ANC one-party dominance is drawing to a close. We cannot afford to replace it with unstable coalitions. The recent upheaval in the Gauteng metros provides crucial lessons for South Africa ahead of the 2024 national election. We ignore them at our peril.
On 25 October, the DA’s Mpho Phalatse was reinstated as mayor, replacing ANC mayor Dada Morero who was in office for just 25 days. This, after the DA won its High Court case to have the ANC coalition’s motion of no confidence which forced her out on 29 September ruled unconstitutional and invalid.
The judgement is something of a victory for Johannesburg residents and the rule of law, setting a legal precedent that should deter councillors from pursuing illegal processes and frivolous reasoning to topple opponents.
But the fact remains that the political situation in Johannesburg is inherently unstable due to an enormously fragmented council where 18 parties are represented, with no party having an absolute majority, and with 8 of them having just 1 seat in the 270-member council. Phalatse’s new coalition remains at risk of being ousted.
On 8 November, DA mayor Tania Campbell was reinstated as mayor of Ekurhuleni having been ousted two weeks before in a motion of no confidence. Her 10-party minority coalition had spent 10 months working to undo the damage done by the ANC over the past two decades and achieving meaningful progress for residents. She has now formed a new minority coalition which remains at risk of being ousted.
The citizens of these two metros are the real victims of this political upheaval. Political instability inevitably disrupts and compromises service delivery, with the poorest citizens suffering most. Being unable to afford private provision, they are most reliant on government services.
If the dynamics within metro coalitions are replicated at national and provincial government level post 2024, it will lead to permanent instability, with South Africa possibly even becoming ungovernable.
The problem with PR
Proportional Representation electoral systems tend to encourage a fragmentation of politics into a large number of parties. In South Africa this is particularly extreme because a party can get a seat in Parliament with just 0,2% of the vote.
Yet even a party this tiny, with minimal electoral support, can bring down a government if that party’s seat is needed to make up 50%-plus-1 in the coalition. In Johannesburg, for example, COPE got fewer than 2500 votes out of more than a million voters. Yet their one councillor, Colleen Makhubele, brought down the DA-led multi-party coalition.
When no party wins an absolute majority, tiny parties can become “king makers”, wielding power that is far out of proportion to their electoral support. This makes them vulnerable to being bribed by larger parties that need their support to get into government, posing huge risk to the stability of coalition governments.
Other countries with PR electoral systems, such as Germany, Denmark, Austria, Belgium and Greece, have avoided instability by setting electoral thresholds. In Germany, parties require a minimum of 5% of the electorate’s support to get into national government while in Denmark it is 2%, Austria 4%, Belgium 5%, and Greece 3%.
To stabilise coalitions in South Africa, the DA has proposed an electoral threshold of 1 or 2%, among other legislative changes, which we will seek to introduce through Private Members Bills.
While preventing a tiny party from getting a seat in a legislature may be seen as somewhat undemocratic, allowing tiny parties to decide whether the ANC or the DA runs a government is a gross subversion of democracy. In pursuit of a generally democratic outcome and stable coalitions, we need to be willing to sacrifice a small degree of proportionality.
By preventing a proliferation of tiny parties, an electoral threshold also prevents cumbersome coalitions consisting of large numbers of parties, such as Tshwane’s 7-party coalition and Nelson Mandela Bay’s 10-party coalition. Decision-making is naturally slower and large coalitions battle to act with common purpose. Inevitably, delivery is compromised.
The DA-led multi-party coalitions in both Johannesburg and Ekurhuleni have managed to achieve meaningful successes while in government, despite the challenges of managing complex minority coalitions. But had the DA held outright majorities or been able to form majority coalitions with just one orSecurity of tenure and greater flexibility due to simpler decision-making processes make for better governing outcomes. This becomes very clear when you look at Cape town, Midvaal or uMngeni, where the DA governs outright, or Hessequa and Breede Valley municipalities, which are run by stable DA-led majority coalitions.
If voters are serious about replacing the ANC with a functional government that can move South Africa forward, then 2024 needs to be a two-horse race between the ANC and the DA. A recent poll by the Social Research Foundation put the DA at only eleven percentage points behind the ANC nationally. In the next eighteen months we will close that gap still further.