Susan Booysen | Multi-party democracy is in trouble in South Africa – collapsing coalitions are a sure sign

The party political chaos in the formation, dissolution and reconstitution of municipal coalition governments reflects the transition from one-party dominance to what could become a split and alternating multipolar party system, writes Susan Booyen.


South Africa’s 28-year-old and ever-changing multi-party democracy was reminded of its own fragility when in September a coalition ruling its largest city, Johannesburg, collapsed. The speaker and the mayor lost their jobs. A new coalition took power, only to be revoked by a High Court verdict three weeks later. This was followed by the ousting of the mayor of the neighboring metropolis of Ekurhuleni.

It is not the first time that the administration of a city has collapsed because of coalition politics. Acrimonious scenes unfolded across the country in metropolises such as Nelson Mandela Bay and Tshwane, major cities such as Knysna and hamlets such as Cederberg in the Western Cape.

These seemingly anarchic moves are becoming more common as the political party struggle intensifies between the African National Congress (ANC), which still dominates South African politics even though it is in decline, and the larger opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA).

The ANC increasingly waged coalition wars to retain and regain power while the DA attempted to consolidate its claim to power which the ANC was ceding. In a few years, especially since the local elections of 2021, the two parties, as well as a multitude of micro-parties, have invented local rules of the game that do not fit well with the precepts of multi-party democracy.

What is there to learn from these events?

In my view, the party political chaos in the process of forming, dissolving and reconstituting municipal coalition governments reflects the transition from one party dominance to what could become a split and alternating multipolar party system.

This reflects a decline in multi-party democracy in South Africa as practiced when the ANC still held a dominant position. Multi-party democracy at this time constituted a sort of cross-party truce that accepted the predominant position of the ANC. Nonetheless, it helped organize popular representation in government and offered a constructive means of channeling popular political energy.

Coalitions in South Africa

South Africa is no stranger to coalition politics. The national unity government of 1994 – the first after the end of apartheid – was essentially a grand coalition. KwaZulu-Natal province evolved through a coalition government between the ANC and the Inkatha Freedom Party, and the DA seized power in Cape Town in 2006 through a multi-party coalition.

The 1994 coalition worked because of the need for national reconciliation. The other two had a cross-party competitive advantage, reminiscent of contemporary contests. In KwaZulu-Natal, the ANC used coalitions to gain access to the provincial government and help it gain the upper hand. It worked largely because it tied itself to a clear power shift between two major parties.

At the municipal level, the multi-party DA coalition has worked thanks to a few factors. First, meticulous coalition management and an internal conflict resolution mechanism were put in place. Second, there was a new sense of team spirit as the DA took shape following the dissolution of the New National Party.

These conditions and feelings are largely absent today.

The coalitions formed more recently have not been instruments of consensus. They have not led to constructive co-governance as is the case in many other parts of the world, where coalition government has become institutionalized. Examples like Denmark and Germany come to mind, or closer to home, Lesotho and Madagascar, albeit with competitive advantage and only intermittently constructive.

Constructively institutionalized versions of coalition governments emerge where there is a sense of shared national interests and policies.

In contemporary South Africa, coalitions are militarized as extensions of elections. Power that has not been won at the ballot box is pursued according to rules determined by power and clientelism. Accountability is erratic as aberrant leaders and micro-parties become kingmakers.

The result is erratic power changes. The tone for the current slice of metropolitan disruption has been set by Johannesburg and Nelson Mandela Bay, where smaller parties have swung, attracted by larger parties. And it is very likely that these changes will not be the last of the current mandate.

The drivers

Chaotic changes are driven by a number of factors.

The first is the self-interest of small and micro-parties. An ideal form of multiparty democracy provides healthy competition among functional political parties to determine the fate of governance in political systems. In most cases, a proportionality system is in place. But in South Africa, micro-parties wield disproportionate power.

Micro-party bands that individually hold a very small number of seats are elevated to the status of (vacant) power blocs. They very often call the shots. They gain a major political voice, ransom entire city governments, and are prone to switching coalition allegiances.

The second factor is the emergence of opportunistic, power-obsessed leaders who run amok. Many of them are serial flip-flops that go where the next improved job offer and a municipal portfolio steeped in clientelism take them. They anoint and drop coalitions with top DAs and ANCs whenever it suits them.

For this new league of powerful players, party politics is not about proportionality or constituency size. Brutal kingmaking power, even on the basis of one or two council seats, reigns supreme: importance is estimated in terms of value for larger parties that must achieve vote proportions below 50% .

Another factor behind today’s disruptive patterns has to do with the internal politics of the ANC and DA: these contribute to the ambiguous rules of inter-party competition. As the ANC is increasingly dominated by corrupt leaders and the DA loses its black leaders to new, smaller parties, the two main players have become increasingly engaged in recruiting and co-opting all .

The game is complicated by the fact that the ANC does not cede power gracefully, a phenomenon reinforced by its state power. It also benefits from the DA’s inability to transcend its credibility issues with the majority black population.

Furthermore, widespread populism combined with protest and direct action heightens the complexity of the transition away from the dominance of the one-party ANC.

The fallout from one-party rule

The current paucity of multi-party democracy in the country has its roots in the roughly 28-year dominance of the ANC.

This has seen a suppression and delegitimization of the opposition, arguably compounded by the failure of the ANC following state capture – the repurposing of the state for corrupt purposes under the former President Jacob Zuma – and the blatant theft of state resources for political parties. Gain.

Most of the opposition has been drawn into a new political underground. Instead of systematically expressing their opposition by supporting an alternative political party, multitudes of South Africans choose either to abstain from voting or to live their political life in a shadow world that transcends political parties.

Instead of pressuring their elected officials to, for example, allocate land, people are taking the law into their own hands. They are simply settling on unused state land. Increasingly, the state and political parties are bypassed because they are seen as ineffective. It is part of South Africa’s complex system of transition away from one-party rule, but also inherently anarchic.

This shadow world is accompanied by a failing multi-party democracy in which coalitions contribute to discrediting political parties.

Susan Booysen, Visiting Professor and Emeritus Professor, University of the Witwatersrand

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.