Par­ties need to dance to the coali­tion tune

The ‘big three’ par­ties are floun­der­ing but the lit­tle ones are gain­ing huge po­lit­i­cal clout

Mail & Guardian - - Comment Analysis - Richard Cal­land

Is this a time of cri­sis or op­por­tu­nity for South African op­po­si­tion par­ties? Well, it de­pends. If you are a big­ger op­po­si­tion party — the Demo­cratic Al­liance (DA) or the Eco­nomic Free­dom Fight­ers (EFF) — it has be­come a time of cri­sis, partly of their own mak­ing and partly because Cyril Ramaphosa’s victory in De­cem­ber at the ANC elec­toral con­fer­ence and sub­se­quent oust­ing of Ja­cob Zuma in Fe­bru­ary has cre­ated a strate­gic co­nun­drum and an ele­men­tal po­lit­i­cal dilemma.

DA leader Mmusi Maimane and EFF “com­man­der in chief” Julius Malema ap­pear dis­ori­en­tated by Ramaphosa’s as­cent to the top of Ben­jamin Dis­raeli’s “greasy pole” of pol­i­tics.

In Par­lia­ment, when Zuma was still around, for Maimane and, es­pe­cially, Malema, it was like shoot­ing fish in a bar­rel. You sim­ply couldn’t miss because there was so much to hit.

Now, you can look down from the pub­lic or press gallery and what you see com­ing out of Malema’s head is a big thought bub­ble: “How on earth am I go­ing to tackle this guy?”

Things may shift, if and when Ramaphosa’s re­form pro­gramme be­gins to get stuck in the mud, held back by ei­ther the resid­ual rump of the Zup­tas, the ob­struc­tion­ist na­tion­al­ists in his own party or just sim­ply gov­ern­men­tal in­er­tia and in­ef­fi­ciency. But for the time be­ing the op­po­si­tion are be­ing forced to recog­nise that the po­lit­i­cal zeit­geist has changed so fun­da­men­tally from last year that it re­quires of them a sub­stan­tive re­cal­i­bra­tion of strat­egy.

This is the dilemma: ham­mer­ing Zuma was a strong po­lit­i­cal strat­egy because there was am­ple ev­i­dence that many tra­di­tional ANC vot­ers were turn­ing their backs on the party out of dis­gust with Zuma’s leadership.

But the re­but­table pre­sump­tion now is that many of those dis­en­chanted ANC vot­ers will come flood­ing back, filled with ap­proval for Ramaphosa’s re­form pro­gramme, his restora­tion of core ANC val­ues, and his de­ter­mi­na­tion to re­build both gov­ern­men­tal in­tegrity and ANC unity.

It’s a re­but­tal pre­sump­tion because there is lit­tle ev­i­dence yet that this is so. It is just as likely that those vot­ers re­main deeply sus­pi­cious of the ANC and that work­ing­class vot­ers in par­tic­u­lar do not share the chat­ter­ing class’s en­thu­si­asm for the leadership tran­si­tion.

This may ben­e­fit all op­po­si­tion par­ties, which are des­per­ately hop­ing for a hung leg­is­la­ture in prov­inces such as Gaut­eng that will bring com­plex coali­tion ar­range­ments into play.

But the DA and the EFF are deeply di­vided over strat­egy and tac­tics, and also, it would seem, over ide­ol­ogy and val­ues. In both cases the un­cer­tainty runs so deep that it could jus­ti­fi­ably be de­scribed as an ex­is­ten­tial cri­sis.

What ex­actly does the DA stand for? What is its ide­o­log­i­cal pivot? Is it a tra­di­tional lib­eral party with so­cial demo­cratic ten­den­cies? Or is it just a lib­eral party? This ide­o­log­i­cal con­fu­sion plays out most ob­vi­ously in its at­ti­tude to trans­for­ma­tion. Some DA parliamentary cau­cus mem­bers were spit­ting blood about the City Press front-page story on Sun­day con­cern­ing a back­lash against Maimane’s Free­dom Day ob­ser­va­tions about white priv­i­lege. Po­lit­i­cally this is dis­as­ter for the DA.

If it wants to con­tinue to en­ter­tain any hope of in­creas­ing its share of the black vote, let alone be­come the big­gest party in Gaut­eng, it can­not be seen to be equiv­o­cat­ing on this fun­da­men­tal is­sue.

White priv­i­lege is a fact of South African life, born of the coun­try’s apartheid and colo­nial past, and sus­tained by stub­born struc­tural so­cioe­co­nomic con­straints. If Maimane’s white col­leagues are un­will­ing to ac­cept this un­con­di­tion­ally and back him whole­heart­edly, then the DA is in very deep trou­ble.

Ramaphosa in­evitably jumped on the is­sue dur­ing Tues­day’s pres­i­den­tial ques­tion time. In­stead of putting the new pres­i­dent un­der pres­sure, it was the “of­fi­cial op­po­si­tion” (a cu­ri­ous term, by the way, which serves lit­tle pur­pose) that was on the back foot.

Mean­while, the DA has made a com­plete mess of re­mov­ing Cape Town mayor Pa­tri­cia de Lille from of­fice. This, too, will harm it. De Lille’s move to the DA was al­ways go­ing to end in tears; a mis­con­ceived liver trans­plant, it was only a matter of time be­fore the body re­jected the new or­gan.

In pri­vate, she would al­ways speak of “them” rather than “us”. But she is widely re­spected, across race and class and other sec­tar­ian lines. It is too crude an an­a­lyt­i­cal point to sug­gest that re­mov­ing De Lille will nec­es­sar­ily harm its sup­port among coloured work­ing-class vot­ers in the Western Cape, but the DA would be wise not to lose sight of a golden rule of pol­i­tics: you should not lose touch with your base and never take it for granted.

In Nel­son Man­dela Bay, the DA-led coali­tion is hang­ing on for dear life, prov­ing just how tricky coali­tion pol­i­tics can be — a no­tion that prompted an ini­tia­tive to sup­port the build­ing and sus­tain­ing of coali­tions in South Africa, and which on Mon­day con­vened a high-level di­a­logue be­tween six se­nior politi­cians from across the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum in Ger­many with the lead­ers, chief whips and other se­nior mem­bers of po­lit­i­cal par­ties here, in­clud­ing the ANC.

Smartly, in­stead of lazily as­sum­ing that its leadership tran­si­tion her­alds a pe­riod of new-found dom­i­nance, the rul­ing party is recog­nis­ing that not only is it al­ready in coali­tions in var­i­ous mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties but also that it will con­tinue to have to find ways of work­ing ef­fec­tively with other par­ties.

Coali­tion pol­i­tics, it recog­nises, as should we all, is now a part of South Africa’s po­lit­i­cal land­scape.

One of the many fas­ci­nat­ing lessons from Ger­many’s decades-long his­tory of coali­tions is that a key strate­gic el­e­ment is to present co­op­er­a­tion with other par­ties in a pos­i­tive light — that the nec­es­sary com­pro­mises that coali­tion ar­range­ments en­tail are a sign of strength, not weak­ness.

Too of­ten, coali­tion agree­ments have been pro­jected as “sell­outs” by one or other party. This de­rives from an un­healthy po­lit­i­cal cul­ture that de­fines other po­lit­i­cal par­ties not as op­po­nents but as en­e­mies. This en­mity can have se­ri­ous, even deadly, consequences in a so­ci­ety in which vi­o­lence is too read­ily re­sorted to.

Hence, po­lit­i­cal lead­ers have a re­spon­si­bil­ity to or­gan­ise coali­tion dis­cus­sions and agree­ments in a care­ful, respectful and mea­sured fash­ion. In turn, this re­quires them to explain fully and openly why and on what ba­sis an agree­ment has been reached. In Ger­many, the of­ten long and very de­tailed coali­tion agree­ments are pub­lished, so that the elec­torate can see what has been agreed on, and they serve as an im­por­tant ac­count­abil­ity mech­a­nism in case deals later break down.

Although it has some ex­pe­ri­ence in coali­tions, South Africa still needs to de­velop the con­ven­tions and prac­tices that will en­able coali­tion pol­i­tics to suc­ceed in de­liv­er­ing sta­ble gov­ern­ment, rather than the re­verse. As one of the Ger­man politi­cians put it: “If you fail to man­age your coali­tion care­fully and it be­comes un­sta­ble, the elec­torate will likely blame you and you will be hurt.”

Coali­tions re­quire flex­i­bil­ity and a spe­cial form of po­lit­i­cal craft. At the mo­ment, these are largely con­spic­u­ous by their ab­sence in South Africa. They must be de­vel­oped ur­gently and there is much to be learnt from the ex­pe­ri­ence of other countries.

To return to the orig­i­nal ques­tion, if you are a smaller op­po­si­tion party — such as the United Demo­cratic Move­ment, the Free­dom Front Plus or the African Chris­tian Demo­cratic Party — it is a time of op­por­tu­nity: the weak­ness of the “big three” is manna from heaven, pro­vid­ing open­ings that were unimag­in­able be­fore the 2016 lo­cal gov­ern­ment elec­tions that dis­turbed the sta­tus quo in such a game-chang­ing fash­ion.

Coali­tions can come in all shapes and sizes. Ide­o­log­i­cal align­ment is just one di­men­sion. As the sec­re­tary gen­eral of the Greens said, his party is in coali­tion ar­range­ments in nine prov­inces in Ger­many, eight of them in dif­fer­ent po­lit­i­cal con­fig­u­ra­tions.

Now, in an elec­toral sys­tem in which ev­ery vote counts, the tail can wag the dog. Look at how a sin­gle-is­sue party — the African In­de­pen­dent Congress (AIC) or the Pa­tri­otic Al­liance, both with sin­gledigit rep­re­sen­ta­tion in the Nel­son Man­dela Bay coun­cil — are ex­er­cis­ing enor­mous influence, pun­ish­ing in the AIC’s case the ANC for fail­ing to de­liver on prom­ises made to it elsewhere in the coun­try. This is fur­ther ev­i­dence of the com­plex­ity of coali­tion pol­i­tics.

The EFF was ab­sent from the coali­tion sym­po­sium. For the other par­ties it was the right topic at the right time but for the EFF it is sim­ply too del­i­cate a sub­ject. No doubt they would love to be the main king­maker af­ter the next elec­tion but they are too di­vided on the ques­tion of who to choose as a coali­tion part­ner.

As he looks for an exit strat­egy, Malema is in­clined towards the ANC. But another fac­tion strongly op­poses this idea, recog­nis­ing that it would be the death knell for the EFF and its anti-es­tab­lish­ment cre­den­tials.

How, and when, the EFF un­tan­gles this par­tic­u­lar po­lit­i­cal predica­ment will have sig­nif­i­cant im­pli­ca­tions for the fu­ture of mul­ti­party democ­racy in South Africa, as well as its po­lit­i­cal cul­ture.

Coali­tions re­quire flex­i­bil­ity and spe­cial form of po­lit­i­cal craft. At the mo­ment, these are largely con­spic­u­ous by their ab­sence in South Africa

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