The circus that played out in Nelson Mandela Bay and in Tshwane with the ANC challenging the DA in order to resume office, assisted by the EFF, has shaken the faith of some people in coalition government.  That is unnecessary and not justified by the facts. Firstly, the DA was in coalition with a number of smaller parties, but not the EFF.  

The arrangement with the EFF was that it would support or oppose the DA administrations on a case by case basis.  It was the withdrawal of that support and what was described by Mmusi Maimane as a “coalition of the corrupt” with the ANC, that changed the power equation.  It is only the UDM, the party of the former Bantustan dictator, General Holomisa, that withdrew from a coalition arrangement in Nelson Mandela Bay.  Apart from the UDM, all the other coalition parties, including the ACDP and the FF+ stuck to the coalition agreement.

Secondly, it remains to be seen whether the EFF will help the ANC put an ANC mayor into power in Tshwane.  Many observers last week wondered if the EFF had thought better of re-installing the ANC only two years after such a decisive rejection of ANC rule in Tshwane. It could not be sold as a move in the interests of the people.  Like the Nelson Mandela Bay mayoral unseating, this was not done on behalf of the voters: it was political manoeuvring at its grubbiest, no matter how much the politicians concerned lied about it with straight faces. Some went so far as to say that it was a lack of service delivery that explained the votes of no-confidence.  Of course, Julius Malema gave the game away in respect of Nelson Mandela Bay; he said that they would get rid of Trollip because of his whiteness.

Thirdly, the record of the DA in the Metros where it governs is so much superior to that which preceded it, that surely no-one will doubt that the two-year DA rule, thus far, has been worth the pain of managing very difficult governing mathematics, with the compromises and instabilities that entailed.

In Nelson Mandela Bay, for example, the DA-led coalition inherited a city that was R2billion in the red.  Two years later, the city has a surplus of R615 million and has been given an AAA credit rating.  It has terminated R650 million in corrupt contracts, eradicated 60% of bucket toilets, established a municipal police force to fight crime and attracted many millions in investment in the city.  The ANC, despite the revelations of the author Crispian Olver in his best-selling account of his time as an official in Nelson Mandela Bay, “How to steal a city,” showed no shame in its pursuit of power. It installed a convicted criminal, Andile Lungisa of the ANC, out on bail pending an appeal, as a member of the Mayoral Committee.  It made another convicted criminal, Bongo Nombiba, also of the ANC, a member of the Mayoral Committee.  And it installed the lone UDM member, Mongameli Bobani, described by Crispian Olver as a “deeply corrupt man,” as Executive Mayor.  All of this was permitted by the ANC leadership, despite President Ramaphosa’s promises of a “New Dawn” and of zero-tolerance towards corruption. There is a price to pay for this.

Given all these facts, what reason is there to be confident that coalition government is the way of the future in South Africa?

In many parts of the democratic world, coalitions are accepted as an everyday part of political life. In towns and cities and provinces and in national governments, when there is no political party that wins an overall majority, coalitions are formed.  Some are coalitions of a number of different parties, some are called “grand-coalitions” when two major parties, often with vastly different policies, come together to form coalition governments. Taking one example, Germany almost always has coalition governments of various complexions, depending on the parties included. One of the features of German coalitions is that very careful negotiations take place, sometimes for months, to agree in writing the principles and policies that will be followed by the government.

South Africa is a constitutional democracy that has paused in its establishment phase; the first quarter of a century after 1994 has seen a one-party dominant government at every level. No successful constitutional democracy can (or should) have a governing party that remains in power “until Jesus comes.” It is becoming clear that this phase is ending; the governing party is paying the price of long years of virtually uncontested power and its support is waning. Others are gaining in strength. It has become feasible that the ANC may attract less than 50% of the votes in the next election. The direct result of that could be a coalition government at national level, as well as in several of the Provinces. Things could change, but it appears unlikely now that the main opposition party, the DA, will garner sufficient votes to become a majority party next year. So, a change of government with a coalition replacement becomes more likely.

This is something that should be welcomed by all those who are democrats. Constitutional democracies need refreshing and renewing every few years.  There is nothing as good for politicians as to be thrown out by the voters and replaced with new people of vigour, untainted by the temptations of office and full of new ideas. The Ramaphoria of a few months ago has given way to a much soberer assessment of our national condition. Irrespective of what happens at local government level in the next few weeks, whether or not the DA remains or regains office for now, or is thrown out, there is inexorable movement towards coalitions at all levels in South Africa.

Douglas Gibson is a former opposition chief whip and ambassador to Thailand. His website is: douglasgibsonsouthafrica.com

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