While South Africa is not homogenous there are still vital lessons the country can learn from Denmark as it embarks on the new political art form of coalition governance, which is so fundamentally different from the purely adversarial characteristics that we have become accustomed to, write Richard Calland and Mike Law.
Recent events in the City of Johannesburg, Nelson Mandela Bay and Ekurhuleni have elevated coalition politics to one of the dominant issues in South African political discourse. It has led some to question whether coalitions are a good thing for South Africa and whether they are worth the apparent instability that they bring – or that they have so far tended to cause to City Hall governance.
In this context, people are understandably asking: are coalitions worth the trouble?
This question, however, is moot. Like it or not, coalition politics is now a reality in South Africa. Coalition negotiations and formations are driven by necessity rather than by choice.
In proportional representation (PR) systems like South Africa’s, it is uncommon for a single party to enjoy a dominant majority such as the ANC has for almost three decades. PR systems generally produce a proliferation of political parties that are compelled to work together, sharing power, because no one party has been able to secure a majority on their own.
How do we get stable governance?
So the question is, what can be done to make coalitions work so that they serve citizens and the economy by providing the stable governance that public service delivery requires?
There are several potential advantages of governance through coalitions which should be appreciated, as a delegation of South African political party leaders recently learned on a study tour to Denmark – a partnership project between the Danish Embassy and the University of Cape Town.
Denmark has not had a majority government in over a hundred years and has some of the lowest levels of corruption in the world and the highest level of democratic satisfaction. In the Danish national elections on 1 November 2022, 12 political parties (plus four from Greenland and the Faroe Islands) passed the 2% threshold to enter the 179-seat Parliament. However, only two parties secured more than 10% of the votes – the Liberal Party (13,3%) and the Social Democrats (27,5%).
Of course, when compared to a country like Denmark, South Africa must be weary of its own context. A model that is effective in a small, wealthy, relatively homogeneous Western European democracy can’t be transplanted into South Africa with the expectation that it will all work the same.
But there are still vital lessons to be learned by South Africa as it embarks on this new political art form which is so fundamentally different from the purely adversarial characteristics that we have become accustomed to.
Take corruption for example. Danish experts put their low levels of corruption down to coalitions. Why? There are simply more eyes on the cookie jar.
And, over time – and time it will take – the political culture of a country can become less adversarial and more about forging consensus between various groups. Less ‘us and them’ and more about togetherness – something that South Africa’s diverse yet deeply divided population is still in desperate need of.
So, if the Danish experience is the light at the end of the tunnel, how will we get there? Here are three key lessons that we learnt in Denmark.
- Lesson 1: Be patient – it will get better
While South Africans will understandably want quick fixes, coalition cultures take time to build.
Both Denmark and Germany (where a similar study tour was conducted in 2019) have had coalition governments at national level for the better part of century. No doubt that they would have experienced some of the challenges and teething issues that South African coalitions have.
And it’s not just the parties that have to adapt. Perhaps more so, it is voters who will need to evolve in their understanding of the politics at play. For example, in Denmark, voters expect parties to behave in a certain way and deliver a coalition government that is cohesive and stable. Parties that compromise the stability of coalitions or are ‘politically anti-social’ are punished by the electorate.
- Lesson 2: Ensure that laws are ‘coalition appropriate’
Generally, legislation offers little protection for coalitions across the world. Particularly, the enforceability of coalition agreements has always been weak.
But, there are some laws in South Africa which could be reconsidered. For example, South African law allows only a very short timeframe between an election and the time in which a government must be formed. This results in frantic coalition negotiations, where parties struggle to get to the real substance of a government programme, and instead focus on the scramble for positions.
This, in turn, encourages what we call a solely ‘transactional’ approach to power-sharing and coalition arrangements.
The extremely low electoral thresholds in South Africa may also justifiably be debated in terms of whether it lends itself to coalition readiness. In 1994, South Africa adopted very low electoral thresholds of, in essence, just 0,25% (since there are 400 seats in the National Assembly).
The rationale for this was admirable: South Africa is so diverse that it must be capable of allowing entrance into the political system for its great array of people and interest groups.
But the threshold is on the extreme low side. This results in a large number of parties within each legislature, many with just one or two seats. But in the tight numbers games that we see, these one-seat parties can wield enormous force – and it is the nature of coalition politics that smaller parties wield disproportionate power.
But, the more parties in the coalition, the more susceptible it is to instability. The ideal size of a coalition is two to four parties, but in South Africa, parties have to pull off, in some cases, ten-party coalitions.
Another legislative imperative is to find better means to insulate the public service against shifting political winds in legislatures. If governments get the boot from month to month, this should not affect the smooth delivery of services.
This may mean that we need to scrutinise the hiring and firing powers of councils and legislatures or explore other means to de-politicise the public service. At the moment, far too many senior positions in public service are tied to who is in power. When there is persistent instability or uncertainty in government as a result of frequent changes to the coalition arrangements, it all too often leads to paralysis in governance and public service delivery, which harms people and the economy.
A further method that springs to mind from Denmark is that once a mayor is elected by the council, that mayor stays until the next election. No motions of no-confidence every other week that can shift power to whoever can muster up 50% + 1 on the given day.
- Lesson 3: Coalesce over issues and principles, not just power
Early experience of South African coalitions shows that they have been largely transactional – focused on winning positions and the acquisition of power.
To a certain extent, that is unavoidable. Political coalitions are usually formed for the purpose of forming a government, and it is common practice to distribute key positions among coalitions partners, partly as a form of power-sharing and partly to ensure that each coalition partner gets some ‘bang for their buck’ in joining the coalition and is thus disincentivised from leaving.
But it is unsustainable for power, or mutual enmity, to be the only glue that holds coalitions together. Such arrangements will always be unstable.
In Denmark, we see the concept of ‘legislative coalitions’. Notwithstanding the apex coalition agreement that led to the formation of a government, parties can work with others in and out of the coalition to pursue specific legislative reform or advance other issues without being thrown out of the coalition.
Danish politicians speak of a ‘golden rule’ in their coalition culture: “play the ball, not the person”. In other words, stick to the issues instead of making the thing about personalities. That is also why coalitions in Denmark share their coalition agreement with the public – so that voters will be able to hold each political party accountable to the joint agreement.
Coalition culture still has some way to go to mature in the South African political arena. But the recent shenanigans are maybe the price that needs to be paid to develop a new way of ‘doing politics’ that can bring with it better outcomes.
In that context, the participation of South African political leaders on this study tour must be appreciated: there was a clear appetite to learn and do better. Now it is time to put lessons into practice, as the public expects better, and the economy urgently deserves better governance. Political leaders across the political spectrum are going to have to raise their games.
– Richard Calland is Associate Professor of public law at the University of Cape Town and convenor of the coalition initiative under which this study tour took place. Mike Law is Senior Researcher at the Paternoster Group: African Political Insight and project co-ordinator of the initiative.
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