An almighty groan will probably greet this headline. The watershed 2021 election has resulted in a South African government falling to below 50% of the support for the first time in almost a hundred years and long before the new democratic dispensation. Even 73 years ago, in 1948, when the National Party defeated the United Party, the UP still had a majority of votes but lost on the constituency count.
Fascinating new combinations of control in towns and cities throughout the country are about to be tested – local government is in crisis and many, many councils are dysfunctional. The new administrations face major challenges and it remains to be seen whether local government will improve or whether it will deteriorate further. The economic situation and ghastly unemployment figures certainly complicate the whole scene.
What is certain, however, is that the ANC has suffered major setbacks; some would say irreparable harm. The ANC has proved to be an abject failure at governing and is no better in opposition. Cape Town and the Western Cape provide examples of where the ANC, once ejected from office, seems unable to get its act together. It continues losing voter support and some observers might comment that the ANC is simply not up to the job of holding an administration to account.
Given all of this, it seems clear – at least at this stage – that in 2024 it is perfectly reasonable to expect that the ANC will not reach the 50% threshold. No other party, from the DA down, is likely to grow to the extent that it could take over on its own as a majority government. That means there will be a coalition government for South Africa after 2024.
The outcome of the local government elections and the people elected carry an enormous responsibility. They must show that they can bring decent government and service delivery at their level. If that works, not necessarily perfectly, but in most places somewhat better than what we have become used to, then the voters will warm to the idea of coalition government.
The million-dollar question is: which parties will be part of the coalition government? The DA is a party of principle and so are many of the other parties. Some are not compatible: the DA and the EFF stand diametrically opposed to each other. They pursue different visions: the DA is a non-racial party, supporting the Constitution, the Rule of Law, a social market economy. The EFF is a racial nationalist party; it opposes important parts of the Constitution, does not much care about the Rule of Law and has a socialist economic agenda inherited from failed European experiments a century ago. Is it possible for the EFF and the DA to work together?
Some journalists have hailed Julius Malema as a tactical genius for surprising everyone and voting for DA candidates for Mayor and Speaker. Malema has articulated his overriding principle: removing the ANC from power. Some have forgotten that it is not even fourteen days ago that Malema and his party were negotiating with the ANC. He proposed that they should “give” Herman Mashaba the Johannesburg mayoralty; The ANC should be “given” Ekurhuleni and the EFF should be “given” Tshwane. Note that there was no reference to principle: sweets would be dished out, never mind the voters and how they had voted. It was only when the ANC declined because of other conditions imposed by Malema that he suddenly discovered his unbreakable principle and saved face by voting for the DA.
Despite this, it may well be necessary to find some way of co-operating in the interests of the cities and towns. This will have to be done everywhere where the leading party does not have an overall majority. John Steenhuisen has made it clear that the DA will not permit itself to be blackmailed. If it has to, the DA will go into opposition rather than permit a party such as the EFF to hold it to ransom. Skilful handling of all parties and a willingness to negotiate budget and other issues will not be a sign of weakness; on the contrary, in the coalition era that is upon us, it will be absolutely necessary to do so.
There is a precedent for the DA and the ANC to cooperate on budgetary matters. A year ago, after extensive negotiation between the parties and agreement on some priorities, the DA surprised the public and voted for the ANC budget in Johannesburg. The DA did not vote against for the sake of opposing; let’s see if the ANC will now be big enough to do likewise. What they do in Johannesburg and elsewhere may well prove highly significant for the looming change of government at national level and determine whether there is a place for at least a remnant of the ANC.
It is the measure of success that is attained at local government in showing improved governing standards that may well determine the success or failure of the next government of the country. The question arises: are parties going to allow their dislike and rejection of the failed ANC to determine our future or are they going to be prepared, without sacrificing principle, to negotiate sensible, practical guidelines for multi-party government?
The time to start thinking about a new government for South Africa is not after the 2024 election. It is now. The time is ripe for the formation of an overarching coalition of parties, each of which will retain its own special character but which will cooperate with several other parties in fighting the election and form a credible alternative government for our country.
This article first appeared in News24
[i] Douglas Gibson is a former opposition chief whip and a former ambassador to Thailand. His website is douglasgibsonsouthafrica.com His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org