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by Thina Nzo

[first published on News24]

Thina Nzo breaks down why coalition politics in Johannesburg were initially successful, but became less so following ongoing battles and reneging on various agreements, preventing representatives from focusing on service delivery and political oversight as particularistic party interests were placed over the interests of citizens and constituencies.

Political coalitions have always been a part of political history, particularly in developed local democracies. Their purpose is to allow for political parties in hung-councils to come together and reach an agreement that enables them to govern peacefully when there is no majority rule.

Coalitions require the art of co-operation and compromise for all parties involved to reach an amicable consensus that serves them and their entrusted constitutes best. In a Utopian world of politics, coalitions would be amicable for the balance of power and accountability.

However, drawing from the political landscape of local government coalitions in the City of Tshwane Municipality, Nelson Mandela Bay Metropolitan Municipality and the City of Johannesburg (CoJ), coalitions are susceptible to party politics and patronage practices that contribute to the fragility of tethered agreements that end up collapsing.

Joburg’s first coalition government

The CoJ had its first coalition city government in 2016 during the local government elections. The African National Congress (ANC) as the governing party was dealt with a stifling blow of being unable to rack up the numbers in the CoJ in order to secure its majority rule. This was the first time that the ANC was to be shaken off the council pedestal since the ruling party came into local power in 2000.

The lack of a clear definitive win rendered the doors of political evolution open for South African local politics, ushering an unfamiliar, but refreshing era of coalitions. The ANC lost its formidable majority streak to the multi-party coalition of the Democratic Alliance (DA) and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), the latter being the “king maker”. Other parties include the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), Al-Jamah, Congress of the People (COPE), and the Patriotic Alliance (PA).

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It was a time of significant negotiation, but it was also a great time for the opposition parties to have critical strategic leverage over the ANC ruling party finally. The multi-party coalition had managed to destabilise the influence of the ANC while pushing their own political agenda in securing key political positions within governance structures in council.

Nevertheless, this coalition did not last long when Herman Mashaba resigned in 2019 as the DA mayor of the CoJ amid accusations of corruption and the internal turmoil within the DA after Helen Zille was appointed Federal Chairperson of the party.

The DA’s internal politics led to the erosion of its coalition with the EFF. This shifted the power dynamics by paving the way for the ANC to take back control of the CoJ council in 2020, thus managing to form a coalition agreement with the PA party as another “kingmaker”. Moreover, the loss of nine wards by the DA in the 2020 by-election further rendered the party impotent in the CoJ council politics.

Minority governments

Political analyst Ebrahim Fakir noted that the problem was not the coalitions themselves, but rather how the coalitions seem to function like minority governments.

Minority governments are known to be very archaic and tend to undermine the democratic system, reflecting majority rule. The political underdogs end up taking on the role of being “kingmakers”, which can become problematic as this could lead to kingmakers holding other parties hostage.

Although coalition agreements remain less transparent, nevertheless coalition agreements are observably based less on political ideology or policy alignment of political parties. Patronage is primarily the main Achilles heel of coalitions. The mayoral position and executive portfolio positions among coalition partners become the central point of coalition agreements. Hence the ANC had given the economic development portfolio to the PA.

Consequentially, patronage allocation of political positions in coalition agreements has plunged the CoJ into political instability and neglect of political oversight into allegations of financial mismanagement, corruption, non-compliance with procurement processes, the irregular appointment of contractors, subversion of appointment and removal processes of city officials.

The collapsing relationship and litigation between the PA and ANC provides an example of how governance and accountability are subverted due to patronage coalitions.

The PA has also recently accused the ANC of replacing the former PA economic development portfolio head with an ANC member, citing it as a breach of the coalition agreement.

On the other hand, the ANC accused the PA of capturing the economic development portfolio and purging ANC members by suspending senior employees accused of corruption related to Covid-19 funds.

This feeds into the destructive cycle of battles for power and control of the executive, which obscure accountability and oversight under the current inter-party conflicts and tensions.

The ongoing battle and reneged coalition arrangements, deviate political representatives from focusing on service delivery and providing political oversight, thus undermining the foundations of local representative democracy by placing particularistic party interests over the interests of citizens and constituencies.

Service delivery challenges relating to the CIty’s infrastructure are escalating, including outcries over electricity hikes. The political interests of coalition political parties undoubtedly overshadow and derail important decision-making processes concerning citizens.

Relationship between partners

The key to a successful coalition is dependent on the relationship between the partners.

In the crux of this relationship should be the need to have a conducive environment of stability and transparency. Coalition goals should be ensuring that the executive is delivering on its mandate and able to deliver services to the citizens of the CoJ. Coalition agreements should be focused more on the interests of citizens rather than the individual interests of party members.

More importantly, the non-disclosure of coalition agreements prevent constituencies and citizens from holding elected representative accountable for the non-delivery of citizens’ interests. Ideally, the interests of the parties should come secondary, and the focus should be on good governance, but as we have observed, this is hardly the case.

As we move closer to the local government elections, the current state of affairs at the CoJ calls for an urgent need for the development of a framework that can guide political parties on how to govern in coalitions, which places the interests of citizens at the forefront.

– Thina Nzo holds a PhD in African Studies from the University of Edinburgh. She is a local government senior researcher at the Public Affairs Research Institute.