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John Steenhuisen | How South Africa’s coalitions can be stabilised

In 2024, we cannot afford dysfunctional, unstable coalitions. If Joburg’s cumbersome, volatile, extortionate coalition politics are replicated at national and provincial level, it will lead to dangerous instability, with South Africa possibly becoming ungovernable, argues John Steenhuisen.

With coalition politics set to be the “new normal” from next year onwards, South Africa needs a legislative framework that enables parties to come together and form workable coalitions for the good of South Africa. The DA has produced an initial draft of such legislation and is keen to engage the public in this vital conversation.

The events that unfolded in the Johannesburg council over the past two weeks clearly illustrate the harmful consequences of unstable coalitions, the risks that arise when voters split their vote across a multitude of tiny parties, and the urgent need for legislation to promote coalition stability.

Johannesburg up for grabs

Johannesburg now has a clueless “placeholder” mayor from Al Jama-ah, a party that got less than 1% of the popular vote, because the Patriotic Alliance, a party that got less than 3%, decided to replace the DA coalition with an ANC-EFF coalition, purely on self-serving grounds.

The frivolous motion of no confidence that ousted DA-mayor Mpho Phalatse and her nine party coalition two weeks ago had nothing at all to do with service delivery to residents and everything to do with small parties yielding to the temptations of patronage and extraction opportunities.

READ | Qaanitah Hunter: Joburg power play has everything to do with 2024 and little to do with you and me

Johannesburg residents are suffering the effects of a highly fragmented vote. No party got a full majority (136 seats) in the City’s 270-seat council after the 2021 local government election, so either the ANC (91 seats) or the DA (71 seats) needs to form a coalition to get over the line, making each of the other 16 parties in council a potential “kingmaker” and giving the tiny ones political power that far outweighs their vote share.

The Patriotic Alliance, led by convicted criminals Gayton McKenzie and Kenny Kunene, who have both spent time in prison, made their support for the DA coalition conditional on getting control of portfolios such as infrastructure because of the opportunities these positions offered for patronage and extraction. The DA refused to engage in the politics of extortion, and so the PA handed power to the pliable ANC-EFF coalition.

Consequences of a highly fragmented vote

The highly fragmented electoral result means Joburg’s residents face the constant prospect of disrupted service delivery. This is the third time that power has swung from one coalition to the next in the metro. Naturally, the focus of council becomes short-term and inward-looking to survival rather than long-term and outward-looking to service delivery. 

While Joburg’s mayor is now looking at a two month time horizon till he gets replaced by an ANC or EFF mayor pending the outcome of ongoing negotiations between the two parties, Cape Town’s Mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis last week launched an R120 billion infrastructure investment plan as the foundation for the City’s economic growth over the next decade. A great benefit of stable governments is the ability to plan for the long term.

When small parties get to call the shots and exercise power out of all proportion to their share of the vote, it is a gross subversion of democracy.

Even a large coalition that manages to stay in power for an extended time is still not an ideal arrangement. Having up to ten hands on the steering wheel renders decision-making time-consuming and cumbersome, undermining service delivery.

Coalition country

The story of Johannesburg could well become South Africa’s story too. If anyone is still in doubt that South Africa will enter an era of a coalition government after the 2024 general election, the ANC’s own internal polling and the results of a recent nationwide poll should set the record straight.

Both sources suggest the governing party is on track to attract less than 40% of the national vote, with support dropping to 37% in the past week. This recent haemorrhaging of ANC support is undoubtedly driven by ongoing high-stage load-shedding that is wreaking havoc with people’s lives, jobs, businesses, water supply and food security.

READ | Pieter du Toit:  Johannesburg – Politics of betrayal, extortion good for McKenzie – not ratepayers

In 2024, we cannot afford to replace failing ANC national and provincial governments with dysfunctional, unstable coalitions. If Joburg’s cumbersome, volatile, extortionate coalition politics are replicated at national and provincial level post-2024, it will lead to dangerous instability, with South Africa possibly becoming ungovernable. 

Legislation to stabilise coalitions

Coalitions can work. The DA is part of 39 governments around the country, 24 of which are coalitions. The majority of these are functional and focused on service delivery to residents. Generally, there are just two to three parties in the coalition. The problems arise when a highly fragmented vote puts many small parties in council, leading to large, unstable coalitions. Joburg, for example, has 18 parties in council out of the 56 parties and several independents that were on the ballot paper.

Electoral systems based on pure proportional representation, such as South Africa’s, tend naturally towards a highly fragmented vote, especially in a society as diverse as ours. The only reason this has taken so long to become apparent is that the ANC enjoyed three decades of unnaturally high support for a political party.

Other countries with pure proportional representation have passed legislation to stabilise coalitions. Learning from their experience, the DA has drafted three Private Members’ Bills which are already with Parliamentary Legal Services for editing and certification. We also have more ideas and are keen to get a serious conversation started in South Africa.

Electoral thresholds

The DA is proposing electoral thresholds so that parties must obtain a certain minimum number of votes before they are able to be considered for seat calculations. Many countries use electoral thresholds to stabilise coalitions, including Germany, Denmark, New Zealand, Turkey, Netherlands, Belgium, Greece, Romania and Ukraine.

READ | OPINION: Marius Roodt – Maybe it is time to start thinking about an electoral threshold

Limit on MONCs

The DA is also proposing a limit on the number of motions of no confidence that are allowed to be brought in a certain time frame. This will, at the very least, give the respective government an uninterrupted period in which to implement its mandate. But we are also proposing specific circumstances in which a motion of no confidence will not be limited.

Formal coalition agreements

Furthermore, the concept of public coalition agreements should be formalised. There must be a legal requirement that coalition agreements are drawn up and published, clearly setting out the principles that partners must adhere to, including the conflict resolution procedures that must be followed if a disagreement arises. 

READ | Richard Calland and Mike Law: Coalitions are here to stay. How can we make them better?

Coalition ombudsman

We think South Africa should establish a coalition ombudsperson to impartially administer coalition agreements and ensure that coalition partners commit, to the fullest extent possible, towards maintaining the coalition agreement. The ombudsman should be a politically independent individual of high standing, such as a retired judge.

More time to negotiate

Finally, the DA thinks that the time allowed for President, Premiers, Mayors and Speakers to be elected should be extended from the current 14 days (from the declaration of the election result) to 30 days. This is to give parties sufficient time to negotiate functional, binding coalition agreements.

In setting out these proposals, we hope to establish broad political and civil society support for the legislative changes required for stable coalition politics. We believe this matter is urgent and crucial if the coming coalition era is to bring progress and stability to South Africa.

– John Steenhuisen is leader of the Democratic Alliance.

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Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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