Government’s big plan for coalitions in South Africa

 ·22 May 2024

The Department of Co-Operative Governance has gazetted the Local Government: Municipal Structures Amendment Bill, 2024, on 21 May 2024, intending to address challenges arising from coalition politics within municipalities in South Africa.

These include introducing legally binding coalition agreements, a minimum threshold, rules around no-confidence votes, and a collective executive system.

Expected to be tabled to the National Assembly soon, the Bill noted that the surge in hung councils at local government levels brought with it “unprecedented governance and service delivery related challenges within municipalities,” due to fickle coalition agreements that often collapse.

As a result, the department said that this highlighted a need for a “framework or guidelines or legislation that will guide the formation and management of coalition governments.”

Briefly, the Bill seeks to:

  • Set a minimum threshold of 1% for a party to be eligible for council seats;
  • Bind coalition agreements;
  • Change municipalities with a mayoral executive system, in which no party obtained a majority of seats, to a collective executive system within a prescribed period;
  • Have council elections or impeachments of municipal office-bearers to be by a show of hands;
  • Set out further grounds and rules for removal of municipal office-bearers from office.

Some of the big changes:

Minimum threshold

The bill introduces a 1% threshold of valid votes cast for a political party, to qualify for a seat on the municipal council to to “reduce having too many small parties in the political system”- a provision which has been met with vocal opposition.

“Experience had shown that the formula as it stands favours smaller parties to be represented in the municipal councils, and those smaller parties tended to dictate terms to meet their interests at all costs,” the Bill said.

If the 1% threshold is not met, the party concerned must be eliminated from all further calculations for the allocation of seats on the council.

Independent political analyst Michael Atkins wrote that “while superficially attractive, this is a huge problem.”

Atkins used the 270-seat Johannesburg council as an example of this in practice, showing that this provision benefits larger parties in council, excluding smaller parties and possible independents.

Source. Michael Atkins, X, @atkinsmike1

This would be quite the shake-up. If this proposed amendment applied in the City of Johannesburg, its mayor, Kabelo Gwamanda would have not made it to council. His party, Al-Jama Ah (which holds 3 seats in 270 seat council) achieved a 0.95% vote share in the city’s 2021 municipal elections.

“In a diverse society, thresholds are undemocratic, acting as a closed shop for established parties, shutting out new entrants and smaller demographics and interest-groups,” said Atikins.

“It is also logically absurd to have thresholds for parties, when you have a system that allows independent candidates [and the] Bill does not even attempt to differentiate between municipalities of differing sizes,” he added.

“I get that people are frustrated with some of those parties, but you should not punish all small parties for the behaviour of some… or disenfranchise voters,” said Atkins.

Binding agreements

Previously, coalition partners have been able to make and break agreements at their behest.

The Bill looks to provide for binding coalition agreements between political parties, introducing a contractual connotation to the relationship between the different political parties.

The bill states that this “will be legally enforceable and will constitute a prerequisite for coalition government to govern a municipality.”

“The binding agreements will also enable the constituencies to hold the executive and the political parties concerned for failure to deliver on certain agreed terms resulting in improvement to service delivery.”

Votes of no confidence done by show of hands

The bill said motions of no confidence had become popular in municipalities, thereby having a significant impact on stability within coalitions, given rise to frequent changing of positions in council.

The amendment mandates that the removal must occur through a resolution passed by a show of hands, and that the speaker, council whips or members of the executive can only be removed after two years since their election or on specific grounds.

This change aims to prevent the buying of votes and influence peddling because “experience has shown that votes are being bought by certain political parties by soliciting bribes and influencing voting in exchange of favours or returns for elections in other positions as a municipal office bearer.”

Collective executive system

The bill modified certain provisions in previous bills, proposing that municipalities operating under a mayoral executive system, without a majority party, must transition to a collective executive system.

According to its definition, the collective executive system allows the municipal council to elect an executive committee from amongst its councillors, proportionally elected in their positions.

The Bill argues that the shift to an executive committee system with a fixed political composition from a mayoral executive system aims to improve governance stability by distributing executive authority across a representative committee rather than centralizing it in the mayor.

“Coalition negotiations can then focus on the position of the mayor, the chief whip and committee chairs. Importantly, when the coalition collapses, and the mayor is removed from office, the rest of the
executive committee stays on.”

Members of the public are invited to submit written comments on or before 5 July 2024, by emailing [email protected] or physically mailing comments to the following address:

For the attention: Mr Nhlamulo Mathye
Department of Cooperative Governance
Private Bag X804

Read: Proposed new laws to ‘stabilise’ coalitions in South Africa

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