Coalition politics between smaller parties got off to a really rocky start – with Nicholas Woode-Smith asking whether it isn’t time to put pragmatism ahead of ego. In simple terms: Should the two biggest parties, the ANC and DA – in the name of stability – not work together? The ANC – like it or not – is the only party that could possibly get anywhere near 50% of the vote in 2024. At the same time, it’s also the biggest party (though not the majority) in many metros and local municipalities, making the DA’s job a lot harder as it has to cobble together a horde of smaller parties to inch over the 50% plus one mark most of the time. By having the two biggest ‘bulls in the kraal’ joining forces, it removes the kingmaker antics and tantrums we’ve seen playing out of late. Despite coalition agreements meticulously spelling out which party gets which position, several tiny parties have either jumped ship or turned on their main coalition partner (DA), using the pressure of motions of no confidence as a means to extract better positions. Woode-Smith makes the point below that: “People still want to vote for the ANC. But they want the ANC to govern better. So, what if the DA provides the skills, and the ANC provides the political clout?” It’s an interesting proposition, for sure. If the ANC loses its majority hold on national power, and with it all the access to patronage networks, the hangers-on in the ANC who serve only to enrich themselves at our expense will likely leave. The gig will be up. Clean governance isn’t a good business model for the corrupt. Or is the ANC – what many consider a crime syndicate masquerading as a political party – beyond saving or working with? – Michael Appel
If small parties won’t behave, a DA-ANC coalition may be for the best
By Nicholas Woode-Smith*
If small opposition parties refuse to behave in their coalitions to ensure the functioning of South Africa’s municipalities and the downfall of African National Congress (ANC) domination, then responsible opposition parties may need to look elsewhere for coalition partners. Even if that new candidate is the ANC itself.
It is no longer up for debate that the Democratic Alliance (DA) has a stellar track record of local governance. The Western Cape is the only province to consistently deliver clean audits and positive reports of service delivery.
Where the DA’s performance has been less than stellar is when it has to cooperate with various small parties in carefully (and not so carefully) constructed coalitions. Ideally, the DA would not want to work in these coalitions at all. But no party other than the ANC will ever realistically gain a clear majority nationally and the DA is very unlikely to gain a clear majority in any province outside of the Western Cape.
This leaves the DA stuck with the necessity of working with coalition partners that have proven to be downright incompetent, opportunistic and vindictive. While the DA is not completely innocent, as no politician can ever expect to be, it has been the relatively mature actor in an anthology of disasters.
The fall of Johannesburg’s coalition
The dire state of opposition coalitions is best demonstrated in Johannesburg’s doomed DA-led coalition.
First, the failing city faced problems when it couldn’t appoint a permanent city manager to run the affairs of the city. The DA’s preferred and proven candidate, Johan Mettler, could have fixed the city’s problems. Instead, ActionSA and the EFF backed Floyd Brink. A man with ties to various corruption scandals. This has resulted in a stalemate.
The city has been left without a city manager since. Effectively leaving the city without a head bureaucrat. Only squabbling politicians.
In September, the DA’s Speaker, Vasco Da Gama was removed in a motion of no confidence supported by the ANC, EFF, and a host of other parties. The betrayal of the opposition-led coalition by other opposition parties was just the first major blow against any semblance of unity within the coalition.
Later, DA Mayor Mpho Phalatse was ousted in a controversial motion of no confidence that soon proved to be the result of bribery and was eventually overturned by the courts. But not for long, as tiny coalition parties are still attempting to oust the democratically elected mayor. Out of spite, vindictiveness, opportunism, or simple corruption.
ActionSA has proven again and again that it doesn’t care about building a stable and fruitful coalition with the DA.
Arguably a splinter of the DA, ActionSA has repeatedly attacked the DA over and over throughout its short lifespan. While it could be expending political energy attacking the ANC or opposing the communists in the EFF that it claims to despise, ActionSA spends most of its time undermining coalitions, publishing hit pieces against the DA, and failing to construct any real positive vision for the country.
Herman Mashaba could be a presidential candidate. Instead, he’s become a vengeful icon against his old party. And as ActionSA refuses to cooperate with the DA, it hands back power to the ANC while shaking hands with the EFF.
New coalition partners
It is clear that ActionSA and many other smaller opposition parties refuse to cooperate in DA-led coalitions. As the DA is the official opposition, it is the most likely candidate to form and run coalitions. This is a fact that minority parties need to deal with. The largest member of the coalition is the boss. A one-seat party shouldn’t be dominating a coalition. It represents a minority of voters and thus has a smidgen of power.
But these small parties with a lust for power and bribes don’t care about their constituents or the prosperity of the areas they govern. They just want to stick it to the DA.
So, perhaps it’s time the DA searches for coalition partners in new places.
Earlier this year, Mashaba criticised Helen Zille for contemplating the possibility of going into coalition with a reasonable splinter or faction of the ANC. Now, ActionSA has repeatedly enabled the ANC to seize more and more power while losing the opposition ground.
Granting the ANC power through undermining opposition-led coalitions is not how the opposition project will succeed. But, perhaps, dealing with the ANC within a coalition’s framework could be the solution that we need.
A reasonable ANC
The ANC is a huge party with multiple factions. Among them can exist a moderate faction that doesn’t embrace terrible ideologies or policies, and who truly believes in good governance.
The return of Thabo Mbeki to public politics suggests that there is still room in the ANC for pragmatists and free marketeers. While Mbeki’s presidency was not perfect, it was arguably South Africa’s most prosperous age.
If a reasonable ANC faction forms, or splinters into a new party, it may become a viable coalition partner for the DA. The DA is unparalleled in terms of good governance but lacks the crucial aspects to gain clear power in South Africa.
People still want to vote for the ANC. But they want the ANC to govern better. So, what if the DA provides the skills, and the ANC provides the political clout?
The DA would no longer have to manage a horde of petty and opportunistic parties, and the ANC could have someone to do their job while remaining on a semblance of a throne.
Of course, this must be approached with caution. The ANC is still a humongous party with a habit for desiring total control. A moderate faction will need to be identified carefully and boundaries will have to be set up firmly and properly.
But this is not so different from the current state of coalitions.
As we have seen, the smaller parties that we put our trust in to cooperate in coalitions have broken that trust and proven to be malicious opportunists.
The possibility of a DA/ANC coalition may not come to fruition. A moderate ANC faction may not come to be. But what is clear is that unless coalition partners behave and conduct themselves properly, then we will need to find more creative solutions for our country’s crises.
- Nicholas Woode-Smith is an author, political analyst and economic historian from Cape Town.