Intractable coalition talks reveal our odious political culture

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Intractable coalition talks reveal our odious political culture

SA parties have shown their true colours, caring more about amassing power than the needs of voters and citizens

Contributor and analyst
The service delivery truck makes its way over the 'unsteady' bridge of coalition politics.
TENUOUS The service delivery truck makes its way over the 'unsteady' bridge of coalition politics.
Image: Brandan Raynolds

It is fascinating watching coalition talks unfold, after the local government election results left us with 66 hung municipalities. What and how parties negotiate to form coalitions to govern municipalities in which no one got an outright majority reveal a lot about the political DNA of each party, and a lot about our political culture more generally. It is amazing what unnecessary strategic and tactical errors are being made. These errors are avoidable but are fuelled by our odious political culture, in which the needs of voters and citizens are rendered inferior to the egomania of way too many South African politicians.           

The first example of this ridiculousness is to negotiate as if you had won an outright majority in these hung municipalities. The reason you did not win is because most voting residents in those geographies did not think you deserved to be given the sort of unfettered power that is not dependent on working together with other parties or independents. The take-it-or-leave-it posture of both big and small political parties belies the electoral outcomes in the hung municipalities.           

If you were the winner, there would have been no need for coalition talks. Why is this elementary, mathematical and legal truth so hard to internalise? Furthermore, the consequence of this elementary reality is that you are not entitled to have everything on your negotiating wish list accepted by all of the other potential coalition partners, not least when that wish list is in fact a shopping list of items you did not convince voters to buy into.

The EFF is a good example of this overzealousness. When you could not get more than 11% of the vote in a metro, you would be subverting democracy if you ended up running that metro. The EFF cannot reasonably make a coalition agreement dependent on having an EFF mayor in charge of our economic heartland or of the capital city, or EFF councillors in charge of the most important portfolios. Obviously, they would wish to have an opportunity to demonstrate that they can govern and therefore to sell that story of success (should it turn out a success story) going into the next national elections.           

When you could not get more than 11% of the vote in a metro, you would be subverting democracy if you ended up running that metro.

But it has to accept that there are other routes to convincing voters to give it a mandate to run the country. By publishing clear and well-defined roles within reasonably constituted coalitions, the EFF could still stand out in a sea of local government mediocrity. But by demanding an impossible list of both policy items and seats, the EFF shows us that the accumulation of political power, as an end in itself, is really what motivates it in these coalition talks. That is not a good political look.           

Secondly, political parties are persisting in these coalition talks with conflating national and local government issues. Obviously, for reasons contingent on South African history, we will never have a neat separation of local and national issues. The cooperative governance model itself envisages a complex relationship between the three spheres of government. And, in the face of a state that is hopelessly inept at delivering on the promises made by the ANC-led national government, it is understandable that citizens may expect their cities and towns to be hubs that economically and socially fill in the gaps of national government. It is an unrealistic expectation because of the sheer weight of the financial and legislative power vested in national government, but from an experiential point of view we live our lives in villages, towns and cities, which increases the mad pressure on municipalities.           

That said, it is a strategic mistake to negotiate your national manifesto in local government coalition talks. Doing so is simply going to lead to intractable talks. That is because the ideological and policy differences between parties are so massive that consensus-building will be undermined if you wish to become a national government via local government coalition talks. It is not only unstrategic (because it will lead to talks collapsing), but also grossly unfair on us as citizens, because every day that passes without municipalities properly constituted means more days saddled with poorly run municipalities.           

What does this mean practically for the talks? Well, if you are, for example, the DA, stop the obsessive virtue-signalling by talking about principles and values. Other parties do not like your principles and values, which is why they are separate political entities in the first place. You have to negotiate the issues of local government, divvy up responsibilities, and create a model for some sort of coherent and maybe even binding power-sharing agreement, if possible, all located within the details of the needs of that particular municipality. This is no time for forcing your potential coalition partners to accept your view on race, your view on political economy, and so on. Leave those big picture issues for national politics. By demanding other parties to agree to your “values and principles”, you are also showing no interest in reaching a working agreement. This sort of demand by the DA is simply conducive to negotiations deadlocking.           

The same goes for the others. If you cannot convince the electorate to vote you into national government so that you can implement your radical land policy as the EFF wants, it is disingenuous to short-circuit that political project by demanding in local government coalition talks that parties should enable your national policy idea to come alive suddenly.           

Ultimately, these impossible demands being made by various parties show that they care more about amassing power than they do about the needs of voters and citizens. If the talks were driven by a deep and genuine desire to ensure good and responsive governance, then many of the agenda items would have fallen by the wayside. Unfortunately, our odious political culture is on public display. Once the talks are concluded, we need to have a serious conversation about how to solve this deeper malaise.

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