NICHOLAS WOODE-SMITH: Only coalitions failing are those where ActionSA and ANC weigh in
Sabotage of agreements and smears of the DA only serve to boost the EFF and ANC
SA voters can be forgiven for growing despondent over the coalition governance project. With the governing coalitions in Johannesburg and now also Tshwane collapsing, the news is full of signs that SA may not be ready for coalition politics.
But this is untrue. We tend to focus on failed coalitions as they generate news and clicks. Yet there are far more examples of successful opposition-led coalitions than the notable failures. And these coalition-led municipalities far outperform their ANC counterparts.
Former Institute of Race Relations CEO Frans Cronje argues that for every failed coalition government there are about eight successful coalitions still chugging along. And while these coalition-led municipalities are far from perfect, they are clearly better than the alternative.
It is indisputable that the best-performing municipalities in SA are those run by the DA. Cape Town and other DA-run municipalities in the Western Cape have become synonymous with good governance. And it is clear that the stronger the DA’s hold over a municipality, the better it performs. But this doesn’t mean a municipality must be dominated by the DA or go bust.
Top of the Governance Performance index is Cape Agulhas, which is governed by a DA-led coalition. Swellendam, Bitou, Garden Route, Saldanha Bay, George and many other areas in the Cape are also led by a coalitions rather than outright DA majority councils. All are governed far better than ANC-led or dominated towns.
While it is easy to look at the infighting and breaking up of coalitions throughout SA and think the coalition project is not feasible, we must keep in mind all the silent success stories, and the alternative to coalition governments.
Municipalities governed by ANC majority councils consistently underperform and are marked by corruption, bad service delivery and the breakdown of infrastructure. Even tumultuous coalition-led municipalities such as Ekurhuleni tend to be better.
What is clear from comparing successful coalition-led municipalities with the failures is that the latter always appear to have two factors at play. The first is that the coalition contains too many smaller parties that are either directly aligned with the ANC or are susceptible to bribery. They are in effect ANC proxy parties. This could be seen in Johannesburg when the Patriotic Alliance helped to hand back control of the municipality to the ANC through an Al-Jama-ah mayor who will in effect act as an ANC puppet.
Many smaller parties do the ANC’s bidding in exchange for positions of power, or individuals are simply bribed. Even otherwise decent parties such as the ACDP have been affected when their officials go rogue and accept inducements to change their votes. This was seen in Johannesburg when two ACDP councillors went against their own party to vote out DA speaker Vasco da Gama in September.
Another common denominator in the collapse of coalitions is the presence of ActionSA, which has tended to spend more of its resources sabotaging its coalition partners, especially the DA, than growing its voter base or competing against the ANC. The party has been a primary cause of the instability and ultimate collapse of the coalitions governing the metros of Johannesburg, Ekurhuleni and Tshwane, and other smaller towns.
In Johannesburg ActionSA sabotaged the appointment of a decent city manager in favour of an EFF-backed candidate with a history of corruption. Later, it helped oust both the DA speaker and the mayor, fomenting distrust and conflict within the governing coalition. In Ekurhuleni the party pulled out of the coalition to become an opposition party, crippling the coalition.
In the Western Cape ActionSA wastes resources trying to battle the DA in its stronghold, resources that could be devoted to building branches in ANC areas where voters are clearly frustrated and need an alternative.
On a national level, the party keeps trying to paint the DA as betraying voters by aiming to go into coalition with the ANC after the 2024 elections. Yet through its sabotage of opposition coalitions and its vendetta against the DA it is ActionSA that has repeatedly boosted the ANC and EFF.
When the party should be working with the DA and its other coalition partners with the 2024 elections in mind, it would rather smear them and waste its resources in the slim chance of gaining some DA votes.
It is clear that for an opposition coalition to work, as many have done, it must not contain ActionSA or ANC proxy parties. There is a future for coalition politics in SA so long as bad actors are excluded, to prevent them from sabotaging coalitions from within.
• Woode-Smith is a political analyst, economic historian and author of the Kat Drummond Series.
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