Marriages of inconvenience: the fraught politics of coalitions in South Africa


Political Scientist, University of the Western Cape

The popularity of the African National Congress (ANC), which has governed South Africa since the end of apartheid in 1994, has slipped in successive elections from its high of over 60%. Nonetheless, the official opposition, the Democratic Alliance (DA), shows no sign of benefiting from the ANC’s slack – hardly reaching even 30% of the votes cast. Instead, the ANC’s numbers have been absorbed by small, mostly new parties.

Inevitably, South Africa is in for many decades of coalitions. This is the central theme of a new bookMarriages of Inconvenience: The Politics of Coalitions in South Africa, which takes a forward-looking view of the country politics. It shows the nation’s track record of previous municipal and provincial coalitions and what factors will influence future successes and failures in the new round of coalitions after the 1 November 2021 local government elections.

Former Nelson Mandela Bay Mayor Athol Trollip, from the DA, third from left, and his deputy Mongameli Bobani, from the UDM, extreme right, help clean up a street in 2017. Photo: Werner Hills/Foto24/Gallo Images/Getty Images

In the future, voters face a mix of parties winning an outright majority in some towns but increasingly requiring coalitions to hold power in other towns. For this reason, South Africa will increasingly, but variably and intermittently, enter into interparty coalition arrangements in the years to come.

Sobering experiences

Marriages of Inconvenience examines South Africa’s sobering experiences with coalitions in the Western Cape and Kwazulu-Natal; and Nelson Mandela Bay, Tshwane, Johannesburg, and Cape Town.

In the Eastern Cape, Nelson Mandela Bay provides readers with a grim lesson of all the reasons to wish to minimise or, best of all, avoid coalitions. Two authors in this book have each previously written a book about this city’s governance. The DA, African Christian Democratic Party, Congress of the People, Freedom Front Plus, and the United Democratic Movement (UDM) did indeed have a “co-governance agreement” between them both on substantive issues, such as not allocating public works jobs on party lines, through to procedures for consultation.

Eagerness for power left both the DA and ANC vulnerable to extortion from the smallest parties. The UDM (with only two councillors) and the Patriotic Alliance (with only one councillor) both in turn demanded – and got – the mayoralty.

The UDM’s Mongameli Bobani’s first action on becoming mayor was to demand lists of all contracts up for tender and all vacant managerial positions – flashing red lights. He fired the city manager and appointed a further seven acting city managers in his attempts to get his way.

All DA appeals to UDM national leader Bantu Holomisa to replace Bobani fell on deaf ears. The inevitable result was the collapse of the DA-led coalition, a collapse of the following coalition, then a period with no mayor. This put many day-to-day operations into a tailspin.

Dangers of political interference

The city manager is the CEO of the entire administration of a metropolis, where the buck should stop when anything malfunctions or ceases to work.

Since 2000, the city manager has been appointed on a contract limited to a maximum of five years. This means that no city manager may dare refuse an illegal order from a mayor about appointments or tenders for fear of their contract not being renewed or even being fired from their career job.

In practice, the situation is worse – municipal managers average only three and a half years before their political bosses squeeze them out; in the large metropolitan councils, they average a mere 15 months before being purged. The consequences are devastating – the bleeding away of competent leadership and appointment of unqualified and sometimes unethical party hacks to, for example, run the sewage treatment plant.

Political interference in appointments and tenders are the prime drivers of corruption. South Africa urgently needs to return to city managers as permanent staff as speedily as possible. This will require a statutory revision.

This article was first published in The Conversation.

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