Political Coalitions Will Strengthen South Africa’s Democracy

Democracy is on the ballot in 2024. In about eight weeks, South Africa will become one of 70 countries that will vote for a new government.

At a time when democracy is in crisis around the world, threatened by the lure of authoritarianism on the one hand, and the disillusionment with democracy on the other, we will, once again, turn to a trusted democratic practice to find a way forward: voting.

Amid wars, natural disasters, rising economic and social injustices, climate crises and failing governance, we will have an opportunity to come face to face with leaders of our countries and the world and ask: can the people and parties we vote to represent us be trusted to lead us out of this moment of angst, into a more just future?

‘Trust deficit’

In South Africa, the issue of trust is on the ballot in 2024.

After almost 30 years of a democratic era, the overwhelming sentiment in the country is that we do not know who to trust. The trust deficit is stark when thinking about who to vote for in the national and provincial elections on 29 May 2024.

Coalitions are an opportunity for fostering new and more inclusive politics if all role players actively play their part.

To date, elections in South Africa have been fairly predictable. Notwithstanding our constitutional commitment to a multiparty democracy and proportionality in our electoral process, the dominance of the African National Congress (ANC) at national and provincial levels has been assumed and taken for granted as the status quo.

ANC, the party of Nelson Mandela, has never truly contemplated a national electoral outcome below 50%. Even as its grip on power has been tested over the years, first by losing the Western Cape Province to the Democratic Alliance and then suffering the blows of the formations of the Congress of the People (COPE) and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) that broke away support from the party, the ANC has still garnered up to 57% of the vote in the 2019 national election and retained eight out of nine provinces.

What seems to have jolted the ANC and other political parties in South Africa out of complacency is the growing number of hung councils and coalition governments that resulted from the 2021 local government elections. More than 70 municipalities and cities did not have a political party with a majority of votes in a council to allow the formation of a single party majority government.

After big parties failed to dislodge the ANC, it has taken an organic change in the appetite of the electorate for local, smaller and new political parties to signal the possible end of one party dominance in South Africa.

The era of coalition politics in South Africa has finally arrived. Although, coalitions have always been part of the South of democratic South Africa. From the government of national unity in 1994, which was the product of a pre-election political negotiation that saw the ANC form a government with the National Party and the IFP, to the 2004 Western Cape election that saw the ANC at 45% of the vote form a coalition with the New National Party with 11% of the vote, the ANC is not stranger to political marriages of convenience.

If the ANC was able to form working relationships with even its arch enemies, why is the prospect of possible national and provincial coalitions causing such panic in their ranks and those of other big parties?

‘Coalitions can be good for democracy’

Coalitions are a normal outcome of multiparty elections. In fact, having the dominance of one party for 30 years in a proportional representative system is what is anomalous. Most parliamentary democracies have never had a parliament that is overwhelmingly allied to one party and certainly not a cabinet dominated by a single party more than once or twice since the end of World War II.

South Africans have been rightfully disturbed by the poorly managed metro councils since the 2016 and 2021 elections. Johannesburg’s revolving door of mayors and the city of Ekurhuleni’s fist fights that have no bearing on improving service delivery have given politicians, analysts and party supporters fodder for blaming poor governance on coalitions. “Votes for small parties are wasted”, “We are not ready for coalitions”, “Coalitions are bad” are all dog whistles from large incumbent parties fearmongering in hopes that voters will vote for them to get a “overwhelming mandate”.

The truth is that no voter can go to the ballot box and choose to vote to cause or avoid a coalition, thus political parties, their supporters, and we the voters need to have the maturity and resolve to govern ourselves and this country even in the face of coalitions.

Coalitions can be good for democracy. In Lesotho, coalition politics unseated an incumbent party that was thought of as too big to be held accountable or to fail. When the newly formed Revolution for Prosperity party formed, many thought of it as populist and inexperienced. But forming a coalition with two more experienced albeit smaller parties has led to a stable government with internal checks and balances between parties and shared human capacity where needed.

In Sweden, Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson, a relatively unknown moderate won the election and now leads an ideologically diverse coalition. This coalition has made it possible for the most polarising issues like migration and climate change to be negotiated and agreed on before a government was formed and continues to allow for leverage and contestations that hold the prime minister honest to those agreements even in the face of pressure from the left and far right.

Coalition = unification

Coalition negotiations can help politicians and voters focus on unifying issues, agreed rules of engagement and ensuring that the promises made to voters are not easily forgotten.

Perhaps shaking up the status quo, through the ballot box in South Africa in 2024, is less about parties and personalities and more about becoming comfortable with new forms of democratic practices and new ways to hold and use our collective power.

Coalitions are an opportunity for fostering new and more inclusive politics if all role players actively play their part.

Tessa Dooms is the director of programmes at the Rivonia Circle, and co-author of ‘Coloured, How classification became culture’.

Article first appeared in The Africa Report.

Photo by Den Harrson via Unsplash.