Coalition government not the answer SA is looking for

DA leader John Steenhuisen and Action SA president Herman Mashaba at the National Multi-Party Convention held in Joburg earlier this year, where several parties came together to discuss coalition business. Picture: Timothy Bernard/Independent Newspapers

DA leader John Steenhuisen and Action SA president Herman Mashaba at the National Multi-Party Convention held in Joburg earlier this year, where several parties came together to discuss coalition business. Picture: Timothy Bernard/Independent Newspapers

Published Dec 18, 2023


Harlan Cloete

Last week my Great Governance ZA podcast reached the 100-episode milestone. About a year ago I interviewed Professor Jaap de Visser on the platform and he argued that coalition governments are a natural consequence of our South African electoral system and that we must get used to this reality.

On December 5 we marked the passing of Nelson Mandela who led the first coalition government in South Africa, called the government of national unity. That coalition did not last beyond two years, with the National Party walking out in 1996 because the ANC would not agree to extend the government of national unity beyond 1999, as well as a failure to reach consensus on key economic choices and policies. And so since 1996 the ANC has had the sole mandate to ensure economic justice.

Today there is no greater failure than the failure of our economic policies. The fact the World Bank declared South Africa the most unequal country in the world is a direct consequence of our economic policy choices over a period of 30 years. We are faced with deep-rooted structural inequality, persistent generational poverty and rising youth unemployment. These problems will persist due to deteriorating state capacity and inappropriate policy management. How long will state indifference last? No one knows.

The National Development Plan (NDP) review concludes that instead of a capable state, we have an increasingly corrupt state. And let me remind you that this corruption did not start in 1994, it is so deeply entrenched in our DNA – both the private and public sectors. This country was built on this political economic collusion resulting in centuries of economic and political injustice.

The NDP states that instead of a seamless planning system, we have a disjointed planning system that is poorly implemented and misaligned to the strategic goals of the NDP. Instead of a more inclusive and equitable economy, we have economic policies that do not seem to be achieving the transformation that is required. Social cohesion has fallen off the government priority list and is articulated superficially (Stronger Together – four rugby world cups and more divided than ever). South Africans experience some of the highest levels of violent interpersonal crime globally, especially violence against women.

And so we continue to be brilliant at identifying what is wrong but weak in implementing what must be done. I conclude that the Constitution is not working, as summed up by a colleague: we fought for freedom and all we got was democracy. And so there is this deep sense of cynicism with our current politicians and the political system that continues to condemn people to misery and making them slaves to new forms of slavery, alcohol abuse being but one. South Africa has some of the highest rates of youth binge-drinking. The reality is that this democracy is working for the elites not the poor. The statistics show that we have about 62 million people, of which 45 million are eligible to vote, with close to 27 million people on the voters roll. In the 2019 election only 19 million people voted (42%) and in our Covid election in 2021 only 12 million voted (27%).

The reality is that we have more than 100 registered parties and more parties joining the ballot paper, the latest is the Activist and Citizens Forum calling for Dr Allan Boesak to lead. This leads me to conclude that people either form political parties because they see politics as entry into the middle class (given our high unemployment rate) or they are genuinely disillusioned with the status quo and feel this to be the only way to express their dissatisfaction.

We now know what good leadership looks like – it is not what people say, it’s what they do. So what does a desired future look like? The NDP concludes that leadership and active citizenry will get us out of this deep hole. The reality is that the bar for political leadership is so low. Ours is a system of representative and participatory democracy. There is a total disconnect between the politicians and the people – social distance. The goodwill of the people is simply not matched by administrative and political will.

Instead, the system is designed to make you dependent (grants).

South Africans must decide. Are we active or passive citizens? In the broad sense (business, academia and civil society formations). Active citizens are involved, helping to shape society as expressed in a grass-roots governance course spearheaded by colleague Ina Gouws at the University of the Free State (UFS).

This requires hard work and deep commitment to build institutions. This is not elitist. In this, new knowledge and models are developed that serve to liberate people. Active citizenship irritates and keeps producing evidence demanding excellence and redistribution of wealth.

If we think a coalition government is the answer, we are making a big mistake. Such a government may even be more complex given the different egos demanding to be fed. Rather a Citizen Coalition (social solidarity) is needed, where citizens lead and the government follows. Unless we make that transition in our heads, we will forever be at the mercy of politicians trapped in a system that rewards only them. We cannot talk of a coalition government if we do not talk about a citizen coalition. Such a citizen coalition is built on five principles, namely, leadership behaviours that are not based on rent-seeking, economic inclusion, equal access to health care (dignity), equal access to education (a means to an end) and accountability systems.

The October 2022 report from Good Governance Africa suggests that excellence in municipal performance to a lesser extent is the consequence of which political party is in charge and more linked with governance, population, and provincial dynamics.

However, what the study also showed is that when you have ethical and competent leadership steering the ship to ensure that municipalities are properly governed in terms of administration, planning and monitoring, and service delivery then there is a greater chance of success.

In October I was invited by the municipal council of the Theewaterskloof municipality to facilitate a three-day strategic conversation using my Governance 5iQ model as point of departure.

This model asks five questions. Why we do what we do (vision)? How is it being done (mission)? How will we know at any given time we are on track (M&E –monitoring and evaluation)? If we are not on track, what are we doing about it (consequence management)? And finally, how we lead and learn (knowledge management). I believe the Governance 5iQ could be applied in conversation around the viability of a Citizen Coalition.

The desired state is inclusive coalition governance not coalition government that is achieved through building coalition governance competence on all levels of society. The cornerstone of this coalition governance is a partnership between civil society, the private sector, government, and academia, as concluded in the NDP review.

Where we co-create a desired future. And this must be youth led. It can be done, we owe it to the youth who rightfully question the motives of those who are trying to fix problems they themselves created over the past three decades.

This is hard work. But there is no better time than the present.

* Dr Cloete is a research fellow at the UFS and founder of the ‘Great Governance ZA Podcast’

Cape Times