South Africa is learning the ropes of coalition politics – and its inherent instability

Solly Msimanga, centre, the mayor of Tshwane, with Democratic Alliance national leader, Mmusi Maimane, right, celebrate winning the city in 2016. EPA/Kim Ludbrook

South Africa’s politics has entered largely uncharted terrain. Following the municipal elections in 2016 several political parties swiftly coalesced to elect Democratic Alliance (DA) mayors in three hung metropolitan councils that had emerged as a result. It appeared that there was a firm intention on behalf of these former opposition parties to unite under the objective of ensuring that the common enemy, the African National Congress, would no longer govern.

But international experience of coalition politics shows that instability is never far away. Political parties in South Africa are clearly struggling to cope with the delicate demands and dilemmas of coalition politics.

The recent shenanigans in Nelson Mandela Bay are testimony of what can go wrong. What began as a rift between the United Democratic Movement (UDM) and the Democratic Alliance (DA) over the now-axed UDM deputy mayor Mongameli Bobani, spilled over to threaten the whole of the original five-party coalition. Like a formula one car, if something small but significant fails, the whole complex machine can fall apart and come off the road.

Worldwide experience shows that parties of opposing ideological views can work together. But there is a clear danger for coalition partners surrendering the uniqueness of their identity. They are forced to compromise to accommodate the policies of others indispensable to the numerical ability of the coalition to govern.

Coalitions can result in significant electoral gains. But several parties that have been involved in coalition arrangements in South Africa and abroad have admitted to a backlash from their electorates. That’s because they have been seen as siding with their traditional enemies.

Coalitions are also inherently adversarial. It’s a necessary condition that parties work together. But empirical evidence from across the world shows that the primary rationale for coalition formation is the acquisition of political power.

There is nothing inherently objectionable to this. The best intentions for positive change are of little consequence unless coupled with the power to implement them. The acquisition of power through legal means is therefore a legitimate and fundamental objective of any political party that has the best intentions for the people that it seeks to serve.

But this inevitably generates conflict as coalition partners continuously manoeuvre themselves to ensure that they get the best return for their investment in political compromise. While each must work together, the end goal for each party is its own success. And sometimes fights among friends can lead to more destructive and enduring fallouts than fights among foes.

Compromise and consensus

At a recent inaugural, ground-breaking symposium in Cape Town, six political leaders from across the German political spectrum conducted a dialogue with senior representatives from eight of South Africa’s nine largest parties.

One of the lessons from Germany is that successful coalitions have been founded on written agreements that create formal structures for engagement among partners. These include management, decision-making and dispute resolution procedures.

Foreign experience shows a clear and direct relationship between well written coalition agreements and the stability of the coalition. But they’re not easily enforceable. That’s because they’re political agreements rather than legal agreements.

Therefore, the only way to ensure that coalition partners stick to a deal is to offer each partner enough benefits to ensure that it derives more political advantage by staying in the coalition, than if it were ‘go it alone’ or offer its allegiances elsewhere.

The academic literature, supported by the German experience, suggests that any attempt by the largest coalition partner to control the coalition outright, and pass off any success as its own, is a coalition doomed to fail.

Both abroad and in South Africa, there are accounts of the largest party in the coalition acting unilaterally to the strong disapproval of its partners. While it is natural and legitimate for the larger coalition partner to get a greater share of the spoils, especially in a legislature where the numbers game is tight, a strategy of unilateral action by the largest partner will destabilise its ability to exercise power.

In such legislatures, where the size of the coalition is only just sufficient to obtain a legislative majority, each coalition partner is indispensable to the other’s ability to govern. Therefore, it is striking that in Germany’s coalitions, especially its “grand” coalitions of recent years, decisions are sought to be made by consensus.

Jackson Mthembu, chief whip of the governing ANC, at the symposium. Supplied

This necessitates compromise – something one of the leaders of a smaller South African party said was unfortunately seen as a sign of weakness by the public. Hence, it is understandable that after decades of being in opposition, the country’s largest opposition parties are seeking to wield as much power in their coalitions as possible. This, as they endeavour to show South Africans that they were being more than noisemakers when they promised that they could deliver a better country to its citizens.

But, as a fundamental, defining characteristic, coalitions do not grant a political party power, but merely the opportunity to share in it. And share they must.

Why sharing is so key

If South Africa’s parties can get this right, the benefits may be far greater than just sharing in the spoils of power. When it comes to politics, the country is still deeply divided along racial, cultural and ideological grounds. But a handshake between political enemies from across the floor could lead to a handshake between personal enemies from across the street.

To achieve this in South Africa, political leaders are going to have to reshape political culture. Parties should regard their rivals as opponents, and not enemies.

Coalition research shows the clear potential of party collaboration to be an instrument to enhance national unity . India, Kenya and Mauritius are all good examples. Parties of differing ethnicities, cultures and religions came together in these countries and restored peace in times of strife.

This is another notable aspect of coalition formation. Parties have united from across the full ideological spectrum, showing that there is no combination of South African political parties for whom it is impossible to form an alliance.

That fact was clear to see at the Cape Town symposium as traditional adversaries from across the ideological spectrum came together to discuss potential means of working together.

As the day unfolded ANC chief whip, Jackson Mthembu tweeted:

[w]hat an eye opener! Six political parties from @FederalGermany are participating in a #Symposium on #Coalitions Politics with twelve parties in #SouthAfrica. This high level exchange in #CapeTown on the #German Coalition Politics experience is very helpful for our country.

Bantu Holomisa, leader of the United Democratic Movement, added his own distinctive voice on social media:

#CoalitionsforSA… at a high level exchange between some SA & German politicians. Looking at 2019 & beyond.

It is clear that South African parties recognise that coalition politics is now part of the political landscape and that it is here to stay.

Mike Law wrote the background paper from which this article draws substantially. The Cape Town Symposium was convened in partnership with the German Embassy in South Africa, and organised by Michel International Relations and Services.