Final Word

A coalition for growing together or for war?


While South Africa seems to be heading for coalition government one should hope it is aimed in the direction of its original Latin roots and not the later Central European application.

Coalition was first recorded in English, like so many other English words from French, in 1540.

In its dictionary definition, the term ‘coalition’ denotes a group formed when two or more persons, faction, states, political parties, militaries etc. agree to work together temporarily in a partnership to achieve a common goal.

In short, the word coalition connotes a coming together to achieve a goal.

The word derives from the Late Latin word coalitus, equivalent to “fellowship,” originally a past participle of Latin’s coalescere, meaning unite, grow together, and become one in growth.

By the mid-16th century, when the term coalition was first recorded in English, Europe was dominated by often violent, competition between states for domination and/or extension of boarders and influence. Small wonder then, that the term originally was applied in a military context.

Political application

The term was first used in a political sense almost two centuries later in 1715, and would, in the slipstream of the development of democracy, gain considerable traction over the years. As civil society also gained importance under democratic dispensations, it also became common to find coalitions forming around specific social issues – like the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence in the United States and the domestic Save South Africa coalition, and others, to battle corruption and other evils.

Coalition governments by different political parties has also developed as a common alternative for single political party based governments of pure majoritarian governance – the latter characterized by a winner-take-all, "first-past-the-post" electoral systems that favour clear distinctions between winners and losers.

Fact is that the South African constitution, with its proportional representation based on the number of votes won by each party, favours the development of coalition governments.

How strong an alternative the development of coalitions has become for majoritarianism to avoid raw conflict, is illustrated by what has happened in Germany since the Second World War. Every government post WW II has been a multiparty coalition, and the country has become a top economic performer.  

Final Word

What history tells us, is that coalitions can be either very destructive or a positive force for peace, development, and prosperity.

The concept arrived in our modern vocabulary during a time when the rulers of the day in Europe used it as an instrument of war. One of the gifts of democracy to mankind is that coalitions can be return to the constructive intent of the original Latin term coalesce.

May the envisaged coalition dispensation post-2019 election bring more “unity and growing together” – coalesce in the true sense of the word.

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by Piet Coetzer

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