The Weimar Republic and lessons for SA’s coalition period

Chris Maxon, a former Rise Mzansi parliamentary candidate. Pic: Supplied

Chris Maxon, a former Rise Mzansi parliamentary candidate. Pic: Supplied

Published Jul 10, 2024


The recent electoral outcome in South Africa has led to a new era of coalition governance, drawing intriguing parallels to the Weimar Republic period in Germany. As political theorists and commentators examine the similarities, important lessons emerge that can guide South Africa through its phase of transition.

A New Chapter in History

The Weimar Republic was born in the aftermath of World War I, when the German Empire was collapsing. Seeking to establish a democratic government, German politicians modelled the Weimar Republic after the victorious Allied powers. Named after the city where its constitution was drafted, the Weimar Republic symbolised Germany’s first attempt at democracy, much like South Africa’s Government of National Unity marks a significant new chapter after the recent elections.

A Time of Creativity and Anxiety

The Weimar era was characterised by two contrasting moods: excitement and creativity on one hand, and anxiety and fear on the other. The newfound freedom of expression in art, music, dance and architecture flourished, leaving a lasting cultural legacy. Women, newly enfranchised and participating in the workforce, took on significant roles in society and politics.

However, rapid changes in political rights and social freedoms caused unease, leading to a backlash. Economic crises, such as hyperinflation and the Great Depression, along with the threat of communism, heightened the fear. Violent clashes between political parties and the rise of ultra-conservative forces, particularly the National Socialist Party, added to the tension.

Learning from Weimar’s Mistakes

Historian Detlev Peukert noted that uncertainty was the hallmark of the Weimar period. The challenges faced by Germans in the 1920s resonate with the difficulties South Africans encounter today. Reflecting on the Weimar Republic’s collapse and the rise of Nazism, several critical lessons emerge for South Africa.

Economic Stability

Economic shocks, such as inflation and depressions, challenge all governments. Economic insecurity can drive people to seek alternatives to the regime, as seen during the Weimar years. It is crucial for South Africa to address economic challenges proactively to maintain stability.

Political Representation

Under extreme economic conditions, proportional representation (PR) can exacerbate political fragmentation. PR systems can result in an incoherent electoral majority, composed of parties that reject the system but agree on little else. Avoiding political fragmentation and fostering a culture of respect and collaboration is essential.

Constitutional Protections

The Weimar experience shows that constitutions alone do not necessarily protect a democratic system. Events interpreted as emergencies can rapidly erode constitutional protections. We have seen, for instance, the new uMkhonto weSizwe Party campaigning on the ticket on eroding our constitutionalism, to the delight of many and garnering significant electoral support. South Africa must remain vigilant to safeguard its democracy against such threats.

Leadership and Influence

Weimar’s history also highlights the dangers of weakened leadership and the influence of behind-the-scenes actors. President Paul von Hindenburg, suffering from dementia, was controlled by his so,n Oskar, who influenced critical decisions. This highlights the risks of weakened leadership. Strong, transparent leadership is essential to navigate through crises and maintain public trust.

Political Culture

A political culture that demonises opponents erodes democracy. Weimar Germany saw the pattern before the Nazis gained prominence, with significant political figures becoming targets of intense hatred. Promoting a culture of respect and collaboration among political leaders is crucial for South Africa’s stability.

A Cautionary Tale

The Weimar Republic’s collapse serves as a cautionary tale. South Africa can learn from Weimar’s successes and failures by addressing economic challenges, avoiding political fragmentation, and fostering a culture of respect and collaboration. By doing so, South Africa can strengthen its democracy and avoid the pitfalls that led to the Weimar Republic’s downfall.

As South Africa navigates its coalition period, the lessons from the past can provide valuable guidance for a stable and prosperous future.

Chris Maxon is former Rise Mzansi parliamentary candidate