Coalitions are a bottleneck

Mugabe Ratshikuni on the lessons of local govt post-2016

Coalitions are a bottleneck

19 August 2019

The 2016 local government elections introduced a novel dynamic into South African politics with coalition politics becoming a prominent feature within the local government terrain. Looking at the perilous state of the City of Johannesburg, with the municipality in financial shambles and service delivery at an all time low, one wonders if the outcome did indeed enhance democracy from the perspective of the ordinary citizen.

The give and take nature of coalition politics has seemingly introduced a state of paralysis when it comes to decision-making and stability within our municipalities which has had a negative impact on service delivery, as our municipalities are even failing to deliver services at a basic level, such as waste collection and maintenance of basic infrastructure.

These bipartisan political arrangements which are not based on any ideological congruence or a sound political programme, but rather on convenience and expediency have had a disastrous impact on the quest to materially improve the lives of ordinary citizens. They reinforce the point highlighted by political scientist, Professor Mark L. Haas when he states that, “a number of key historical and contemporary cases demonstrate how difficult it is for ideological enemies to overcome the impediments to alignment created by their ideological differences.”

Can a proper political programme be executed when there is no ideological alignment within a governing coalition? In fact, within the contemporary political realm, does ideology in and of itself even matter or are we just caught up in an irreversible race to the bottom with catastrophic entropy levels being the new norm and the interests of the political elite trumping those of the public? It would then appear that these coalition arrangements that are a result of the 2016 local government elections are themselves a bottleneck to service delivery and good governance.

In his widely read book, The Goal, business management guru Eliyahu M. Goldratt postulates that the “capacity of any manufacturing plant is equal to the capacity of its bottlenecks”, and his thinking has been used to deal with organisational inefficiencies at various societal levels the world over. One wonders how this principle itself would find expression at the local government level where the politics of coalitions, with all the wheeling and dealing involved behind the scenes have proven to be a huge hindrance to quality service delivery.

If anything, what we have witnessed at a local government level since 2016 is evidence of the fact that promoting political pluralism within a society does not necessarily equate to strengthening democracy, especially when such pluralism does not enhance or promote a people-centred ethos within the body politic. After all, the positive enhancement of the lived experiences of the governed should be the ultimate end goal of democratic politics, not the protection of the interests of an oligarchic political elite, which is what we are currently witnessing through our coalitions at municipal level in South African politics.

Perhaps going forward, without necessarily degenerating to a winner-takes-all, first-past-the-post politics, we need to ensure that we give an individual political organisation a decisive electoral mandate to go and implement their political programme and then based on the scorecard set for themselves through their manifesto, we can then determine whether they are worthy of still governing us after every five year term has ended. This in my perspective, would produce greater political accountability than the chaos that coalition politics are producing at municipal level as things stand.

So, as we move towards local government elections in 2021 and beyond, we need to become more decisive as an electorate and then through that create better conditions to hold our public representatives accountable. It is after all, the indecisiveness of the electorate as well which produced the inconclusive results of the 2016 local government elections, which have led to this unwanted phenomenon of coalition politics and the resultant state of inertia, that we find our municipalities caught in.

Mugabe Ratshikuni works for the Gauteng provincial government; he is an activist with a passion for social justice and transformation. He writes here in his personal capacity.