Coalitions a platform for parties to put interest of SA citizens first

Julius  Malema  and Mmusi  Maimane. Picture credit: Trevor Samson
Julius Malema and Mmusi Maimane. Picture credit: Trevor Samson

Following the 2016 local government elections that produced 27 hung municipalities, talk started about the possibility of a coalition government in 2019.

It was not the first time local government elections produced coalitions. But what is of interest is that three big metros in Gauteng and the Nelson Mandela Bay Metro found themselves with no clear winner.

The Unisa Sowetan dialogue on Tuesday put the debate about the workability of coalition government in SA back on the table.

Since the axing of deputy executive mayor Mongameli Bobani of the UDM Nelson Mandela Bay by the leader of the coalition, the DA, questions have arisen about the stability of coalitions and the ability of political parties to cooperate. Given that much of the media reporting in this country gives greater attention to politics at national level, it is easy to overlook the workings of the political system at local level.

Professor Dirk Kotze highlighted the importance of looking back in history to understand better what is happening in the present. Far from being a new phenomenon, coalitions have been with us since 1999.

Both the ANC and opposition parties have long experience in running municipalities through collaborative arrangements.

It's important to understand the political dynamics at play. When neither of the bigger parties is able to garner a majority, smaller parties are able to punch above their weight because of their status as kingmakers.

In such instances, smaller parties have the leverage to negotiate for benefits that under different circumstances they would never be entitled to while the bigger parties seeking to gain control of councils are compelled to negotiate to achieve their aims.

And they must be willing to make concessions and even offer incentives to secure the cooperation of smaller parties.

The situation in Nelson andela Bay should be seen through this prism. The UDM, which has only two seats in the council, by virtue of being kingmaker got the DA to make Bobani deputy executive mayor. It is important to remember that the coalition between the DA and four smaller parties, excluding the EFF, is an agreement negotiated between the parties.

The dispute between the DA and the UDM is to what extent that agreement binds coalition members and to what extent they may deviate from it, particularly where there is a feeling that what the coalition leader does in government is contrary to the values, ideologies and posturing of its partners.

Professor Simphiwe Sisante cautioned that it was important for parties not to confuse consensus with unanimity. Each should be allowed to both collaborate and differ within reasonable limits.

The question is, of course, what is reasonable. And that's what the DA-UDM coalition has to determine.

Far from heralding the failure of coalition politics, the situation gives us insights into the inner workings and constant negotiation that is necessary to sustain such collaborative arrangements.

What is perhaps unique about the 2016 collaborative political landscape is that we have seen, for the first time, the convergence of politics at the national and local level.

The fifth parliament has seen opposition parties work together in a loose alliance using various strategies and supporting each other's attempts to push against the ANC in relation to policy and the conduct of the executive.

Although the EFF refused to be part of a coalition with the DA in a formal sense, it has, like it has in parliament, offered its support through voting with it to scupper the ANC. And when the DA acted against Bobani, the EFF sympathised with the UDM and has considered withdrawing its support from the DA in other councils.

The arrangements at local government level present an opportunity to develop politics of consensus. It is a platform for parties to learn how to put the interest of communities above narrow personal and party interest, something this country desperately needs.

X