Recently ousted Democratic Alliance (DA) mayor of Johannesburg, Mpho Phalatse, filed papers on 4 October with the Gauteng High Court seeking to have the council sitting in which she was deposed declared null and void on procedural grounds. She was removed by a vote of no confidence on 30 September after the nine-party coalition she led collapsed, resulting in councillors from the Patriotic Alliance (PA) and the Congress of the People (COPE) defecting to join an African National Congress (ANC)-led coalition. This resulted in the ANC’s Dada Morero being elected as mayor.
The collapse of the coalition and the ousting of Phalatse’s city government devolved into public bickering between the coalition partners. The DA which had led the coalition accused the other parties in the coalition of reneging on their 2021 coalition agreement and handing power to the ANC. ActionSA – the second largest party in the coalition – meanwhile accused the DA of arrogance and blamed the collapse on the party’s inflexibility and refusal to allow an Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) councillor to be elected as council speaker. ActionSA and the IFP claim this would have mollified the disgruntled PA and COPE councillors and enabled the DA-led coalition to remain in power.
This instability in the city of Johannesburg has played out against the backdrop of the city’s governance and infrastructure crises – parts of the city are experiencing water shortages even as national loadshedding continues.
Yet, the challenge of coalition politics is not confined to Johannesburg. On 21 September, the ANC-led coalition in Nelson Mandela Bay (NMB) fell victim to a similar vote of no confidence as its smaller coalition partners switched allegiances amid frustration over erstwhile NMB mayor Eugene Johnson’s leadership. This resulted in a DA-led coalition taking over that metro and the DA’s Retief Odendaal donning the mayoral chain.
Johannesburg and NMB have drawn the most attention due to their size and economic importance. However, municipal coalition governments have witnessed challenges and upheaval across the country in towns as diverse as Knysna in the Western Cape and Umvoti in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN).
This is a consequence of the current state of South Africa’s politics. The ANC is in decline and as a result, the stability provided by the party’s countrywide political hegemony is unravelling. This coincides with growing disillusionment with the DA as a centralised opposition that is seeing the country’s voters being drawn to a wider variety of political parties, including single-issue and hyper-local parties leading to the rise of hung municipal councils. Illustrative of this, the 2016 local government elections resulted in a then-record, 27 hung municipalities. This record was then smashed in the 2021 local government elections, which ended with 66 hung municipalities.
It is clear that coalition governments are the future of South African politics and governance. This is unsurprising as the country’s system of proportional representation is geared towards this outcome in the hopes that it will ensure collaborative governance and cooperation.
The instability in high-profile municipalities such as Johannesburg and NMB has been used by the ANC as an argument for remaining in power – telling voters that a stable government you are disappointed in is better than the chaos of coalitions – and by the DA, which says that for other smaller parties is the equivalent of voting for the ANC.
However, this is largely inaccurate. Much of the instability in these coalitions owes to the current slim majorities these coalitions are able to form and the fact that several of the country’s municipalities are actually under the control of minority governments. This latter point is best illustrated by Ekurhuleni municipality in Gauteng province where the DA-led coalition governs with the support of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). The EFF decided to back the DA after the 2021 elections in order to depose and humiliate the ANC rather than any actual desire to back the DA. As such, the DA-led government remains in power in that city purely on the capricious whims of the EFF.
These slim majorities also leave the coalitions vulnerable to the internal problems of their respective members. The ongoing implosion of COPE meant that the party was unable to prevent its Johannesburg councillor Colleen Makhubele from breaking rank and joining the ANC-led coalition.
The best examples of successful coalition governments are in small-town South Africa, especially the Western Cape. Here local governments are typically run by coalitions of only two or three parties. In addition, these towns tend to be less high-profile and as a result the parties tend to let local leaders and councillors take the lead in negotiating coalitions.
This empowerment of local leaders to negotiate coalitions is essential as these are the individuals who will need to make these coalitions work. This is the best way forward even if it does result in strange scenarios such as the fact that the GOOD party is in a coalition with the DA in NMB and the Witzenberg municipality, and in coalition with the ANC in the national government and the Threewaterskloof municipality. Yet despite this dichotomy, it results in more stable politics in the long run.
It was arguably the DA’s insistence on negotiating and managing these coalitions on a national level which doomed the Johannesburg coalition. The DA’s national leadership refused to entertain the prospect of surrendering the speaker’s chair in order to save the coalition. The fact that marching orders were given by DA Federal Council Chairperson Helen Zille undermined Phalatse’s ability to manage her own coalition and deepened frustration among the DA’s partners in Johannesburg.
Zille’s and the DA’s approach to the saga highlighted the need for a substantial paradigm shift towards governance if this new era of coalition governments is to function. Political parties – especially the DA and the ANC – need to acknowledge that just because they are the largest member of the coalition does not mean they can govern as though they won a majority. Coalitions are dynamic entities which need to be continuously managed, and partners’ grievances must be listened to. The only way for this to work is for these parties to adopt a more collaborative approach and devolve responsibility for these coalitions to the party leaders and personalities who actually have to make these coalitions work.
These parties need to adapt their paradigm and approach urgently as the era of collation governments is clearly here to stay and unlikely to remain confined to local governments. If the current voter trends hold, it is highly likely that no single party will win a majority of support in Gauteng in the 2024 general election meaning that the country’s economic heartland will be governed by a coalition. In fact, the 2024 election could see as many as four provinces and the national government run by coalitions. Unless the country’s major political parties can learn to adapt and operate within a collaborative framework, Gauteng – and potentially even South Africa as a whole – could fall victim to the instability currently plaguing Johannesburg.