South Africa: Coalitions Ahead?!

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Since its first democratic elections in 1994, South Africa has never had to contend with coalition governance at the national level.

Until now.

There’s an ongoing transformation in South African party politics characterised by a gradual decline in support for the African National Congress (ANC), the ruling party. Despite winning elections consecutively since 1994, the vote-share of the ANC has steadily decreased, with a record low of 57.5% in the 2019 national elections.

The declining support for the ANC has led to a debate on the percentage of votes it might receive in the 2024 national elections, with polls indicating that it may fall below 50%. Should the ANC lose its outright majority, it will be unable to guarantee full control over Parliament and the Presidency. This development raises questions about the possibility of a coalition government at the national level, and which parties may be involved.

Given that South Africa doesn’t have a long-standing history of coalition formations, there are concerns about the stability of such a government. Some parties have embarked on a study tour to Denmark to understand coalition best practice, indicating a willingness to explore the possibility of coalition governments.

It’s highly likely that a coalition government in South Africa will be dominated by the ANC, which is not expected to fall far short of a majority. In this case, the ANC will retain most of its power with smaller parties not gaining much leverage. However, the internal politics of the ANC may change due to increased competition for positions in Parliament and the ministry.

There is speculation about a coalition between the ANC and one of the main opposition parties, either the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) or the Democratic Alliance (DA). A coalition between the DA and ANC is unlikely given the policy differences between the two parties, and the DA’s positioning as an anti-ANC party. Should it signal to its electorate that it intends to form a coalition with the ANC, it could lose a great deal of support.

Despite this, an ANC-DA coalition cannot be ruled out as DA leaders have alluded to the possibility of a collaboration to keep the EFF out of power. It’s clear that coalition governments require a degree of mutual trust between parties, which can be difficult to achieve in a highly polarised political environment, so the ANC-DA pairing could make for a fragile government.

While a coalition between the ANC and EFF is plausible due to ideological overlap, it would require the ANC to give in to the EFF’s more radical policies. This would likely give way to power struggles within the coalition, as parties vie for influence and control. Policies may be voted on solely with the goal to gain power and politics practiced as a zero-sum game instead of doing what is best for the constituency. We posit that this is not an option that the ANC will pursue unless it receives well below 45% of the vote.

The DA has voiced plans for a “rainbow coalition” that may include several smaller parties such as the Freedom Front Plus (FF+), Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), and ActionSA, with the DA as the anchor party. However, the potential for the success of such an arrangement is disputable given the need for agreement on policy agendas and governing principles which becomes more challenging with each party that is added to the coalition. This presents several potential threats to the stability and effectiveness of government in South Africa.

An alternative to a coalition government is a confidence and supply arrangement between the ruling party and a supporting party. This arrangement involves supporting budgets and votes of confidence on a case-by-case basis without being directly linked to each other. However, this requires a degree of mutual trust. Parties and party members do not always act as expected or agreed upon. If trust breaks down, parties may fail to support each other on key issues, which can result in a loss of confidence and the collapse of the agreement.

Coalitions at the local level have shown little promise, with poor service delivery and power changes within the five-year term. This raises concerns about the potential effectiveness of a national coalition government. The DA has proposed legislation to stabilise coalitions in South Africa on the national, provincial, and local level. The legislation seeks to address concerns about the abuse of motions of no confidence and binding coalition agreements, which may lead to stronger coalitions in the future.

Ultimately, the outcome of the 2024 national elections remains uncertain, and it’s still to be seen what form South Africa’s future political landscape will take. Perhaps we’ll see smaller parties unite in a bid to address corruption, failing state enterprises, and a bloated and ineffective civil service. However, based on recent polling numbers and the continued support for President Cyril Ramaphosa, it seems more than likely that the ANC will either remain South Africa’s hegemon or at the very least be the key party in a coalition.

Kira Alberts (@alberts_kira) is a Master’s student at Stellenbosch University, a KAS-CREDO Scholar, and a Research Assistant for the Centre for Research on Democracy (CREDO).

Sonia Twongyeirwe is a Bachelor’s student at Stellenbosch University, a Student Assistant for the Centre for Research on Democracy (CREDO), and the third place winner of the African Democracy Essay Prize 2022.

This piece was first published in the second issue of Democracy Delivered, a monthly newsletter from our friends at the Centre for Research on Democracy (CREDO), Stellenbosch University.

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