As South Africans head to the polls on Monday to elect their local government leaders, political analysts say this year’s hotly contested local government elections present an excellent opportunity for small parties and independent candidates to snatch up seats in municipal councils where the ANC and the DA have failed to govern.
According to political analysts Sanusha Naidu and Professor Lesiba Teffo, the internal challenges faced by the two main parties over the last five years – including a disillusioned electorate – offer the perfect recipe for coalition governments to continue to be the mainstay of local politics.
And this will be largely determined by the entrance of the many small parties and independents contesting this year’s elections.
Following the 2016 polls, for the first time since the dawn of SA’s democracy, several metropolitan councils controlled by the ANC were hung after the governing party failed to win votes with an outright majority in Tshwane, Johannesburg, Ekurhuleni and Nelson Mandela Bay.
This opened up the floodgates for the DA to work with smaller parties and the country’s third-biggest party, the EFF, to take control of the metros. But South Africa’s experiment with coalition governments has not been perfect.
The differences in how to govern between the DA and its coalition partners left a lot of voters feeling disenfranchised by the poor service delivery in their municipalities.
Despite this, Naidu and Teffo believe voters would be willing to give coalitions another chance because they are the future of South Africa’s political landscape.
Naidu said South Africans are choosing not to give a single party a majority because of a trust deficit in politicians.
Naidu said although coalitions were not necessarily new in the country, they are a better option for voters who are fed up with the ANC’s failed promises over the last 27 years.
She said coalitions had been on the periphery for the longest time before the 2016 elections, and now they are becoming much more manifested in local politics.
“The electorate doesn’t have confidence and trust that one political party can satisfy their interests. There is a trust deficit in governance and no political party is the only political party that can deliver on addressing that trust deficit,” Naidu said.
Teffo agreed that voters would continue to favour coalition governments in spite of the challenges faced by the DA-led coalitions.
He said voters were tired of corruption, poor service delivery, crime and unemployment in their communities. He said they saw coalitions as an option to try something new rather than putting their trust in a single party.
“There is a serious political awareness and literacy which I’ve been calling for, for many years. People are taking their destiny into their own hands rather than in the hands of the political parties,” Teffo said.
What happened to the 2016 coalitions?
But with questions remaining over the factors that led to the challenges faced by the 2016 coalitions, or “marriages of convenience”, Teffo said greed and the thirst for power by politicians were some of the reasons they failed.
He said after being elected as councillors, politicians focused their energies on serving their own interests and those of their parties instead of their constituents.
“They don’t go into politics to serve the people but to serve their own interest. That’s what brought the coalitions down,” Teffo said.
Naidu concurred that the desperation to be in power, by all means, was one of the reasons why most of the coalition governments failed.
“I think it’s a question of whether or not you choose a coalition partner because you have a convergence of interests, ideology and values and ethics. Many times coalitions don’t come together to fit all of the criteria.
“They come together for a very specific purpose and that is governing through a coalition. But like any kind of relationship, that relationship goes through ebbs and flows,” she said.
Both analysts said before thinking about which party they wanted to form a coalition with, political parties and independent candidates must share the same or similar policies, ideologies and approaches to governance.
They said this would help to ease the tensions between coalition partners.
“The problem in South Africa is when a coalition tends to step outside some of the envisioned processes and values,” Naidu said.
Role of small parties, independents
Naidu said the lesser-known parties and independents were likely to tip the balance of power in hung metros.
She said they also play a vital role by keeping the dominant parties like the ANC and DA on their toes by ensuring that services are delivered to residents.
“For the first time the relevance of smaller political parties is served much more at the local level and at the grassroots, and that is why their strategic value and purpose becomes much more palatable at that level,” she said.
Teffo also agreed with Naidu but urged small parties and independent candidates to rather focus on principles and values instead of the “politics of the stomach”.
“The day that politicians get mature enough and understand and appreciate that they are there to serve the people and not themselves, coalitions are going to work,” he said.
With a poll from market research company, Ipsos, showing that the ANC’s electoral support is likely to continue declining after Monday’s elections, it will be interesting to see if voters will indeed be open to more coalitions, or if they would give a single party a majority of their votes.