Picture: TREVOR SAMSON
Picture: TREVOR SAMSON

In a recent editorial (Can parties learn from the Tshwane shambles? March 6), Business Day makes an important observation: “If coalitions are truly the future ... then there has to be a rethink about how it plays out.”

All parties understand that proportional representation systems tend towards coalition governments. The reason this took relatively long to emerge in SA is a result of the national dominance of the ANC during the early years of our democracy.

Sustained single-party dominance is rare in established democracies, and it is a good sign that this is receding in SA. However, unless we learn to govern through coalitions, we will end up with more governance chaos, which everyone knows SA cannot afford. Economic growth requires stability and policy certainty.

The first crucial point is that the DA-led government of Tshwane is not a coalition in the normal sense of the word. It is a minority governing coalition, which is the most difficult form of government to manage. It is always inherently unstable.

It is essential to understand the difference between a normal coalition and a minority coalition. To govern with any semblance of stability, a party (or combination of parties working together as a coalition) requires 50%-plus-one of the seats to govern.

Even then it is difficult to manage coalitions. But when various parties, following an election, cannot reach sufficient agreement to cobble together a 50%-plus-one combination, it becomes impossible to form a normal coalition, with a combined majority of seats. This is what happened in Tshwane after the 2016 local government election.

In such circumstances the parties that are prepared to work together, and that can command the most seats (even if this is not an overall majority), form a minority coalition. The unavoidable result is that the numbers in opposition are bigger than in government.

After the 2016 elections the DA was the biggest single party in Tshwane with 43.58% (93 of the council seats). The ANC, with 41.66% of the total votes, won 89 seats. Neither could form a government alone. The EFF emerged as the potential kingmaker. With 11.68% of the vote (25 seats), it could choose to form a majority coalition (above 50%) with either the DA or the ANC.

However, the EFF chose neither. It chose to remain in opposition and decide, on a case-by-case basis, which of the larger parties to support. This gave it enormous leverage that it used to significant effect. After announcing that the DA was the “lesser devil”, Julius Malema instructed the EFF caucus to abstain from voting for the executive mayor, allowing the DA’s candidate to win by default.

To shore up its numbers, the DA went into a coalition with the FF+ (four seats), the ACDP and COPE (one seat each). This coalition, while largely stable, did not reach 50%. And herein lay the rub. The DA-led coalition had to depend on the EFF, not only to help vote in a DA mayor, but crucially to pass a budget and to take other major decisions. Unsurprisingly, the EFF demanded its pound of flesh for its co-operation.

That proved to be our Achilles heel. For example, in November 2018, when the DA-led coalition resolved to suspend the then municipal manager amid an ongoing investigation into the procurement process of the GladAfrica contract — which was subsequently confirmed by the auditor-general to be irregular —  the EFF voted with the ANC to protect him. This was one of three attempts to suspend the municipal manager over a number of months that the ANC/EFF managed to derail.

This resulted in a stalemate lasting over seven months amid great instability. Eventually, in July 2019 the council struck a deal with the municipal manager to “part ways”  —  but the EFF has subsequently vetoed our attempt to fill the post with an appropriately qualified and experienced person.

So, the obvious question is: when we realised we could not hold senior staff to account for alleged corruption because the EFF refused to support us, why did we not walk out of government and go into opposition?

The answer to that question was that if we walk out, things will only get worse. The DA-led minority coalition will be replaced by an ANC-led minority government, which will result in far wider corruption. All things considered it is still preferable for Tshwane to have the DA rather than the ANC in government.

And indeed, the DA can point to a string of achievements, despite the shackles of the EFF. We stabilised the city’s finances (after finding it in near bankruptcy in 2016). We sold the mayoral mansion and used the proceeds to fund houses for the poor.

We cut the staff component in the mayor’s office. We eliminated political patronage in the allocation of jobs on the extended public works programme (EPWP). We started a specialised anti-drug unit in the metro police. Most recently, a new supply chain management policy was put in place to significantly clamp down on opportunities for irregular expenditure or fraudulent and corrupt activities. None of this would have been possible if we had given way to the EFF and ANC’s tactics.

Of course, Tshwane is not the first minority governing coalition the DA has led. In 2006, we came to power in Cape Town through a complex seven-party coalition in which we were also, initially, unable to achieve a majority. To win a council vote we had to depend on the single PAC councillor abstaining, in just the same way as we had to depend on the EFF 10 years later in Tshwane.

Our situation in Cape Town was equally tenuous. We could not afford a single person to stay away from a council meeting, or we stood to lose the vote. On one occasion a councillor was wheeled into the chamber from hospital to cast a crucial ballot.

Before long we were faced with a crisis. One of our coalition partners was making a manipulative attempt to control the tenders for the 2010 World Cup. As executive mayor, I decided that we would have to fire our coalition partner, with the result that we would lose power and go into opposition.

But our coalition was saved by the decision of Patricia de Lille’s Independent Democrats to join forces with us, rather than the ANC. The ID gave us a stable majority coalition, which enabled us to govern successfully till the end of our term in 2011.

Our successes in Cape Town paved the way for an outright victory in the provincial election of 2009, and eventually led to a two-thirds majority in the local government electoral surge of 2016.

In Tshwane, there was never a possibility of turning our minority coalition into a majority. In addition, it was inevitable that in the run-up to the 2021 municipal election our opponents would make things as difficult as possible. They could not afford to allow the DA to go into the 2021 poll “on a high”.

They have used our speaker as a pretext. Claiming she is biased (but having failed to prove this in court, and having lost a bid to oust her) the ANC and EFF have now resorted to walking out of council meetings to break the quorum, thus preventing any decisions from being taken.

As fate would have it, in this toxic brew our mayor resigned following a scandal relating to a secretly taped conversation and alleged tryst in his office with one of his mayoral committee members. As soon as there was a mayoral vacancy, the law requires the dissolution of the mayoral committee. And with a vacant post for city manager the top structure of government had been decimated.

The problem could easily be resolved if the ANC and EFF would merely fulfil their obligations by attending a council meeting and participating in an election for mayor and the appointment of a city manager. But they would rather continue to paralyse the government to provide a pretext for the ANC provincial MEC to put the city under administration, dissolve the council and call new elections.

We are resisting this with everything we have for two reasons. Firstly, we actually care about the people of Tshwane, and using the remaining 14 months in office to focus on the delivery plan that has been derailed so regularly. The second reason is equally important. Given the fact that finely balanced coalitions will increasingly become the norm, we cannot allow the ANC and other parties to use “ungovernability” tactics to seize power.

Back in 2006/2007 the ANC made many similar attempts to oust us from the government in Cape Town. We resisted every one successfully, including through the courts. We must do the same in Tshwane. However, it is true that we have inadvertently opened the door for the ANC/EFF’s strategy through our own errors of judgment in that city.

We have important lessons to learn. But as the only party that takes accountability seriously, we are doing the introspection needed to learn them. But this does not involve allowing the ANC to grab power through the back door. If the ANC succeeds, it will set a devastating precedent for the viability of coalition governments into the future.

• Zille is DA federal council chair