It is now accepted wisdom that it is a matter of time until the ANC loses its national majority in the country. There is probably an even chance that the party will fall under 50% in 2024, and almost certainly by 2029.
Scenarios about what will happen during the 2024 election are being discussed widely, on social media, the traditional media, and also on these pages.
But what is less spoken about is how Parliament will function once the ANC has been turfed out. Now, make no mistake, the ANC will remain the single biggest party in the country for some time, even if it fails to get a majority of 50%, and it will continue to cast a long shadow over our body politic.
No single dominant party
But soon the South African Parliament will look more like the legislatures of other countries which use our proportional representation system, where there is no single dominant party, and the biggest single party barely has the support of a fifth of voters.
That said, we do not even have to look overseas to see what a future South African Parliament will look like. Instead we can simply cast our eyes to Gauteng, and Johannesburg.
In many ways, Johannesburg has always been ahead of the rest of the country. It had the first South African skyscrapers and the first modern rapid rail transit system in the country. It was also where the inevitability of the end of apartheid first clearly emerged, with races mixing freely in places like Hillbrow.
In the city’s politics it is also ahead of the curve.
In the Johannesburg City Council the ANC has just more than a third of the vote. The DA is the second-biggest party with 26% of the vote, followed by ActionSA with 16%. The EFF is the only other party with the support of more than one in ten voters, at 10.6%.
There are then 14 other parties with at least one seat. The Patriotic Alliance is the biggest of these ‘rats and mice’ parties, with just shy of 3% of the vote.
Of course, the Johannesburg city council is not the only municipality where no single party has a majority and where there is such a multiplicity of parties. This is now the norm rather than the exception in much of the country, especially the metros.
But this kind of situation will soon exist in Parliament, and in many of the provincial legislatures too. Coalition and minority governments will become the norm, rather than the exception.
This will likely mean that legislatures will be more unstable, but in order to govern, there will have to be much broader consensus on issues. And expect the legislatures in these situations to be far more robust in holding the executive to account, unlike in our current Parliament, which is a glorified rubber stamp, thanks to the ANC’s relatively comfortable majority.
The question is, will South Africa’s coalitions remain relatively stable and serve out their term, as is generally the case in Germany? Or will coalitions be incredibly shaky and very rarely last more than a full year? This is the experience in Israel of late. That country will soon be holding its fifth election in less than four years, as it struggles to form stable coalitions.
The Constitution already determines the terms of our various legislatures – whether municipal, provincial, or national – but it also provides a guide to how short they can be.
The maximum length a single legislative term can be is five years and ninety days. The Constitution is clear on this point and no mechanism exists to extend the term of a legislative body. This is also why last year’s attempt to postpone the local government elections past their constitutionally allowed term led to so much resistance. It could well have resulted in a constitutional crisis, apart from setting a dangerous precedent of allowing elections to be postponed.
At the same time, the Constitution states that the term of the National Assembly must be at least three years. According to Section 50 of the document, three years must have passed before the body can dissolve itself. However, there is a caveat that states that the National Assembly can dissolve itself at any time if there is a vacancy in the office of the President and no replacement has been elected within thirty days.
This could be a likely scenario in any post-ANC South Africa where an opposition coalition governs. A coalition could be cobbled together that manages to control a majority in Parliament and agrees to vote for a certain candidate. However, as is the nature of South African coalitions (as evidence suggests from coalitions which now govern so many of our municipalities) it will likely be characterised by instability and infighting. It could well be that shortly into the term of a coalition-backed President, the coalition collapses and a vote of no confidence is passed, leading to the removal of the President. However, the coalition cannot agree on another candidate and this leads to another election.
But perhaps a minimum term for the National Assembly should be considered. In a coalition scenario, this could lead to some kind of forced minority governments, but this may be preferable to constantly going to the polls.
Another scenario which has not been considered is one which is fairly common in Israel and is the situation with regard to the current coalition governing the Republic of Ireland.
In those two countries, opposition coalitions have agreed to support a leader from one party as the head of government for a certain period, say half the term. At the end of this agreed-upon period this person will step down and let someone from another coalition partner will act as head of government for the subsequent period.
Imagine a similar scenario in South Africa. For the sake of argument, let’s say that the DA and ActionSA are the two largest parties in a coalition at national level. The two parties come to this agreement – John Steenhuisen will be President for 30 months, after which he will step down and Herman Mashaba will be leader.
The spanner in the works is that in South Africa the Constitution states that if someone is elected to fill a Presidential vacancy this does not count as a term. This means that in our hypothetical agreement between Steenhuisen and Mashaba, each would prefer to be the person who acts as President in the second half of the term.
These snags are as a result of what is effectively South Africa’s hybrid presidential-parliamentary system of government. However, in a country as racially, ethnically, and regionally diverse as South Africa, a ‘winner-takes-all’ model of presidential governance is inferior to a parliamentary system, where greater consensus is often needed, but there are still some clear pitfalls in our hybrid version.
As coalition politics becomes the norm at national level, expect some outcomes that the drafters of the Constitution did not foresee.
‘May you live in interesting times.’ Indeed.
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