reasons for South Africans to want to vote FOR something. 

In a democracy, when we vote for something, we reserve our right to hold those whom we vote for accountable.

READ | Lindiwe Ndlela: Coalition governments should be about citizens, not winning seats

In 2019, when we launched GOOD on the smell of an oil rag months before national and provincial elections, we articulated a clear set of values around environmental, economic, social and spatial justice principles.

These values resonated with enough voters to secure two seats in the National Assembly and a seat in the Western Cape Legislature.

In an unexpected move for us, President Cyril Ramaphosa asked GOOD Leader, Patricia De Lille, to serve in his cabinet as Minister of Public Works and Infrastructure. It was a request for De Lille to serve her country; there is no coalition agreement between the ANC and GOOD.

However, leveraging public land to address spatial justice was one of the most compelling factors behind GOOD's formation, and those who supported us would have taken note of De Lille's recent announcement on the release of land for human settlements, restitution and redistribution.

Old proposals resuscitated

In the 2021 local government election, especially in Cape Town, we made the use of well-located public land available for mixed-income, mixed-use developments an essential element of our values and policy proposals.

This year, Hill-Lewis resuscitated our old proposals. It wouldn't have happened had we not received enough votes to secure nine seats in Council.  

There are other examples of constructive opposition in the City, among them GOOD's championing the rights of Muslim and Christian religious rituals not to be classified by the City as a noise nuisance.

Because we take our job seriously to hold governing parties accountable, South Africans know that the City of Cape Town's Covid concentration camp for homeless people in Strandfontein, cost R56 million to operate for six weeks. The R43 million tent hire fee was reported to the SIU and exposed as irregular procurement.

The people of George know that their municipality illegally invested R350 million through a scheme arranged by the Mayco Member for Finance so that his son, an Old Mutual broker at the time, could earn a whopping commission.

In Stellenbosch, ours is the only party fighting for the Public Protector's findings and remedial action to be implemented and for the role of the mayor in the unlawful appointments of senior managers to be investigated.

READ | Corné Mulder:  Coalition gymnastics: Lessons from Denmark

None of these matters would have been forced to the surface had the voice of our modest party been excluded from national cabinet, National Assembly, Western Cape Legislature or the councils in four provinces.  

In addition, where we were needed to form a government, like in Witzenberg (with the DA) and Theewaterskloof (with the ANC) those values will find expression in government plans and policies.

When you vote FOR something, your vote is not wasted if those you vote for take your mandate seriously.

When coalition governments operate on the basis of trust and principle, as they do in Denmark and many other countries around the world, stability and accountability are possible. Without anything in common coalitions implode, and the people continue to suffer.

- Brett Herron is GOOD's Secretary-General & member of Western Cape Provincial Parliament.

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