Home Opinion and Features OPINION: Coalitions a major impediment to stability, efficient service delivery

OPINION: Coalitions a major impediment to stability, efficient service delivery


With so many political parties and independent candidates, South Africa should brace itself for turbulence. Prospects for coalitions are high and service delivery will suffer, writes Professor Bheki Mngomezulu.

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By Professor Bheki Mngomezulu

THE MUSHROOMING of political parties poses a threat to democratic consolidation.

At the dawn of democracy in 1994, only 14 political parties contested the first democratic election. Currently, over 500 political parties are registered with the Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC). Of this number, over 300 parties are ready to participate in the forthcoming local government elections.

Moreover, no less than 1,700 independent candidates will participate in the elections. While it is true that these independent candidates do not constitute a homogeneous group, the majority of them claim that they want to address the concerns of the electorate, which cannot be addressed by the existing political parties.

This state of affairs is a concern to many South Africans, but unfortunately, nothing can be done to reverse the situation. Chapter 2, Section 19, sub-section (1)(a) of the Constitution states clearly that every South African citizen is free “to form a political party”. In the same vein, sub-section (3)(b) states that every adult citizen in South Africa has the right “to stand for public office and, if elected, to hold office”. Therefore, unless there is a constitutional amendment or a constitutional review, the current status quo will certainly continue unabated.

There are practices that are legally and constitutionally correct but make no political sense. Importantly, some of the practices defeat the very same purpose they aspire to achieve.

For example, when people form so many political parties as indicated above – with some contesting the election as independent candidates – they claim to have good intentions which are predicated on empathy for the electorate. There is nothing wrong with that. Unfortunately, these people fail to see the bigger picture. This is the picture to which I would like to draw the attention of the public.

Having so many political parties and independent candidates reduces the chances of political parties being able to win an election convincingly to be able to form a government on their own. This is attributed to the fact that some smaller parties (especially the new ones) as well as some independent candidates get votes which are not enough for them to obtain even a single seat. When this happens, it is tantamount to throwing such votes into the dustbin because they do not benefit anyone.

This results in political parties being forced to form coalitions in order to be able to govern. Lessons from the 2011 and 2016 local government elections show that South Africa is not ready for coalitions. The ANC and the DA can attest to that. In fact, the African continent in general is not ready for coalitions. Nigeria and Kenya tried this but their coalitions had a short lifespan. There are many other examples which buttress this assertion in the context of Africa in general.

In the main, coalitions fall under two categories. These are: pre-election and post-election coalitions. Of the two, pre-election coalitions are better in that politicians are able to find common ground before they finalise their election manifestos. They are also able to negotiate upfront how they would allocate positions in the event that they emerge victorious in the election. Of course, things change once the elections are over but the damage is somewhat better with this type.

Post-election coalitions are worse. They are dictated by the election outcome and are not pre-meditated. These are coalitions of convenience. What makes them unworkable is the fact that they are based on totally different manifestos.

Negotiating these manifestos in an attempt to find common ground is difficult. The challenge is compounded by the human capital. It is not easy to agree how many people will be taken from each party to deploy into leadership positions. This is due to the fact that all parties have their own lists. There are heightened expectations from those who appear on the list. When they are sacrificed to create space for their counterparts, this marks the beginning of in-fighting.

Coalitions are unworkable. Having a hung municipality could mean that the majority party needs only one seat to run the municipality. The party or independent candidate which provides that seat has more bargaining power.

This could mean demanding to be a deputy mayor. When the winning party accedes to this demand, intra-party/intra-coalition squabbles ensue. The electorate’s democratic voice is silenced. The electorate become innocent victims as service delivery plans are derailed. In worse case scenarios, politicians kill one another for positions. Potential and capable leaders exit the stage fearing for their lives. In the process, incompetent people assume power and govern by an iron fist.

With so many political parties and independent candidates, South Africa should brace itself for turbulence. Prospects for coalitions are high and service delivery will suffer. The 2011 and 2016 local government elections have shown that South Africa is not ready for coalitions!

* Professor Bheki Mngomezulu is a professor of political science and deputy dean of research at the University of the Western Cape.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the DFA.


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