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TESSA DOOMS | Policy-oriented coalitions better than just bid to remove ANC from office

If thoughtful, considered and well managed, the system can be a powerful tool for electoral and governance success

Tessa Dooms Columnist
John Steenhuisen re-elected DA Federal Leader at the 2023 DA Federal Congress at the Gallagher Conference Centre in Midrand Johannesburg.
John Steenhuisen re-elected DA Federal Leader at the 2023 DA Federal Congress at the Gallagher Conference Centre in Midrand Johannesburg.
Image: Freddy Mavunda

Coalitions are a hot topic in South African politics. Coalitions are neither new, even in SA, nor uncommon in some of the most stable and thriving democracies in the world. It is well known that European superpower Germany has not been governed by a single party since 1961 and respected democracies like Sweden, Denmark and Norway have systems that assume, legislate for and manage post-election national coalitions routinely.

Africa has a history of multiparty pre-election coalitions being key to successfully removing dominant liberation parties, like in Kenya in 2002 when the National Rainbow Coalition rallied behind Mwai Kibaki to defeat the heir apparent candidate Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya African National Union, unseating the liberation party. Coalitions, if thoughtful, considered and well managed, can be powerful tools for electoral and governance success.

Democratic Alliance (DA) politician, John Steenhuisen, emerged from the party’s 2023 national congress as the re-elected leader of the party. Beating out his rival, Mpho Phalatse, Steenhuisen took to the podium to deliver a victory speech aimed at setting a clear agenda for his first big task, leading the DA into the 2024 national and provincial elections.

His speech centred on one main theme, unseating the ANC as the national government, with a focus on avoiding what he referred to as a “doomsday coalition” with the EFF. His fervour effectively invoking fear and horror at the thought of a coalition between the ANC and the EFF. If we set aside, for a moment, the veiled implications of a neo “swart gevaar” invoked by his language and tone, it is not only his framing of the problem that is worth discussion, but also his framing of his, and now the DA’s, solution that warrants reflection.

Steenhuisen’s proposal is a pre-election coalition of opposition parties. In what he refers to as a moon-shot, he sets out an idea that a broad coalition should form with the goal of denying the ANC and EFF the possibility of a governing coalition if no party gets an outright mandate to form a government. Speaking to an electorate who are spooked by the potential instability of a national coalition.

This is not only owed to the failures of coalitions, particularly large metros like Johannesburg, Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay, but also politicians jostling for positions at the expense of service delivery and passing budgets. The irony, of course, is that much of the instability that has plagued coalitions and unsettled voters has been at the hands of the DA, as they have led or attempted to lead these with bad and sometimes farcical outcomes.

While the idea of a pre-election coalition seems good at face value, there are some considerations in the details of Steenhuisen’s plan. First, Steenhuisen declares himself as the de facto leader of such a coalition. Without a nod toward discussions with parties or organisations who may form part of such a coalition, Steenhuisen boldly, if not arrogantly, declares himself its leader.

The DA’s past and present woes with leading coalitions have often been marred by a narrative from coalition partners of the DA’s leadership as arrogant. Even as the DA admits that its electoral prospects are declining in the polls, Steenhuisen speaks as if it is a given that they will be the leading opposition party in 2024, dismissing the potential of other parties to perhaps surpass them. This dismissive attitude is reminiscent of a time, not so long ago, when the DA’s rally cry was for voters to ignore smaller parties, characterising votes for parties with less seats than they had as wasted votes. In a turn of fortunes and ambitions, the DA and Steenhuisen now want to work with those small parties to win.

Second, the basis for this proposed new coalition is an old and, in many ways, politically hollow idea of the removal of the ANC from power. As seductive as the idea of the ANC losing power may be to voters, for many people it is equally terrifying. Voters will need more from politicians than the promise of the demise of the ANC. They need an alternative politics and a future they can opt into.

Much of what has gone wrong with coalition politics in SA is a lack of correct intentions. Scholars of coalitions posit that politicians and parties either coalesce based on office-oriented or policy-oriented politics. For too long SA has opted for office-oriented coalitions where the goal is only accessing political office. The coalition partners negotiate primarily about trading cabinet posts as payoffs and care little about ideological coherence. These agreements, as we have seen in SA, very seldom lead to effective or lasting governance.

Political scientists Michael Laver and Norman Schofield favour policy-oriented coalitions, arguing that when policy drives coalition building those whose policies are most effective end up directing the course of governance and lead to more effective access to office and power in the longer term.

Wanting the ANC out of office only to replace them with oneself is not a policy goal. It is hardly a compelling idea. Many voters demand more of parties and candidates seeking to form working coalitions than the obvious decline and expected demise of the ANC. A change in voting patterns must be preceded by a change in the quality of the voting options.

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