‘We must get adults into the room who will focus on issue- and policy-driven coalitions, rather than position- and deal-making coalitions’
Coalitions are here to stay in South Africa, and are an organic result of our multiparty democracy, but their success depends upon a number of factors, including the quality of their participants. Our Constitution may lack sufficient provision for managing coalitions effectively, and to ensure they work, South Africans must become more involved in the political process to ensure that the people they elect are held accountable.
These and other topics emerged in a Twitter Spaces/ X Talk, held as part of the Kagiso Trust’s #RadicalCollaboration Local Governance Campaign Series, which aims to drive meaningful discussions and encourage the public to become active participants in addressing the challenges faced by municipalities nationwide.
Moderator Khaya Sithole introduced the topic — the impact of coalition governments on service delivery — and the panellists. In 2021 we all became aware of the fact that coalition governments were becoming a definite feature in the South African political landscape, said Sithole, but, he asked, is it a good thing to have so many people saying that they are in charge?
Democracy Governance Expert Tessa Dooms said that coalitions are a natural progression in our political setup, because we are a multi-party democracy, with proportional representation at local level, and “we need to get comfortable with the idea that we have created a context for the sharing of power in the way we want to be governed”. It’s actually an anomaly that one party has dominated the political sphere, and it was inevitable that we got here, she added. There have always been many parties in our parliament, and now this has entered our governance field. Coalitions are nothing to be alarmed about. Everybody should participate in a democracy and all voices should be heard.
The instability, which is a problem in our coalitions, is due to the quality of our politicians, said Dooms. The party brand is what people have been voting for, not the people. Many of our politicians are fickle and make decisions without consultation. Our bureaucracy should be stable enough to counteract this phenomenon, but it isn’t.
Paul Smith, Kagiso Trust’s Local Government Support Head, said he has been visiting municipalities, some of which are functional, some not. Those that are working well are due to strong leadership and management, regardless of the political parties they fall under. The councillors and administrators must understand their responsibilities and stay in their channel. When there is strong oversight, then competent staff are appointed and maintained. There are rules, but we have a “people problem”: we tend to elect people who have bad intentions, and then administrators can become puppets for politicians. We have to vote politicians into power who are actually focused on empowering communities.
Dooms said that mayoral teams tend to be highly political, and are appointed or fired regardless of their competencies. A delicate balance needs to be maintained: in 1994 the ANC agreed to power sharing, and members of the Cabinet came from different political parties, in order to create a balance, and a government of national unity. In eThekwini, some of the mayoral team members who were elected were not based on the mayor’s desires. The governance group should be as diverse as possible.
Smith spoke about the “domino effect” that can happen when there are changes at the political level; there needs to be robust administrations in order to resist this, and those who are elected must have strong moral fibre. The councillor space is usually strongly contested due to high levels of unemployment; for some, rendering a town ungovernable is part of their daily work. There are also coalitions within coalitions at times, with competing interests. Where coalition municipalities are not working, communities must become involved to ensure that they work for them.
What happens to execution of budgets when there are political shuffles, asked Sithole? Dooms said the passing of a budget is a matter of line items at municipal level, and its implementation is one of political will and oversight. There are many levels of oversight, from Cabinet to provincial to municipal. The job of a politician is to act as an activist on behalf of society, to make sure that the work that needs to get done is actually done, and he or she must respond to people’s demands. However, many of our politicians don’t respond to what the people say and blame their mistakes on the bureaucrats.
The issue of accountability
The councillors must ensure that the mayoral committee does its job, and vice versa, but the dynamic we often see is that the mayoral committee wields all the power. This also happens at a higher level, where the president is all powerful, and not held accountable by parliament. Civil society should also hold politicians to account; the easiest way for this to happen is if ward councillors answer to the will of the people. They should be staying in their ward, and should be listening to their constituents, not the political parties they represent. Many countries have a recall policy, so if a councillor is not doing their job, they can be recalled, but South African doesn’t.
“The problem with our country is that there is a lack of accountability, and we have to fix that, at every level, in order to have better governance, particularly when it comes to coalitions,” said Dooms.
Speaker Joseph Mofe agreed, and said ward councillors often don’t do what they are elected to do. He said that the ANC also tends to disrupt coalitions so they can’t get anything done.
Dooms said she doesn’t think that there is enough provision in our Constitution for managing coalitions effectively. She said there are a number of loose ends: who is responsible for ensuring that a coalition is working properly? What happens if a person within one is not doing their job? What recourse is there when participants do not abide by the agreements that their coalitions are based upon? How do we formulate coalitions — what minimum thresholds are required for them to exist? When someone is not doing their job, who fires them, and what happens when someone is fired because of political motivations?
We need politicians who have the ability to negotiate in coalitions, not disrupt them, said Dooms, and this includes negotiation with your constituents. South Africans must remember that they have “hired” their political representatives, and they must do their job and report back, but here we just turn our backs on those we have elected until the next five years have elapsed. We must ask those we elected, what are you doing with my vote?
Mzwanele Mayekiso, Author of Township Politics said the concept of coalition governments is a “crisis for South Africa”. They destabilise governance, and have done so since they became implemented here. They may work in developed economies, but not here. There is at times “elite pacting” in coalitions without the prerequisite votes, which results in parties with only 1% of the votes heading up major constituencies, and chaos follows. In Nelson Mandela Metro, for instance, there has been no proper administration because no party stays in power for more than a few months at a time. This can demotivate voters, if they see that their votes don’t count; the party with the most votes should be in power.
Dooms contested this, and said that coalitions are the outcome of elections — you can’t say they are “bad” or “good”. Buffalo City Metro, for example, has a majority party in power, and it is in tatters, even though it has tacit political stability. “A coalition means that everyone’s vote counts equally; this is the beauty of our democratic system.”
Moderator Khaya Sithole
Smith said coalitions are here to stay. We should have more independent candidates, who are closer to the people. We have to find people who are ethical, who have the right intent. We need cohesive communities, who are taking back their agency and holding councillors to account. This requires collaboration, oversight, and working with local governments.
Dooms said we must get adults into the room who will focus on issue- and policy-driven coalitions, rather than position- and deal-making coalitions. The quality of our politicians must be higher, and coalitions must make their strategies clearer.
For more Kagiso Trust Twitter Spaces talks, click here.