South Africa’s coalition chaos – government wants a new plan to make parties work together

 ·17 Mar 2023

Attempts at municipal coalitions in South Africa have fallen short in major metros, and the national government is now planning to introduce a new framework to manage how future coalitions could operate.

Responding to a parliamentary Q&A this week, the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (Cogta) said there had been an unprecedented increase in municipal council elections tilting toward coalitions.

As a result, the department is urgently planning to convene all interested stakeholders to discuss improving stability within coalition governments, hoping this will lead to a new regulatory framework.

The department plans to have a new system of governing coalitions within the context of local governments by the next term of local government elections in 2026.

Coalitions have been unstable in many instances, most of which have ended before the conclusion of an official term.

“Instability in a local coalition can have a severe impact as it may compromise the municipality’s ability to adopt policies and bylaws; make senior management appointments; or even adopt a budget,” the department said.

“They often also have a disastrous effect on administrations as staff members are unsure if the political leadership will change, and through that, change the service delivery priorities.”

“These challenges result in dire consequences for municipal operations and impede service delivery,” it said.

During the 2021 November local elections, it was the first time that elections in the four major councils of the City of Johannesburg, Ekurhuleni, Nelson Mandela Bay and the City of Tshwane produced ‘hung councils’ – meaning that no political party was able to secure an outright majority of over 50% of the votes.

One of the most notable failings of a coalition can be seen in the recent development surrounding the City of Johannesburg. In late 2022, extending into 2023, there has been contentious fighting over who has the final say over the district, especially the mayoral seat.

On 30 September, the Democratic Alliance’s Mpho Phalatse, the ex-mayor of Joburg, was ousted after the city’s multi-party coalition government fell apart, and a vote of no confidence in Phalatse passed.

The DA-led coalition government, consisting of various parties, including the ACDP, FF Plus, COPE, IFP, ActionSA, and later the PA, was overthrown when COPE and the PA voted against their partners due to internal conflicts.

As a result, ANC member Dada Morero took over leadership without any opposition. This was then challenged by Phalatse on multiple occasions in court, and she was only officially let go in January this year.

In collaboration with the EFF and the PA, the ANC pushed out Phalatse and installed Thapelo Amad from the Al-Jama-ah party – a political party with only three seats in Johannesburg.

Gauteng, following the 2021 local elections, had multiple coalition governments controlling Ekurhuleni, Johannesburg and Tshwane – however, turf wars have emerged, with political infighting and preference taking centre stage over service delivery.

South African municipalities are notorious for being dysfunctional on multiple levels, with the most basic services, such as water security or road infrastructure, falling short.

Budget expectations by the National Treasury expect for municipalities to overextend themselves this year, adding to the country’s debt. Total expenditure for 2022/23 was 5.1% higher than the adjusted budget for the 2021/22 financial year.

Many political parties have, however, raised concern over coalition governance, most notably the national ruling party, the ANC, which is hamstrung in maintaining executive power.

Fikile Mbalula, the secretary general of the leading political party ANC, has said that society must understand that coalitions do not work.

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