Following this year’s local government elections, the question everyone wants answered is who is going to end up controlling the four hung metros. No single party gained a majority in Tshwane, the City of Joburg, Ekurhuleni or Nelson Mandela Bay, meaning that different parties are going to have to come together to govern.
Speaking at a PSG Wealth investment seminar in Somerset West on Thursday, Prof Dirk Kotzé from the department of political sciences at Unisa, noted that while most attention is being paid to these four metros, the country shouldn’t ignore the other 23 hung councils that will also need to be ruled by coalitions. This will have to happen in places ranging from Modimolle in Limpopo to Witzenberg in the Western Cape.
He also pointed out that while a lot of the talk of coalition politics makes it sound like this is a new experience for the country, it is not an untested phenomenon at local government level. After the last local government elections in 2011 there were 19 coalitions formed across the country. The only previous time that a coalition has governed a metro council, however, was when the DA led such an agreement in Cape Town in 2006.
Can coalitions be stable?
What makes this year’s negotiations particularly interesting, however, is that South African politics has effectively become a three-party system. Despite the number of smaller parties that contested the election and the few that won seats in various councils, there are only three that have any meaningful representation.
“There are now three dominant parties in South Africa,” Kotzé said. “Many other parties took part, but at the end of the day, only the ANC, the DA and the EFF won more than 5% of the vote.”
This means that for the most part, forming coalitions will be about consolidating power, rather than distributing it. Even where smaller parties are involved, these three parties will really decide how the coalitions are shaped.
Kotzé believes that this means that coalition politics will not lead to the instability that many people are concerned about. He argues that actually the opposite is more likely.
“The dynamics of the negotiations taking place at the moment are such that even though there are a lot of options, there is really only one meaningful option, which is the DA and the EFF,” he said. “And when there aren’t alternatives, that forces parties to work together, no matter how different they might be.”
He pointed to the example of the current so-called “grand coalition” in Germany, between the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats. These are the two biggest parties in the country and traditional rivals at the polls, but with no genuine alternative after the inconclusive election in 2013 they were forced to work together.
This also happened before in Germany in 2005, and in both cases has resulted in a high degree of stability.
“Through all the problems in Europe, that coalition has remained constant,” Kotzé said. “And I think something similar will happen in Tshwane and Joburg.”
He also suggested that such a coalition would be likely to result in a more inclusive government.
“The ANC was meant to be inclusive, but it became elitist,” Kotzé argued. “They were meant to represent a whole spectrum of people, but more and more have come to only represent themselves.”
Since the DA and the EFF come from different political positions and have very different support bases, a coalition between them will be forced into an inclusive approach as it would have to meet the demands of both constituencies.
Where does this leave the ANC?
If the DA and the EFF agree to terms that see them taking control of three or even all four of the hung metros, that would be a significant blow to the ANC. It would mean that the party ruling at national level would have been displaced in most of the country’s urban centres.
There has already been a lot of talk within the ANC of analysing its loss of support and rectifying what went wrong. On Thursday former director general in the presidency, Reverend Frank Chikane, went so far as saying that the party needs to press “the reset button” and rid itself of corrupt officials or face the potential of losing power at national level within the next two elections.
“If they don’t change, unfortunately, and continue on this trajectory into 2017, they will lose provinces and will lose a national election,’’ Chikane said.
However, Kotzé believes that it will be incredibly difficult for the ANC to self-correct from its current position.
“The question is how does it reinvent itself while it’s in power,” he said. “I believe that’s almost impossible. I’m not aware of any historical example of it happening where a party that was in power was able to reverse a pattern. Big parties first have to go into opposition before they are able to restructure themselves.”
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