Since 2016, the debate on coalition government focused on their dysfunctionality, poor service delivery and instability. But coalition government is not the root cause of the decay in many municipalities.

Between 2000 and 2016, the number of municipalities that produced hung councils in the local government elections (LGEs) hovered between the high 20s and low 30s. This shifted dramatically in 2021, with 66 hung councils. Today, roughly one in every three municipalities is governed by a coalition and several polls suggest coalitions will emerge provincially and nationally after the May 29 general elections.

In our multi-party democracy, coalition politics must evolve organically. Parties need to strengthen ways of cooperating with each other by adopting a more mature approach to politics, that puts the public over the party’s narrow interests. As Prof Pierre de Vos said, “for as long as political parties believe they will get away with it, the squabble for positions will continue to dominate coalition politics in SA”.

What is needed is a fundamental change in political culture. Often, the cause of coalition breakdown or poor performance is because of the individuals involved, their egos and their pursuit for power.

Service delivery, accountable governance, human rights and the deepening of democracy must always be at the centre of political discussion. The laws and frameworks must be geared towards enabling our politics to better serve the public, not to strengthen the power of the political elite.

We must also be cautious of the obsession with “coalition stability”. Democracy must be able to function when there are changes in government. When a coalition collapses, there must be systems in place to ensure public service and administration continues unaffected.

There is consensus that after an election, when a coalition is formed, the parties make their agreement public. But knowing this before an election is far more powerful.

If a party can choose the coalition partners it wants post-election while compromising on its stated positions and policies, it undermines the voter.

The voter should be the most important element in this equation. As we approach May 29, My Vote Counts will write to all parties contesting the elections to demand information on their potential coalition arrangements. This is crucial information to vote from a more informed position and to properly exercise our political rights.

Over the past year, there has been a growing narrative emerging, predominantly from the governing ANC, that coalitions are a problem, arguing that having a single party in power is preferable. This is despite the ANC being in multiple coalitions at local level. Increasingly, it looks like the ANC will need to enter coalitions, in some provinces and even nationally, to maintain power.

Instead of laying the blame for governance failures on coalition government itself,we need to interrogate why coalitions don’t always function well, why they break down, why they don’t deliver. But all of this will be undermined if there is not a different approach to our politics, one premised on the public good.

Despite a flurry of action in 2023, ostensibly to develop some laws before 2024, nothing will happen before elections. Parties are too concerned with the electioneering.

As a legal framework is developed, we must not leave this solely to political parties, who will be more concerned with their own interests. But parties (and now independents) are meant to represent our interests. We can’t leave such an important part of our democracy solely in the hands of the political elite.

  • Joel Bregman  is a Senior Researcher at My Vote Counts


Originally published on the Sowetan