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South Africa’s politicians will have to adjust to many more coalitions

South African President Jacob Zuma, flanked by ANC Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe (left) and Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa. Reuters/Mike Hutchings

This year’s local government elections in South Africa are likely to produce shifts in power at municipal level. They will be the fourth local government elections since a new system of local government was adopted under the post-1994 constitutional framework. The polls are expected to be contentious, particularly in the country’s eight metropolitan municipalities.

Local government plays a major role in governance and the provision of basic public services in South Africa. First, the country’s municipalities are very big. Spain’s population size and land mass is similar to South Africa’s. But it has more than 8,000 municipalities to South Africa’s 278 – which are to be reduced to 257 by the day of the elections. This says something about the size – and the leverage – of municipalities in the country.

Second, South Africa’s constitution protects municipalities from national and provincial interference. Some big national projects have stumbled when affected local governments disagreed. An example is the reform of electricity distribution.

Local governments, with metropolitan municipalities as the first line of defence, have also successfully batted away five attempts by national and provincial governments to limit municipal town planning powers. In each of the cases heard by the Constitutional Court, the court came down on the side of local government, with the Gauteng Development Tribunal judgment as the landmark decision.

At the same time, local government is often seen as the Achilles heel of government’s ambitious development plans. The perception is frequently incorrect, but it is true that too many municipalities seriously underperform. When launching the “Back to Basics” programme, Pravin Gordhan, then minister responsible for local government, said that a third of municipalities work well, a third are scraping by and a third are “frankly dysfunctional”.

The key question in the coming elections is whether the governing African National Congress (ANC) will retain power in the seven metropolitan municipalities it currently controls.

More coalitions on the cards

Shifts in power in those metropolitan municipalities have been visible for some time. Though the ANC controls outright majorities in seven of the eight metropolitan municipalities, the last time voters were consulted on its performance, in the 2014 national and provincial elections, the party lost support in all except Buffalo City on the country’s east coast. It remains to be seen, though, how significant the shifts will be in the upcoming polls.

The Democratic Alliance (DA), the official opposition, controls the Western Cape’s City of Cape Town and is a serious contender for power in Tshwane – the city adjacent to Johannesburg – and Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality, the capital of the Eastern Cape province.

Opposition leader Mmusi Maimane at the launch of the Democratic Alliance’s local election manifesto in Johannesburg. EPA/Kevin Sutherland

The Economic Freedom Fighters(EFF), led by Julius Malema, will be contesting local elections for the first time and are likely to make a big impact.

The Economic Freedom Fighters launch their election manifesto in Soweto. EPA/Cornell Tukiri

What is likely to set these elections apart is that there will probably be no outright winner in a number of municipalities. Coalitions may thus become necessary in these “hung councils”.

Coalitions are made possible by how elections work in local government. The composition of the municipal council is based on proportionality. Simply put, winning 20% of the vote guarantees a party about 20% of the council seats. If no-one wins an outright majority, a party may suddenly become a real contender for power as part of a coalition.

So there is a strong likelihood that there will be more coalitions after the local elections. But there is not a lot of experience with coalition politics at local level. Most of the experience was built up in the provinces of the Western Cape and, to a lesser extent, KwaZulu-Natal.

The Western Cape’s City of Cape Town was run by a DA-led coalition from 2006 until the party won an outright majority in 2011. Though this coalition governed for five years, other coalitions in the province were less successful. Many collapsed or changed shape mid-term, with disruptive consequences.

In the Western Cape town of Oudtshoorn, for example, the DA and the ANC took turns, securing majorities by putting together coalitions that proved to be opportunistic. They fell apart every time one or more of the participating councillors had a change of heart. Local governance collapsed to the point where the provincial government put the municipality under administration.

Coalitions in local government are not only determined by the quest for a workable majority. There is the law, too. Coalition building has to be done within the rules of local government law – the Municipal Structures Act. Some of these rules limit the options of political parties.

Stripped of its glory, a coalition is about two or more parties finding each other on a common programme or platform and cementing their new-found love by dividing political posts among themselves. In municipalities, this revolves mainly around the positions of the mayor and the speaker.

Key positions in the municipal executive may also be distributed. Here the law throws a spanner in the works for parties negotiating a coalition. It has to do with two different executive systems in local government: executive mayors and executive committees.

Executive mayors

Most municipalities have an executive mayor. This is a councillor who is elected by the council to be political head of the municipality and exercise executive powers. He or she is assisted by a mayoral committee. In this case the law doesn’t concern itself with the political composition of the mayoral committee, provided its members are elected councillors in that municipality.

In 2003 the DA wanted the Constitutional Court to rule that Amos Masondo, then executive mayor of Johannesburg, should have included opposition councillors on his all-ANC mayoral committee. The court disagreed and confirmed that executive mayors have free rein in putting together their committees.

So if a hung council has an executive mayor, the parties to a coalition may freely divide up all mayoral committee positions among their elected councillors.

Executive committees

All local authorities functioned under an executive committee system until the executive mayor position was introduced in 2000. About a third of South Africa’s municipalities are still run by executive committees.

An executive committee is made of not more than ten councillors who are elected by the municipal council to collectively exercise executive powers. One of the members is elected as mayor and he or she functions as the municipality’s political head.

The difference between this system and that of the executive mayor is that here the mayor must work with the executive committee. And here’s the catch: Section 43 of the Municipal Structures Act says the executive committee must either mirror the party composition of the council or at least allow all parties on the council to be “fairly” represented.

So if a hung council is governed by an executive committee, coalition-building efforts are limited in that no major party may be excluded from the ruling committee. For example, if the ANC, the DA and the EFF each win a sizeable share of the vote, each must be represented on the governing executive committee.

Even if the ANC and the DA strike a deal that delivers them a majority, the coalition will have to put up with one or more EFF representatives on its executive. Whatever the permutation of this scenario, the result is awkward.

Where the power lies

The decision about executive structure is a provincial one. In KwaZulu-Natal, for example, there are no executive mayors.

Though executive committees complicate coalition building, their political inclusivity is touted as an advantage, particularly in smaller councils. A more inclusive style of local government benefits local communities. For this reason the South African Local Government Association urged government in 2011 to reconsider the continued appropriateness of the executive mayor system.

In the end, coalitions will be built where it is opportune to do so, including in hung councils governed by an executive committee. The usual mix of political ingenuity and opportunism will probably ensure that politicians find a way to make it work. But in municipalities with executive committees, local politicians will have to respect the golden rule of “fair inclusion” of all major parties in the executive.

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