Big shake-up for provinces in South Africa is coming

 ·12 Jun 2024

The co-governing agreements forged at the national and provincial levels, especially in provinces where no single party secured a clear majority, are poised to influence the makeup of existing coalitions in numerous municipal councils.

This is the view of Professor Jannie Rossouw, an expert in political economics from the Wits Business School, who says that the forthcoming cooperative governance deals, particularly in provinces with hung assemblies, will very likely have a trickle-down effect.

This is expected to impact the composition of many similarly hung local councils often entangled in precarious coalition arrangements.

“Consider me an optimist, but this could ultimately prove beneficial for our municipalities,” said Rossouw, noting the potential for enhanced stability.

However, for this to materialise, experts say that parties need to drastically increase transparency in coalition negotiations and deals, subjecting them to public scrutiny to hold elected representatives accountable.

South Africa’s experience with hung local councils

While South Africa is navigating new territory with national and provincial coalitions, coalition governance at the local level is not unprecedented.

Research from the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (Mistra) shows a 260% increase in the number of hung councils in South Africa between the 2016 and 2021 local government elections.

Source: Good Governance Africa

This surge necessitated the formation of coalition governments unless parties opted for the even less stable path of minority governments.

As a result, many local councils have grappled with high levels of coalition instability and disruptive governance due to party politicisation, horse-trading, and unstable alliances.

“Many local government coalitions are often characterised by infighting, instability,” and the constant vying for better executive positions, said Rossouw.

This can be seen in various examples, such as the country’s economic hub, Johannesburg, which has witnessed rapid turnover in executive leadership since the 2021 municipal elections, including five mayors in less than 18 months (although the current mayor has held his position for just over a year).

Provincial agreements

Following the 2024 general elections, coalitions will be imperative in provinces like Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, and the Northern Cape, with more extensive negotiations anticipated in densely populated provinces such as Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal due to their highly fragmented vote.

Rossouw suggests that hard-negotiated deals in provinces like Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal could pave the way for stable cooperative provincial governance.

This is due to the fairer distribution of power among coalition partners as a result of a more fragmented vote in the 2024 general elections and the increased emphasis on seamless cooperation in partnerships, especially considering the heightened focus parties often place on provincial politics.

As coalitions are set to take place in these provinces, it’s crucial to recognise the close connection between provincial and local government politics. Recent local government coalition negotiations have largely been led by party provincial heads.

Consequently, the establishment of a working relationship at the provincial level could potentially lead to cooperative arrangements among former adversaries in local councils to ensure stability provincially.

“This would be good for service delivery and the constituents, as parties would now be focused on maintaining working relationships (stable governance) and not horse-trading, which would result in improved service delivery”, which often took the back seat, said Rossouw.

What’s the catch?

Rossouw stressed that these hopes would only realistically materialise if there is “improved transparency in coalition negotiations and agreements.”

“All government coalition agreements and contracts should be made public for public scrutiny…what is there to hide?” said Rossouw.

This was echoed by Pranish Desai from Good Governance Africa, who said that “equally important as making coalition arrangements formal is making them public.”

“At the heart of democracy lies the relationship between citizens and those who govern… formal coalition arrangements can amplify stability, but having them made public means that citizens can better hold the elected to account between elections as well,” said Desai.

“This is why, to ensure stable governance that facilitates South Africa’s development, it is vital that… civil society and citizens put pressure on political parties to formalise and publicise coalition agreements,” he added.

Read: This isn’t 1994: South Africa heading into the unknown with GNU 2024

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