It is time to take coalition politics seriously
In a recent column, Max du Preez argued that “Right now, President Cyril Ramaphosa is South Africa’s best hope to stop the epidemic of cheap populism in our political culture. But that can only happen if his party achieves a convincing victory in next year’s election.” Du Preez went on to claim that “…if the ANC dips under 50% or even scrapes in just over half the votes next year, the populists will have a field day and the dream of a better life for all will once more be deferred.”
Du Preez’s column provoked furious criticism on social media, with many commenters questioning why he was unable to envision any alternatives to the ANC, which has so unequivocally demonstrated its inability to effectively govern South Africa. On Twitter, Du Preez responded to his critics by stating that “Nobody should get a free pass. Ever.
My column was about options, though.” A few hours later, he – presumably sarcastically – tweeted the following in response to an article by Mmusi Maimane, which pointed out that returning the ANC to power after decades of pillage would be a body blow to the country’s democracy: “Okay, then, let’s force the ANC below 50% of the vote. And afterwards have Julius Malema as our deputy president of a coalition government. Viva.”
For now, let’s leave aside other obvious flaws in his original argument, such as that rewarding the ANC with a bigger mandate after a decade of state capture could be a fatal mistake, and that only the ANC as a party – and not Cyril Ramaphosa – will be on the ballot next year. Instead, let’s examine the reasoning that leads Du Preez to conclude that a “convincing victory” for the ANC is really our only way forward.
Despite claiming that his column was about “options,” Du Preez was not giving readers the full picture. As emerged from his Twitter responses, he seems to assume that the choice confronting South Africa in the 2019 elections is a simple binary one: either (a) reelect the ANC with more than 50%, or (b) punish the ANC by pushing the party below 50%, in which case a national coalition government between the ANC and EFF is inevitable.
But those are only two out of the six realistic possibilities for 2019. Mathematically speaking and depending on the margins, if the ANC drops below 50% nationally next year, there will be four other coalition options that Du Preez entirely fails to mention: (c) an ANC-DA coalition, (d) a DA-EFF-opposition coalition, (e) an ANC-small party (like the UDM, IFP, ACDP etc.) coalition, (f) or a minority government like the ones that currently exist in Johannesburg and Tshwane.
The failure to envision the full range of possibilities once the ANC drops below 50% is symptomatic of how entrenched one-party dominance has become in South Africa’s political culture. Over the past nearly seven decades, South Africans have gotten used to the idea that there’s always a single dominant party in charge – first it was the National Party during apartheid, then came the hegemonic ANC in 1994.
But as support for the ANC wanes, South Africa’s proportional electoral system is asserting itself, and the country is entering a new era premised on multiparty coalition governments. This means that elections are no longer simply about deciding which single party will dominate the political scene. Instead, coalitions, by definition, open up multiple and ever-shifting possibilities for cooperation between different parties. While Du Preez is right that an ANC-EFF alliance is one realistic possibility – and that it would likely have devastating consequences for South Africa – once the ANC drops below 50%, any combination of parties that cobble together a new majority can take power.
For example: if the ANC drops to around 48% or 49%, it can reach the 50% threshold by simply working together with one or more small parties, like the UDM, IFP or ACDP. Such a situation is unlikely to bring about the doomsday scenario Du Preez envisions once the ANC drops below 50%, and it would already represent a massive victory for the country’s democracy that voters were prepared to punish the ANC.
Alternatively, if ANC support drops further – say, to 45% – the door would be open to the DA, EFF and other opposition parties to form a broad, new, governing coalition. This arrangement too would be unlikely to imperil the country’s future to the extent that Du Preez envisions under his ANC-EFF assumption. And there is no rule that prohibits an ANC-DA coalition, which is also unlikely to herald Du Preez’s coalition Armageddon.
The final option is that, with the ANC at 45%, South Africa could also get a minority government that excludes both the ANC and EFF. We have already seen this play out in Johannesburg and Tshwane, where the EFF decided not to constitute a formal coalition with either the ANC or DA, and instead elected the DA to the executive without giving it a legislative majority. In fact, given that this precedent exists and that South Africa is still far from building a productive coalition culture, a minority government may well be the most likely outcome if the ANC drops below 50%. Again, that option is unlikely to be as destructive as the ANC-EFF possibility.
Thus, any analysis that truly considers all options for 2019 should also examine coalition possibilities beyond the destructive ANC-EFF scenario. Instead of a simple choice between continued ANC looting and ANC-EFF carnage, next year’s election could also inaugurate a minority government with or without the ANC, an opposition coalition, an ANC-small party coalition, or even an ANC-DA coalition – all of which could be more effective than yet another limp and corrupt but domineering ANC single-party government. While voters will rightly have different opinions on the likelihood and potential effectiveness of each of these coalition scenarios, the point is that there are clearly more options than just Du Preez’s binary.
With six, rather than only two, different options on the table – up to four of which with the potential to at least marginally outperform the fatally compromised ANC single-party government – Du Preez’s conclusion that voters should give the ANC a “convincing victory in next year’s election” also falls flat.
It is misleading to only emphasize the danger of an ANC-EFF coalition while ignoring all other coalition options, and then using that inaccurate assumption to conclude that the country will only be better off by prolonging ANC dominance. While anyone is free to make an argument that an ANC-EFF coalition is the most likely possible outcome, it is disingenuous to portray is as the only possible outcome should ANC support drop below 50%.
Decades of single-party dominance has made it difficult for many South Africans to envision a truly competitive political arena where multiple different coalition combinations become viable. But given our proportional electoral system and as ANC support declines, coalitions are set to become the default form of government in South Africa, and it is time that we took coalitions seriously. To do that, we must look beyond decades of ANC single-party rule to envision the numerous new political possibilities that will emerge when South Africa becomes a coalition country.
Painting an ANC-EFF alliance as the only conceivable outcome of coalition negotiations post-2019 amounts to a scare tactic that will only serve to delay the consolidation of South Africa’s democracy.
Dr. Leon Schreiber is a political scientist and author of Coalition Country: South Africa after the ANC (Tafelberg).
Click here to sign up as a Politicsweb FC supporter.