It’s the political coalitions, stupid!

2021 Local Elections


It’s the political coalitions, stupid!

From left: ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa. (Photo: Gallo Images / Beeld / Deaan Vivier) | DA leader John Steenhuisen. (Photo: Gallo Images / Frennie Shivambu) | EFF leader Julius Malema. (Photo: Gallo Images / Laird Forbes)

While the next 12 days will see intense politicking, it is likely that the real test of political leaders will come in the hours and days after the elections.

As the heat goes up with less than two weeks to the local government elections, it is likely that soon after the results are announced in early November multiple parties will claim to have performed well. For most people, the best way to assess whether a party has grown its political power will be to examine its share of the vote, compared to how it has done in the past. 

But it may in fact be the decisions that the parties make after the elections  which determine whether or not they have actually gained power.

Some parties are likely to grow in this election and may receive more votes, but will not necessarily have more paths to power.

Over the weekend the leader of the DA, John Steenhuisen, tweeted that his party will not form any coalitions with the EFF in any council after the elections. He said that this was to put to bed any suggestions that he would, and that the EFF did not “share the values” of the DA.

While the EFF is the party that seems most likely to increase its share of the vote during the elections, it is not the only party that might do so.

The FF+ could well increase its support, while Herman Mashaba’s ActionSA seems set to get a significant share of the vote in one or two cities.

However, this will not necessarily translate into more political power for these parties. Political power is often not just about voter support, but also about the relative position of parties.

The example of the first metro in our country to be governed through a coalition may be useful.

In 2006 the DA was desperate to form a coalition government in Cape Town. Because of the way the results came through, they were dependent on the PAC’s lone councillor to arrive at the council vote. And crucially, he had to abstain.

As Gareth van Onselen has related the story, this meant that Bennett Joko had to leave his wife who was giving birth, to come to a meeting, in which he would abstain (there was no way he could vote for the DA as a PAC councillor, but his presence was needed to ensure a quorum).

If Joko had not done that, the history of Cape Town, and perhaps of our politics, could have been very different.

But Joko then lost his power; his historic abstention was his last move.

A more recent example of how a party has been able to use just one seat has been the Patriotic Alliance in Nelson Mandela Bay.

The party had just one councillor, and yet such was the balance of power that its one seat resulted in a position on the Mayoral Committee and significant power.

But all of this happened because the various parties agreed to do business with each other in different ways. If the parties in any situation refuse to do business with each other then this apparent political power may well be moot.

And there are important political reasons as to why both the ANC and the DA may refuse to do business with the EFF.

For the DA, as Steenhuisen has alluded to, the party was punished in 2019 for the perceived coalitions it formed with the EFF in 2016 (the DA and the EFF were not in a formal coalition, and the EFF simply supported the DA in certain councils). This is the best possible long-term reason for the DA to avoid the EFF.

A slightly similar dynamic holds true for the ANC’s possible relationship with the EFF. The ANC may well be wary of doing business with the EFF, because of a lack of trust and to avoid giving Julius Malema power over the ruling party’s national policy.

It may be tempting for some to claim that this shows that Malema has made crucial mistakes, and that this possibility, where he could gain voter support but not gain significant power, is a sign of strategic miscalculations on his part.

But it may also be a sign that both the DA and the ANC are wary of the fact that Malema may grow in perceived political power and that they need to make sure they themselves do not aid his stature in any way.

In other words, it may be a sign of the EFF’s growth and power that these parties refuse to work with it.

Steenhuisen’s comment is also important in that it is the leader of the DA explicitly limiting his party’s options, and thus preemptively removing it from some possible coalitions.

Again, the DA is not the only party to do this. ActionSA and the FF+ have both said they won’t do business with the ANC, effectively shutting down the option of being in a coalition with the party most likely to have the highest number of seats in most councils.

Within all of this is the coalition possibility which could really change our politics.

It is likely that in many councils the ANC and the DA together would be able to govern, elect mayors, pass budgets and make council decisions.

Currently, they are governing in a sort-of coalition in Bitou, but this appears to be the only example.

Steenhuisen has said that he would be willing to form a coalition with the ANC in national government, and it would be hard for him to walk back from that now. However, speaking on Newzroom Afrika on Monday, he said the party’s focus was on winning councils outright because coalition governance is more difficult.

If it is true that the smaller parties grow, there may well be more examples of coalitions involving these two bigger parties after the elections. And if that does happen, it is a potential game changer for our politics.

It might even be the beginning of the end of the process of the splintering of our politics into smaller constituencies.

While the next 12 days will see intense politicking, it is likely that the real test of political leaders will come in the hours and days after the elections. It is then that they will have to make the decisions that could make or break their political careers.

It is possible that the real outcomes of this election will rest on the decisions they make, rather than on the voters’ choices. DM


Comments - share your knowledge and experience

Please note you must be a Maverick Insider to comment. Sign up here or sign in if you are already an Insider.

Everybody has an opinion but not everyone has the knowledge and the experience to contribute meaningfully to a discussion. That’s what we want from our members. Help us learn with your expertise and insights on articles that we publish. We encourage different, respectful viewpoints to further our understanding of the world. View our comments policy here.

All Comments 4

  • I don’t for one minute believe that the ANC won’t get into bed with the EFF. The ANC is so desperate to remain in power it will do anything. Could this be a reason why Malema & Shivambu haven’t yet been prosecuted for their role in the VBS heist?

    That this will all ultimately end up in a total shambles, with more governance failures, is a given.

  • I agree that ANC and EFF could likely form a coalition- don’t think however it would be successful as too many warring instincts trying to get a seat at the dinner table

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted