Coalitions and consequences - Polity

Mar 29, 2023
With worsening power cuts, poor service delivery, low economic growth, high unemployment, and no sense of direction coming from government cutting deep into ANC support, it is almost certain that to stay in power after next year’s national elections, the ANC will have to form a coalition with other parties.
Coalitions and consequences - Polity

Jonathan Katzenellenbogen

With worsening power cuts, poor service delivery, low economic growth, high unemployment, and no sense of direction coming from government cutting deep into ANC support, it is almost certain that to stay in power after next year’s national elections, the ANC will have to form a coalition with other parties.

That means big changes lie ahead in South African politics. In a coalition the ANC will have less power over patronage and will hence lose further influence. Getting things done in a coalition might be difficult as everything has to be negotiated with partners. And governments might be unstable.

The ANC’s slide may be steeper than anticipated, although in the past it has shown a tendency to come back in strength just on the eve on an election. Last month a poll conducted by an unidentified organisation leaked to Sunday newspaper Rapport showed ANC support at only 37 percent. This is the ANC’s poorest showing in a poll in the run-up to next year’s elections.

ANC-dominated coalitions

For at least the next five years after the 2024 election we are highly likely to have ANC-dominated coalitions. Should the ANC fall short by around five to ten percent, it is highly likely that it could patch together a coalition with a few small parties to give it a majority in the National Assembly.

If the ANC’s share of the vote were to drop to below 35 percent it would certainly require additional help. While fragmentation of the vote may continue in 2024, it is unlikely that the smaller parties willing to come over to the ANC would have exceeded much beyond ten percent. Support to meet that sort of size of a gap will have to come from the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF).

Recent polls show that the EFF may have peaked at around the eleven percent of the vote that it obtained in the 2019 election. So, if the ANC vote drops steeply next year it will have to go far and wide for support.

If the ANC falls by only a few points short of a majority, the smaller parties it draws upon for support will not be in a position to make heavy demands for ministerial and other better-paying positions. Any governing party would prefer to keep these jobs in the fold as a source of patronage. Therefore, for the ANC after the 2024 election a deal with the EFF would be a second-best solution.

That is the deal that attracts the most speculation and trepidation. They are unlikely to have signed a deal on this so far ahead of the election. But it might be one outcome if the ANC needs a coalition. However, there has been speculation that in exchange for delivering the three Gauteng Metros of Johannesburg, Tshwane, and Ekurhuleni back to the ANC, EFF Commander-in-Chief Julius Malema will be made Deputy President when new Deputy President Paul Mashatile is brought in to replace Cyril Ramaphosa.

We still have around a year to go before an election and a lot can happen before then, so this might be too big a deal to make at this stage. Nevertheless, the point that parties will bargain on every point and trade favours as part of a coalition arrangement is well taken.

But what if the ANC runs a minority government because it cannot form a coalition with a sufficient majority in Parliament. It might have a “confidence and supply” arrangement rather than a formal coalition, where smaller parties support budgets and votes of confidence on a case-by-case basis.

But what if it does not have the support to get laws passed? To what extent will the President be able to use proclamations and administrative law to pursue his agenda? In that case, the Constitutional Court could have the final say on many of these proclamations.

Grand coalition

Is an ANC deal with the Democratic Alliance possible?

Many European countries with proportional representation systems have essentially two basic coalition choices – one on the right and one on the left. In time, South Africa may be no different.

The DA would do itself immense damage by doing a deal with the ANC, as it positions itself as an anti-ANC party. The only circumstances under which it would be rational for the DA to form a coalition with the ANC would be to keep the EFF out of power. But even then it would have to give this very hard thought and ensure transparency in its dealings with the ANC, and a watertight agreement to show its doubters.

The question could arise as to what the DA would do in the event of an ANC split. Would it form a coalition with an ANC faction? Stranger things have happened. The old National Party went to die in the hands of the ANC.

The DA has ruled out participating in coalitions with the EFF. But strange things do happen in coalition politics. It is bizarre that in Johannesburg, the EFF initially voted in council for the DA Mayor, Mpho Phalatse, after the 2021 election. The EFF did this to thwart the ANC’s bid to rule the city. The EFF did not have positions on the Mayoral Committee, as they were not part of the coalition.

The DA needs to make strong electoral gains to become an anchor party in a coalition at national level. What might strengthen the chance of a DA coalition is that as the ruling party declines, fewer smaller parties might want to join an ANC-led coalition. The parties that are likely members of a DA coalition are the African Christian Democratic Party, the Freedom Front Plus, and the Inkatha Freedom Party. All usually vote with the DA in Parliament. And ActionSA might also be part of this arrangement, despite the current rancour between the two. In ten years or so, a DA-anchored coalition cannot be ruled out.

New terrain

Coalitions at all three levels of government – national, provincial, and local – will amount to new terrain for our politics.

Smaller parties might rise and fall by the coalitions that they choose to enter. Parties that vote with the ANC will find difficulty in distancing themselves from the ANC at election times. Voters will increasingly look to what coalition their party will join.

Coalition politics will also mean parties are more likely to split apart. There will be fewer posts for the ANC to hand out and that means greater competition and tensions in the party. And as people struggle to get on a list they might just start their own parties.

Coalitions will also mean that minority parties could force major parties into doing things to save their coalition and remain in power, although the policies do not have majority support. That could well push the ANC into dangerous policies as it increasingly struggles to stay in power. Being part of a coalition means a party like the EFF would have to assert itself to show their supporters that they have not given all away.

There is also an opportunity that could emerge from a coalition. Although it is a long way off, a reform non-ANC non-EFF coalition could ultimately emerge from coalition chaos.

Jonathan Katzenellenbogen is a freelance journalist and a weekly columnist for the Daily Friend. This article was commissioned by the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), a liberal think tank that encourages public debate and promotes economic and political freedom. Go to

Coalitions and consequences - Polity

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