Election Watch

South Africa heads for coalition politics – Tshwane sets tone


South Africa has been heading for a new dispensation of coalition government for some time. Now its capital of Tshwane (Pretoria) seems destined to set the example and the tone for the future.

Although the latest weekly Ipsos survey last week indicated that the ANC has regained some ground among voters, the picture for the local government elections in three weeks’ time, remains basically the same – the DA is well ahead in support, but no party will capture an outright majority and the city is heading for coalition government or a messy hung council.

It is interesting that by getting a high-powered ANC national leadership team, led by President Jacob Zuma and including its Secretary General, Gwede Mantashe, on the Tshwane campaign trail, its percentage support went up only by 3%, from 23% to 27%, the same percentage by which DA support came down to 39%.

As the so-called Brexit vote in the United Kingdom recently proved, opinion surveys are not an exact science and especially the “undecided” factor can easily be the deciding one in the final result.

Even in the very unlikely event of all the “undecideds” going the way of the ANC, it will still leave them short of an absolute majority.

Heading for coalition

It is against this background, and also taking wider data into consideration that one analyst, Dawie Scholtz, wrote last week: ”Tshwane is very likely headed for a coalition government scenario after August.”

There are clear signs that this is a scenario that will be playing itself out in a good number of other local jurisdictions across the country, but as the capital city, Tshwane holds special symbolic importance, both domestically and in terms of South Africa’s international image.

What is happening in Tshwane is also symptomatic of a trend on the national front, one in which the ANC is losing its dominant grip on political power, but with little prospect that another single party can take over the role from them – the classical ingredients of coalition politics, which is also facilitated by the Constitution and the proportional voting system.

Last week veteran journalist and political commentator, Allister Sparks wrote in the Rand Daily Mail: “In just four weeks, SA is going to start a new phase in its political evolution. This is because the August 3 local government elections will usher in an era of coalition governments in the country.”

Two researchers of the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in Pretoria also wrote in a research note: “South Africa may fast be approaching a political turning point – but things will get worse before they get better.”

Not only do we agree, and also with their assessment that the “country’s future rests heavily on the outcome of the very public struggle for power between two competing factions within the ruling African National Congress,” but we also believe the roots of what is now happening, go back a number of years.

Timeline towards coalition politics

As far back as March 2013 we carried an article by political analyst Stef Terblanche in which he wrote: “The South African party political scene is undergoing substantial change amid shifting possibilities affecting both the ruling alliance and the collective opposition Over the past year or more new parties, formations and trends have emerged, fed by general dissatisfaction with the African National Congress and its iron grip on power under President Jacob Zuma.” 

Just about a year later, just before the general election of that year and amid talks about a merger between the DA and the newly formed Agang SA, we wrote the mess it descended into “… could set back hopes among centre-right parties to replace the ANC with coalition governments in more provinces – a possibility supported by recent opinion surveys”.

In February 2014, on the eve of the election, Dr Jan du Plessis of Intersearchobserved that it “is possible to detect a major shift in the political culture of the South African society. This is not so much a one-off event, but rather the start of a new process of interaction between government and population.” (our emphasis).

About the election of Mmusi Maimane in May last year we wrote: “…  the DA got most things right to signal a turning point in South African politics, but the real battle has in fact only started.

“We believe the change of South African politics from one dominated by a single party, the African National Congress, to coalition politics has become inevitable. It is just the pace of change and the nature of the process – peaceful or turbulent – that is still unsure.”

The momentum towards a realignment of the political forces in the country picked up by September 2015 when, amid the soaring protests on the back of mounting frustration resulting from unmet expectations, the historical partnership between the country’s powerful labour movement and the governing ANC began to fall apart.

In their ISS paper, “South Africa: Is South Africa Heading Towards a Political Turning Point?”, Aucoin and Cilliers suggest that the ANC “could lose its national majority by 2024. This could happen as early as 2019 if the ANC splits in 2018, as we think could happen”.

How peaceful?

That a new party political power relationship, which is likely to culminate in coalition governments, is developing in South Africa looks pretty much certain. What is, however uncertain – especially judged by the violence that erupted recently in Tshwane between competing ANC factions – is how peaceful or violent the birth of this new dispensation will be.

Aucoin and Cilliers posit a number of scenarios that could develop, but at this stage it is a classic case of “uncertainty is the only certainty”.

by Piet Coetzer

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