John Steenhuisen | Despite doubt prompted by developments in Tshwane, coalitions do work | News24

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Following the upheaval in Tshwane last week, John Steenhuisen asks what needs to be in place to ensure coalitions have the best chance of success.


The political upheaval in Tshwane has prompted doubt about whether coalitions can work. They can. There are many examples of stable coalitions in South Africa that successfully deliver services to residents. The real questions we should ask is: What can be done to give coalitions the best chance of success, and how can the DA best defend against the ANC-EFF?

The DA is part of 24 coalition governments around the country. Most of these are functional, stable, and deliver to residents. They easily outperform the average ANC-led municipality.

Two key factors driving their stability and success are size and shared values. Coalitions work best when there are just two or three parties involved, and when those parties share the same core values, even if they differ markedly on other issues.

READ | Songezo Zibi: Coalitions portend peril for SA unless good people fight for a different future

In Langeberg Municipality, for example, the DA is in coalition with the FF+. It is a majority coalition in which these two parties have more than 50% of the seats in council (13 out of 23). Although the parties differ on many issues, we agree on core “non-negotiable” issues such as zero tolerance of corruption, public appointments on merit, and the importance of making it as easy as possible for businesses to thrive and create jobs.

Larger coalitions can also be successful. In 2006, a seven party DA-led coalition took control of Cape Town from the ANC and was able to deliver enough to residents to convince them to give the DA a full majority in the Western Cape in 2009 and in Cape Town in 2011, and residents haven’t looked back.

Tshwane

Last week’s vote for a new Tshwane mayor should have been a straightforward affair, with the DA’s excellent mayoral candidate Cilliers Brink being voted as mayor since the DA and its coalition partners have an outright majority there.

Instead, Cope’s Dr Murunwa Makwarela was elected by an ANC-EFF coalition, even though Cope only won 0,2% of the vote in the 2021 local election, getting just one seat in the 214-seat council. This is clearly a gross subversion of democracy and not what the voters of Tshwane voted for.

It came about because seven councillors of the DA-led multi-party coalition betrayed their voters and helped install this ANC-EFF puppet mayor who has subsequently been disqualified because he is an unrehabilitated insolvent.

Clearly, these individuals were bribed by the ANC-EFF coalition, which is desperate to win back control of the Gauteng metros so that patronage and corruption can continue unabated. (Indeed, the very first thing that the ANC-EFF coalition did in Johannesburg, which followed a similar path in January, was to cancel the investigations that were under way into corrupt contracts in the metro.)

No depths too low

Without the patronage opportunities that come from running these huge metros with their multi-billion-rand budgets, ANC support withers. This has happened in the Western Cape, where ANC support stands at a measly 18%, with no hope of a rebound. The ANC has shown it will go to any lengths to stay in power if it can. This includes unlawfully dissolving Tshwane’s municipal council in 2020 and placing the city under provincial administration. During the seven months it took for the DA to challenge the illegality of this coup in court, the City was plundered, going from an operating surplus under the DA to a R4.3 billion deficit. The damage done during those seven months is yet to be fully repaired.

So no one should be surprised that the ANC is willing to work with the EFF, whose ruinous policies would greatly accelerate South Africa’s slide to a failed state. And no one should be surprised that this coalition of corruption will stoop to bribing smaller parties and councillors to switch allegiances in return for large rewards.

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

The DA is the most effective bulwark against an ANC-EFF coalition. Weakening the opposition by fragmenting the vote among a multitude of smaller parties is simply a bad strategy at a time when voters need to use their votes pragmatically to avoid state failure. 

A highly fragmented vote puts lots of 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. The 10-party DA-led coalition that ran Johannesburg after the 2021 local elections until the ANC and EFF went into coalition with each other was a cumbersome entity, with simply too many hands on the steering wheel.

Legislation to stabilise coalitions

The solution is not just to educate voters about the dangers of voting for tiny parties. It is also to introduce legislation to stabilise coalitions.

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 is proposing electoral thresholds of 1-2% 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

Furthermore, we propose 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 disagreement arises. South Africa should establish a coalition ombudsman – a politically independent individual of high standing such as a retired judge – to impartially administer these agreements and ensure that coalition partners stay true to them.

To enable some of these changes, the DA has drafted three Private Members Bills which are already with Parliamentary Legal Services for editing and certification. Once President Ramaphosa has signed the Electoral Amendment Bill, we will draft amendments to it too.

– John Steenhuisen  Leader of the Democratic Alliance.


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