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There is an absolutist streak in the behaviour of many SA opposition parties. While most opposition politicians seem to have accepted that coalitions are the future of SA politics, a few still seem married to the idea that they must defeat the ANC alone and become the sole governing party.

Even when parties do co-operate there is still an unhealthy level of bickering, sabotage and an insistence on securing more power — even if it is at the expense of the opposition as a whole. This needs to stop. As we approach the 2024 general elections it is becoming more important for the opposition to unite, co-operate and embrace joint efforts to oust the ANC and form a stable and competent government.

At the outset this requires that parties put aside their differences. For diametrically opposed parties such as the DA and EFF, this is clearly not possible. The EFF is in effect in opposition to both the government and the rest of the opposition. It is a radical, sometimes violent and extremist party that does not operate within reasonable bounds. But for parties such as the DA, FF+, COPE, ActionSA and others there is plenty of room for compromise, co-operation and even friendship.

Yet this hasn’t been the case. For instance, minority partners in the DA-led coalition in Johannesburg almost torpedoed the coalition in an attempted coup against the mayor in 2022, threatening to hand back control of the city to the party that destroyed it in the first place. ActionSA in particular appears to have a vendetta against the DA.

Common policy

Yet on paper the DA and ActionSA should be allies. There are a few policy differences, but the essential core of both parties is the same — free markets, good governance and the rule of law. Other parties embrace similar principles and could be included in the coalition. Joint policies and marketing could go a long way to aid the entire opposition.

But the opposition parties should do more than just work together on common policy. They must also be willing to step aside and give their allies easy victories when it means a stronger opposition as a whole. Opposition parties tend to be cash-strapped and short of manpower. Yet they almost always try to contest every constituency independently. It is ludicrous to expect to win when one’s focus is split across countless branches.

Instead of setting up branches in every locality, dividing resources to contest losing battles and causing animosity among themselves, parties should negotiate and compromise to divide constituencies and strongholds among themselves without contest.

This may leave a sour taste in the mouth of many ambitious politicians, but it is necessary. ActionSA is wasting an immense amount of time, resources and goodwill trying to oust the DA in the Western Cape, for instance. And the DA is fighting a lost cause trying to win over voters in Gauteng townships that are far more amenable to voting for ActionSA.

Parties should play to their strengths and identify constituencies by their demographics, desires, needs, crucial issues and existing party loyalties, and then appoint a member of the opposition alliance to contest that locality with little to no competition. This does not mean opposition parties must never contest the same elections. To win over diverse constituencies they will sometimes need to run against each other, but only to secure more votes than the ANC and less savoury parties.

The aim of this strategy is to allow parties to save resources on marketing, candidates and manpower. It also helps spread goodwill throughout the alliance when minority opposition party members end up helping another party in their locality win against the mutual enemy. Eliminating pointless clashes will help assuage conflict and reduce bad blood.

The difficulty of such a strategy, besides the political urge to dominate, is figuring out who gets what. In this case party officials will need to accept data from reputable polling agencies and think-tanks. SA has a wealth of resources and data parties can use not only to figure out where their time and money are best spent, but also what policies they should embrace not only to win votes but help SA achieve stability and prosperity.

It may be a difficult pill to swallow for some, but no opposition party will come to dominate this country alone in the future. Co-operation and compromise will be required. And parties will need to accept that sometimes the best thing to do is accept a loss on one stage, to achieve victory on another.

• Woode-Smith is a political analyst, historian and author of the soon-to-be-published ‘South Africa: Unconscious Empire’

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