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Listening to political parties go on about how they “will never go into a coalition with the ANC” and “anyone but the ruling party”, you realise the once-glorious movement of Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela has been reduced to a party that will have to beg and grovel at the feet of smaller and emerging parties to stay in power in many municipalities.
The number of hung councils rose drastically from 27 in the 2016 local government elections to 70 in 2021.
The smaller parties, now more than ever before, have a real voice in who gets to govern, more especially in the key metros of Joburg, Tshwane and Ekurhuleni.
Should citizens be alarmed at the prospect of five years of tug-of-wars between coalition partners at the expense of service delivery?
The short answer is no – but there is a real possibility that some party can puts its ego before the people and flex its muscles at key stages during council votes, leading to ineffective governance in a coalition council.
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But as voters have demonstrated by reducing the ruling party to less than 50% in over 70 councils, they will not tolerate bad service delivery, making smaller parties kingmakers.
But embedded in being kingmakers is also a curse and to survive and grow in the next election, these parties must choose wisely.
It is quite okay for a Herman Mashaba to shout from the rooftops that ActionSA will go into a coalition with anyone but the ANC. That’s what his supporters like to hear, but not necessarily what is good for them.
Five years ago, the DA was in the same position in Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay (Gqeberha) and desperate to keep the ANC out of government, so they went into a coalition with the party their supporters would have considered their last option – the EFF.
And the EFF threw their toys out of the cot at the most crucial times, leaving them unable to govern.
It is possible that the 5% drop in support for the DA is not only because of their ineptitude in handling racism, but also that they failed to be effective in certain places because it was not the voters they put first in forming coalitions.
The lessons for the smaller parties? “Don’t hate the devil so much that you fail to pay attention to your own god,” to paraphrase CS Lewis.
Mashaba, John Steenhuisen, Julius Malema and all other small parties must realise they don’t form coalitions to serve their own parties but to serve all voters – even those who voted for the ruling party that they abhor.
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If ActionSA can form a government with the DA to run Tshwane effectively, by all means they must.
If they can only form a government with the ANC to deliver effective services to the people of Johannesburg, then they must toss their dogma aside and set conditions to keep the ANC in check during their partnership.
Although fairly new to voters, coalitions are not going anywhere any time soon, that’s the stage SA’s democratic project is.
Smaller parties must enjoy their kingmaker status but also learn of the dangers of incumbency: the master’s borrowed clothes must never make them lose sight of why voters put them there in the first place.
If they enjoy the benefits of office too much because they are kingmakers, the voters will remind them in the most cruel way at the polls.
They must make coalitions work, for the voters.