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JUDITH FEBRUARY: The ‘c’ word of elections - coalitions

Since elections are upon us, so are polls indicating how poorly the ANC may do, specifically in provinces like Gauteng or KwaZulu-Natal, and how the Democratic Alliance may lose support in Cape Town.

The ANC is divided, speaking with its usual forked tongue and in desperate need of an ethical compass. Enter President Cyril Ramaphosa who must make this election count - for the sake of his presidency and for the sake of those in the party who seek to redeem the ANC in some way.

As for the DA, it is reeling somewhat from its spat with former Cape Town Mayor Patricia De Lille and the general malaise that seems to have set in at City Hall. It knows that an ANC win in the Western Cape is unlikely, yet it suffers from the burden of incumbency. It shot itself in the foot in the De Lille matter and also its general spatial development policies and unresponsiveness have left many feeling uneasy and angry.

And so, as we speak about elections, the ‘c’ word is also repeatedly being used - coalitions.

EFF leader Julius Malema, understanding that he will never win the election, has now styled himself as Kingmaker. Recently, he was as bold as to state, "I want to be president and I don’t bargain for anything less than that and you can be president without winning elections".

Heaven help us.

Malema, of course, is given to the grandiose and exaggeration and has doubtless succeeded in bringing the land issue onto the ANC’s agenda and causing it, misguidedly, to try to ‘radicalise’ its election talk. Malema, the great disruptor, enjoys putting other parties on the back foot.

Thus far, South Africa hasn’t proven fertile ground for coalition politics.

Recent attempts at coalitions between opposition parties have exposed the need for inclusive leadership capable of looking beyond narrow political interests and a more mature approach to cooperation.

The fragilities (and the limits) of coalition politics were on display in the Nelson Mandela Bay municipality ever since the parliamentary vote on introducing a policy of expropriation of land without compensation was held at the end of February 2018.

After the 2016 municipal elections, the DA managed to secure enough seats in three metropolitan councils – Nelson Mandela Bay, Johannesburg and Tshwane – so as to challenge the ANC for control, provided it could secure enough support from minority parties. This it was able to do with support from the EFF, although no formal coalitions were formed.

Thus, in Nelson Mandela Bay, the DA held 48% of the seats, the ANC 42%, and the EFF 5%, with the remainder held by six other parties, only one of which – the UDM – secured more than one seat. In Johannesburg, the DA held 39%, the ANC 45% and the EFF 6%, with the remainder divided among eight small parties. In Tshwane, the DA held 43% of the seats, the ANC 42% and the EFF 12%, with the balance being distributed among four smaller parties.

The ideological gulf between the DA and EFF was always likely to make for a strained relationship, and on the issue of land expropriation the strain was particularly glaring. Prior to the parliamentary debate on the land issue in 2018, Malema had threatened the DA, saying that failure to support the proposed policy would be met by the EFF undoing its control of some of the municipal governments that it headed. "I want to say to the DA," said Malema at the time, "your stay in the metros is dependent on your attitude towards this question. There is no doubt about that." The DA was never going to support the measure – it was, after all, inconsistent with its own principles and policy programme – and this resulted in a predictably angry and theatrical response from the EFF.

The Nelson Mandela Bay metropolitan municipality – out of all the three municipalities governed by coalition – rapidly came into the EFF’s cross hairs. Malema stated on several occasions that an explicit reason for targeting the municipality was the race of the incumbent mayor Athol Trollip. "We are going for your white man in PE [Port Elizabeth]. We are going to cut the throat of whiteness," he remarked on one occasion.

The other DA metro mayors over whose positions the EFF could have held some influence – Herman Mashaba in Johannesburg and Solly Msimanga in Tshwane – barely featured in the EFF’s campaign. In fact, the EFF’s presence in Nelson Mandela Bay was far smaller and less influential than in the other two metros; in either of the latter, the EFF could have removed the mayors simply by shifting its allegiance to the ANC. This was so even though ardent free-marketeer and one-time businessman Mashaba was ideologically pretty much everything that the EFF was against.

That the EFF declined to use its influence to eject the DA in those municipalities meant that race, opportunism or both appeared to be the central motivation in the EFF’s actions. The DA duly accused the EFF of racism and pointed out that its actions would hand the municipality back to the ANC, along with the corruption that this would supposedly imply. The current mayor of Nelson Mandela Bay, Mongameli Bobani, was installed with the help of the UDM, EFF and the ANC. Scarcely two months into Bobani’s tenure the Hawks raided his office in relation to cases of fraud, corruption and money laundering. We should probably not be surprised.

The electoral losses the ANC suffered in the 2016 municipal elections, along with the emergence of increased debilitating factionalism within its own ranks, has brought forth a more competitive electoral politics. Along with this came the imperative of learning to cooperate across party lines.

Malema thus remains a headache for Ramaphosa. Early last year, Ramaphosa and his deputy David Mabuza said Malema would be welcomed ‘home’ and the ‘ANC would love to have him back’. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that the expelled Malema could one day find his way ‘back home’ to the ANC. After all, politics is mostly about opportunism. But again, while Malema understands very well the power of optics, it is, however, worth remembering who he is.

The corrupt tenders from which he benefited in Limpopo, all of which are detailed in the Auditor-General’s report of 2010/2011, place Malema firmly at the site of the looting that took place in Limpopo during Cassel Mathale’s premiership. In addition, the EFF leadership has been implicated in the VBS bank looting scandal.

South Africa still faces the very real prospects of coalition government in the future and it is likely to test our resilience even further if that moment arises.

Whether the country is able to summon that kind of constructive cooperation and the leadership it requires to facilitate stable coalition government remains to be seen. The latest polling, rudimentary as it is, shows the ANC in troubled waters in Gauteng, for instance. If coalition politics is needed, the ANC may well need to find uncomfortable bedfellows like the EFF.

The currency of disruption is the EFF’s trump card, as is the populist ‘noise of now’. It has little time for the thoughtful deliberation required to deal with our country’s challenges. Its actions have all too often been undemocratic while using crass nationalism and race-baiting to drive its agenda. The result is usually inflamed rhetoric and instability.

If one were in Ramaphosa’s shoes one would want to avert the possibility of coalitions at all costs. We will see on 9 May whether the electorate agrees.

Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies and is also a Visiting Fellow at the Wits School of Governance. She is the author of 'Turning and turning: exploring the complexities of South Africa’s democracy'. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february

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