South Africa’s 28-year-old, continuously transforming multiparty democracy was reminded of its own fragility when, in September, a coalition running its biggest city, Johannesburg, collapsed. The speaker and the mayor lost their jobs. A new coalition took office, only to be removed by a high court verdict three weeks later. This was followed by the ousting of the mayor of the adjoining metropole of Ekurhuleni.
This isn’t the first time that the administration of a city has fallen apart due to coalition politics. Acrimonious scenes have played out across the country in metropoles such as Nelson Mandela Bay and Tshwane, large towns such as Knysna, and hamlets such Cederberg in the Western Cape.
These seemingly anarchic moves are becoming more common as the party political struggle intensifies between the African National Congress (ANC), which still dominates South Africa’s politics even though it’s in decline, and the biggest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA).
The ANC is increasingly conducting coalition wars to retain and regain power while the DA is trying to consolidate its claim to the power that the ANC is ceding. Within a few years, particularly since the 2021 local government elections, the two parties, along with a host of micro-parties, have invented local-level rules of the game that do not sit well with the precepts of multiparty democracy.
What’s there to learn from these events?
In my view the unfolding party-political mayhem of constituting, dissolving and reconstituting municipal coalition governments reflects the transition from one-party dominance towards what may become a fractionalised and alternating multi-polar party system.
This reflects a decay of multiparty democracy in South Africa as it was practiced in the time the ANC still held a dominant position. Multiparty democracy in this epoch constituted a type of inter-party truce that accepted the ANC’s predominant position. Nevertheless, it helped organise popular representation in government and offered a constructive way of channelling popular political energy.
Coalitions in South Africa
South Africa is no stranger to coalition politics. The 1994 Government of National Unity – the first after the end of apartheid – was in essence a grand coalition. The province of KwaZulu-Natal evolved through a coalition government between the ANC and the Inkatha Freedom Party, and the DA gained power in Cape Town in 2006 through a multiparty coalition.
The 1994 coalition worked because of the need for national reconciliation. The other two had an inter-party competitive edge, reminiscent of contemporary contests. In KwaZulu-Natal the ANC used coalitions to access provincial government and help it gain the upper hand. It worked largely because it linked into a clear shift of power between two major parties.
At municipal level, the DA multiparty coalition worked because of a few factors. Firstly, meticulous coalition management and an internal conflict resolution mechanism was put in place. Secondly, there was a new sense of team building as the DA took shape in the aftermath of the dissolution of the New National Party.
These conditions and sentiments are largely absent today.
Coalitions formed more recently have not been consensual instruments. They have not led to constructive co-governance as is the case in many other parts of the world, where coalition government has become institutionalised. Examples like Denmark and Germany come to mind, or closer to home Lesotho and Madagascar, albeit with a competitive edge and only intermittently constructive.
Constructively institutionalised versions of coalition governments emerge where there is a sense of shared national interest and policies.
In contemporary South Africa coalitions are weaponised as extensions of elections. Power that was not won at the polls is pursued under rules determined by power and patronage. Accountability is erratic as aberrant leaders and micro-parties become kingmakers.
The result is erratic changes in power. The tone of the current tranche of metropolitan disruptions was set by Johannesburg and Nelson Mandela Bay where small parties flipped, enticed by the bigger parties. And it’s highly likely that these changes won’t be the last of the current term.
The chaotic changes are being driven by a number of factors.
The first is the self-interest of small and micro parties. An ideal form of multiparty democracy offers sound competition between functional political parties to determine the fate of governance in political systems. In most cases a system of proportionality is in place. But in South Africa micro-parties wield disproportionate power.
Bands of micro-parties that hold very small numbers of seats individually are elevated to the status of (vacillating) power blocs. They very often call the shots. They gain a major political voice, hold entire municipal administrations to ransom, and are inclined to change coalition allegiance.
The second factor is the emergence of opportunistic, power-obsessed leaders who run amok. Many of them are serial flip-floppers who go wherever the next, improved offer of position and patronage-infused municipal portfolio takes them. They anoint and abandon coalitions with the bigger DA and ANC whenever convenient.
For this new league of power players, party politics is not about proportionality or size of constituency. Brute kingmaker power, even on the basis of one or two council seats, rules supreme: importance is estimated in terms of value to the bigger parties that need to top up sub-50% vote proportions.
Another factor driving the current disruptive patterns has to do with the internal politics of both the ANC and DA: these contribute to the ambiguous rules of inter-party contest. As the ANC has increasingly become dominated by corrupt leaders, and the DA is losing its black leaders to new, smaller parties, the two main actors have increasingly engaged in free-for-all recruitment and co-option.
The game is complicated by the ANC not ceding power gracefully, a phenomenon bolstered by its state power. It also benefits from the inability of the DA to transcend its credibility problems among the majority black population.
In addition, widespread populism combined with protest and direct action heighten the complexity of the transition away from ANC one-party dominance.
The fallout from one-party dominance
The current poverty of multiparty democracy in the country has its roots in the ANC’s roughly 28-year dominance.
This has seen a suppression and delegitimation of the opposition, arguably made worse as the ANC has faltered in the wake of state capture – the repurposing of the state for corrupt ends under former president Jacob Zuma – and the blatant fleecing of state resources for party political gain.
Most opposition has been driven into a new political underground. Instead of expressing opposition systemically through support for an alternative political party, multitudes of South Africans choose to either abstain from voting or to live their political lives in a shadow world that transcends political parties.
Instead of lobbying their elected representatives to, for example, allocate land, people take the law into their own hands. They simply settle on unused state land. Increasingly the state and the political parties are bypassed because they are seen to be ineffective. This is a part of South Africa’s intricate system of transitioning away from one-party dominance, but also inherently anarchic.
This shadow world comes with failing multiparty democracy in which coalitions help discredit political parties.
Susan Booysen, Visiting Professor and Professor Emeritus, University of the Witwatersrand