Three factors why coalition governments fail in SA

The new phenomenon of coalition governments in South Africa came into popularity in our political landscape in 2016 when the ANC lost control of some big municipalities.

 From the onset, coalitions in South Africa have been characterised by four distinct features, namely political instability, fluidity of power, the criminal arrangements associated with power-brokering and the mafia-style approach to managing the coalition.

These have been constant and key characteristics of all coalition governments in the country.

The consequence of this has been a downward spiral of the situation in municipalities which is underpinned by a weakened administration and corrupt behaviour. 

We have all seen how most coalition agreements have either used smaller parties and incapable leaders as proxies to achieve narrow selfish interests of political syndicates.

As a departing point, it is important to note this piece is not an in-depth analysis of the challenges that have since defined coalition in South Africa, but one hopes it will be enough to help our country reflect around the quagmire of coalitions.

I will also offer suggestions that one thinks can better help us manage these coalitions.

My view is that there are three key factors that underpin this dismal failure of coalitions in South Africa.

1. The under-theorisation of coalitions in SA

For the first time in 2016, the South African political system had to contend with the outcomes of the local government elections which forced S.A to deal with the reality of coalition governments. The establishment of coalition governments wherein a reality the first-time political parties had to think about how to carry the mandate of their constituencies in an environment of shared power through negotiation and concessions.

Suddenly, political parties from different ideological persuasions had to formulate strategies on how to work together to ensure the effective running of government without compromising their respective ideological frameworks.

There were no written rules and still aren’t any, around the political interaction between the parties in a coalition. There were of course those who believed proportional representation is a form of co-governance and coalition. This couldn’t be further from the truth because coalition governments relate to the constitution of government and the sharing of executive powers. 

As a result, at a political level, the issue of coalitions has been more complex and dynamic to manage than the simple proportional representation because there is no South African experience to draw from and to reference that is both researched and documented. More research needs to be done around this topic and this means universities must be at the forefront of producing literature on workable models for coalitions in the context of South Africa.


2. Alliances largely based on opportunism rather than shared principles and values

The biggest problem of the coalition agreements in their current form has been between individual pacts rather than principled party shared values and visions. This is why people abruptly decide willy nilly to exit coalitions without any substantive reason.

This is compounded by inexperienced political actors who lack the necessary maturity to separate personal relationships from their political roles. Most of these characters are small-town politicians who are unethical and see leadership positions as instruments of social upward mobility.  We all know them, the Gucci and Louis Vuitton politicians who are big money spenders in the local clubs.

These small-town politicians are nothing else but representatives of local business syndicates and have no regard for the interest of the constituencies they claim to represent. Through this, we have reached the bottom barrel of the political system with social scums masquerading as representatives of the people. They should be rejected by society!

3. Lack of legislation to regulate coalitions

The third element is the lack of legislation that regulates and monitors these coalition agreements. This creates a fertile ground for opportunism and corrupt intent to thrive.  It goes without saying that we need to introduce legislation or legal agreements that govern coalitions. Political parties must enter into legal service-level agreements that must regulate their working relations and performance. This will ensure that it is not as easy to exit coalition agreements without any reasonable explanations. There must also be penalties applicable to parties who breach coalition agreements. The legislation must include the introduction of a period of validity of coalition agreement, and it must be compulsory to finish a particular period before the agreement can be revised or reviewed. This will mitigate the impact of political immaturity amongst parties and ensure that service delivery is not compromised.

To conclude, there is no doubt that coalition governments in SA have been a dismal failure and have negatively impacted service delivery. These unholy arrangements are also a breeding ground for corruption. Furthermore, coalitions have eroded the credibility of municipal councils as key sites of decision-making and democracy at local government – the coalface of service delivery. For instance, if the allegations of councilors being bribed to vote in a particular way in council meetings is true then the trust between the constituencies and councilors has been completely broken. The councilors are no longer serving the people but their selfish economic interests.

Rise in violence over council positions

At an administrative level, we have seen the hallowing out of the local state and to a certain extent senior officials have been part of the brokering of power to aid a particular party to achieve certain administrative ends. In simple terms, we have seen a capturing of political parties by senior municipal officials. 

We have also seen rising use of violence and intimidation of councilors by local gangs to vote in a particular way in council in support of a particular party. The adverse outcome of this, is that local municipalities have been turned into gangsters’ paradise.  This stifles democracy and accountability and creates an environment of fear and a mafia state.

 As we approach the 2024 general elections and there are coalition talks and groupings that are organising themselves as coalition governments in waiting, one can’t help to reflect on how some of these parties have been at the centre of the epic failure of coalitions across the country. There is nothing substantive they are saying on how they will better manage the coalitions.  The so-called moonshot pact is in fact a conglomeration of right-wing racist parties who want to reverse the gains of the democratic forces in South Africa.

The South Africans electorate must be more vigilant and understand that what is at stake is the stability of our country and we can’t afford to extend the chaos that has defined coalitions at municipal level to our national government.  We must defend the attempt by the moonshot pact to mortgage our democracy to right wing, white supremist , populist and vagabonds who want to undermine the good of the democratic forces. If you ask me, the ANC is the only organisation that can guarantee stability in this country and defend the gains of our democracy.

Mkutu is a National Working Committee member of the ANCYL and is writing in his personal capacity.

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