Ahead of the 2024 elections, debate about coalition governments and their effect on political stability is proliferating because the ANC appears to be at risk of losing its majority of voter share both nationally and locally. We can therefore expect to see an increase in the number of coalition governments being formed at the local, provincial and national government levels in the 2024-2029 election cycle.

Many citizens and analysts have reservations about the prospect of a national coalition government because of political instability and poor service delivery that has occurred under previous coalition governments at local government level. The horse-trading and logrolling for political positions have also, ironically, undermined the democratic process that is meant to underpin governance. Most prominent among these failures are the cases of Tshwane, Johannesburg, and Nelson Mandela Bay metros. These negative experiences have also contributed to a growing mistrust of democracy among South Africans.

But some of this scepticism is fuelled by misconceptions and misinformation about coalitions. One key misconception concerns confusion as to what coalition governments are and how they work in the South African context.

A coalition government is a unique form of government where two or more political parties work together to form a governing body. This type of government arises when no single political party can secure a majority of the votes (50% or more) during an election. Political parties are therefore required to work together to secure and maintain this majority in government. Although the type of coalition government can vary from formal agreements to informal ones, underpinning all types of coalition governments is the political necessity for compromise and cooperation.

Theoretically, coalitions ensure that the government has a more diverse group of political parties, which means there are more interests represented. Political scientists often see this as a sign of a democracy maturing, rather than a move away from democratic processes. It signifies that a broader range of perspectives and experiences are being considered when making decisions. In cases where political accountability is normalised, this can lead to more equitable and effective governance.

Coalitions are relevant to South Africa’s democracy because of its electoral system of proportional representation (PR): political parties are represented in government according to their proportion of the votes received in an election. They attain a certain number of seats in parliament or councils based on the percentage of votes they win at the polls. Proportionate systems are generally less likely to produce majority governance for one party because of the “votes equal seats” method. While the ANC’s historical dominance has mitigated this tendency of PR systems since 1994, the governing party’s decline, as depicted in the graphic, is playing into this pattern.

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Despite their potential, coalitions have not been functioning effectively, especially over the last five years. One explanation for this failure is that coalitions are not suitable in the South African context. However, this argument overlooks the historical context in which coalitions exist and operate in the country.

Contrary to an ahistorical view of coalitions, which suggests coalition governments are a new phenomenon, coalition governments have been a key part of South Africa’s democratic history since 1994. The first democratic election saw a national coalition government between the ANC, Inkatha Freedom Party and the National Party. Even though the ANC had won a majority in 1994, they formed a coalition to build national cohesion and promote the spirit of cooperation and compromise.

This approach of building coalitions out of goodwill for the improvement of the country continued after the 1999 election. The ANC still worked with other political parties across ideological lines, with cabinet positions being given to members of other political parties. Thus, despite the move away from a formal coalition government, there is a precedent for national-level coalitions in South Africa. However, this precedent was created while the ANC was in a position of strength and moral authority.

The history of coalition government goes beyond national government as well, with several municipalities demonstrating successful coalition governments. The first local elections in democratic South Africa saw 29 coalition governments, with an increase in coalition governments at that level ever since. Some of these coalition governments have been successful at carrying out their service delivery mandate in particular.

If coalitions have been a key part of South Africa’s democracy, with some coalition governments even succeeding, why then have they not been working, on average, at a local level recently?

Political scholars and commentators have identified several reasons for the failure of coalitions, especially in metros. These include weak leadership, inability to identify common ground, and political interference in administration. But one contributing factor not discussed enough is that some political parties struggle to be good-faith coalition partners.

Coalition governance requires cooperation and compromise. Despite the rise in local coalition governments after the 2016 local election, political parties have sometimes struggled to shift from being merely oppositional (and competing to remove the ANC from power) to being governance partners.

From 2004 to 2016, the ANC was dominant in both national and local government. This led to a political culture where opposition parties focused on removing the ANC from power, while the ANC tried to maintain its majority. This created a problem for coalitions, because political parties had become used to using tactics that prioritised removing the majority party rather than improving the lives of citizens. Politics was often reduced to blame game tactics, negative campaigning and undermining other parties. Even with the shift towards coalition governments, this political culture has remained static, resulting in the same tired tactics employed in coalitions.

For example, the Democratic Alliance appears to have taken this approach towards coalitions by aiming to remove the ANC or Economic Freedom Fighters from senior positions in councils. This may have come at the expense of their own coalitions’ ability to provide stable and effective governance for citizens. This can alter the goal of coalitions from working together to improve the lives of citizens to gaining political power.

Similarly, the ANC may have used its coalition partners to stay in power but paid less attention to whether such arrangements were efficacious. This undermines the coalition government and hurts the ability of local government to deliver on its constitutional mandate.

This shows that for coalition governments to work, political parties need to ensure their interests centre on improving the lives of citizens. But it also means that the political system needs to change to account for coalitions, as features of the current system can encourage this kind of tit-for-tat politics.

Coalitions work when there is strong party leadership, which ensures that party members can work together and identify areas of cooperation and compromise. Strong leadership also enables the crafting of a comprehensive coalition framework to ensure accountability and oversight across all levels of government. Such a framework provides concrete guidelines and parameters for coalition partners to foster a political culture that works more optimally.

This will help rebalance coalition governments to focus on citizens’ well-being and not on simply gaining political power. Coalition agreements also need to be made public to ensure mechanisms that encourage accountability. Representative democracy requires participation from all sectors of society, most importantly citizens. Having public coalition agreements will go a long way towards ensuring that coalition governments are more accountable to voters.

This article first appeared in the Mail & Guardian on 5 December 2023.

Stuart Morrison is a Data Analyst Intern within the Governance Insights and Analytics Team. He is currently completing his Master’s degree in e-Science at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. His thesis is focused on exploring the relationship between early elections and the propensity for political violence. Stuart also has a keen interest in applied data science and aspires to use his skills as a data scientist and researcher to help address some of the key security and governance issues across the African continent.