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Can we all get along? South Africa’s G-6 Grand Municipal Coalition

On December 15th, 2021, six South African opposition political parties announced a grand coalition at municipal level.  The development has gone almost totally unnoticed by the public, in no small part owing to the virtual mainstream media blackout of this news story.  For the better part of the past two years an endless cavalcade of analysists who cover south Africa have argued that coalitions are the future of South African politics.  Perhaps coalitions may be, but few of those analysts bother to delve into the challenges and failures of coalition governments historically or contemporaneously.  While coalitions at municipal level can work, the few examples we have in South Africa after the 2016 elections have been far from impressive or successful (Nelson Mandela Bay, Johannesburg, Tshwane). 

Now the Democratic Alliance (DA), ActionSA, Freedom Front Plus (VF+), African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP), Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and the Congress of the People (COPE) have banded together in a grand G-6 municipal coalition to ensure the African National Congress (ANC) does not gain control of 22 cities where, following the November 2021 municipal elections there is no outright majority party.  Their stated intent is to unseat the ANC in 2024 national elections by working together today.  Ruling coalitions can work, especially at municipal level where service delivery is a tangible, daily example of governance which voters can easily identify.  But coalitions require a genuine desire to govern, overcoming egos and most importantly, a coalition leaves little room for a smaller, junior partner to stand out, shine or grow.  Afterall, what can you show as an accomplishment?  That your party was a small voice in a grand coalition of many?

While the DA/ActionSA/VF+/ACDP/IFP/COPE G-6 coalition is an intriguing one, perhaps we should hold off on excitement for the moment.  At national level, coalitions, which many South African pundits proclaim is the future of SA politics, can be disastrous.  For example, Italy has had 66 governments in the past 75 years since World War II ended.  This has resulted in sclerotic, ineffective, and fragile governance, hardly a desirable future for SA.  But even if we assume this six-party coalition is the future, let us not get too excited just yet.  After the 2021 elections the ANC still controls outright 122 of the 209 metros and municipalities reported by the IEC; down from 167 in 2016.  While the ANC lost control of 45, this is still 58 percent of the country’s municipalities.  The main opposition DA party also lost ground, dropping from 19 to control only 12 municipalities in November.  The small ground the IFP picked up going from six to nine is not significant outside of the party’s provincial stronghold in Kwa-Zulu Natal.  The 21 cities which the opposition DA and IFP control represent only 10 percent of the total municipalities in the country.

Do not be fooled into thinking any of these political parties wanted a grand coalition.  No doubt the DA expected to retain what they won in 2016 and make inroads against the ANC elsewhere.  ActionSA and the VF+ clearly did have their sights set on a role as kingmaker in DA coalitions (despite the rhetoric parties tossed about during the brief election campaign).  But the DA’s poor showing meant it did not get enough of the vote necessary in many municipalities (40-50 percent) to make a two-party coalition (far more practical than six parties) possible.  In essence, the G-6 have no choice but to iron out their differences and work together.

Thirty-two percent of the municipalities need coalition governments, otherwise the provincial government must intercede.  Consequently, coalitions were a NECESSITY, not a desire for the G-6.  Still, this is an important development.  It certainly gives the appearance that despite their differences and the DA’s foolish campaign call to not vote for other opposition parties (which likely cost them votes in November), the DA, ActionSA, VF+, ACDP, IFP and COPE are interested in genuine governance.  Together, they represent nearly 3.8 million of the votes cast, or 32 percent of the total.  The G-6 control 21 municipalities outright and now govern together in another 22.  Sadly, this is but a drop in the bucket, however that bucket includes some big fish: Tshwane, Ekurhuleni, and Johannesburg in Gauteng alone.  The potential here is HUGE.  But so is the downside.  Failure will have devastating consequences for South Africans’ future.

The partnering makes sense ideologically.  However, there are some things to note:

1)  COPE is politically a non-entity.  After a big splash on the national scene, they have faded to irrelevance.  Their 2021 performance was very poor.  I managed to get one percent of their nationwide vote total (and win office) with a couple of hours campaigning as a write-in candidate in an obscure locality this side of the Atlantic, the day after they managed just 21,000 votes.

2)  ACDP is not very flexible on faith-based issues and can be a stubborn partner.

3)  VF+ is on the upswing across the country.  But will this coalition weaken their brand or play into their image as a pragmatic, cooperative good governance focused partner?

4)  ActionSA has a lot of potential.  But will Herman Mashaba prove to be Kamala Harris for the DA?  Mashaba has been all but calling the majority Coloured supported DA party racist, like Harris did to Biden on the debate stage.  Can Mashaba’s ego let his party effectively participate in this grand coalition?

5)  The DA is mired in confusing messages, internal incongruities and an inability to prevent own goals.  Losing Nelson Mandela Bay is an embarrassment, especially given they sent their big gun there to lock it up.  If Helen Zille can’t turn out the vote, where is the DA going?

In short, ActionSA, FF+, IFP and COPE gain here.  ACDP gets to be part of a potentially effective team and the DA gets to be the band leader.  Ultimately the question is, who wins?  The residents of 22 municipalities where the ANC is left out in the cold, and potentially ALL South Africans in 2024 can win, IF this works.

Chris Wyatt

Chris Wyatt

Colonel (Ret) Chris Wyatt, the Principal & CEO of the Indaba Africa Group, is a retired U.S. Army Military Intelligence Officer and Foreign Area Officer for Sub-Saharan Africa and past Director of African Studies at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He was previously the Senior Military Advisor to the U.S. Mission to the African Union (USAU). He has lived across the continent (eight countries) and working in over 30 African countries.

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