As another Johannesburg mayor, Mpho Phalatse, was ousted last week, there were heated accusations among coalition partners. Accompanying this vitriol were open letters and a public quickly losing faith in the importance of forming (the right) coalition with the right sort of design that prioritises not only long-term planning, but also targeted policies that can revive the country’s ailing economy.

Agree on five priority areas with a legal framework

While I do believe that the DA, ActionSA, the IFP, the ACDP, and the FF+ are the most natural allies in terms of having voters who are allergic to both the ANC and the EFF, and they have the potential to garner a majority of votes, the parties will need to agree on more than just getting the ANC out of power.

They must agree on five priority areas such as how to fix energy, how to fix schools, how to get the economy growing, how to fix healthcare, and how to deal with the government’s debt crisis. On the latter, they will need to determine how to arrest public spending and get on a stable fiscal footing. While the different parties have their own policy propositions on these issues, their leaders must get together prior to the elections and hash out a unified agreement – in writing – about these five policies which they all agree to implement. They must also communicate clearly to the media and voters about what the specific agreement is, and why they have chosen this path.

This must all be buttressed by a robust legal framework that has stiff financial penalties for voting against the coalition and other serious transgressions. It will also serve as the backbone of a new politics, as when the Tallaght strategy served as the foundation of the Republic of Ireland’s economic renaissance. For a country that is in as dire a situation as South Africa is, we cannot hope to pull ourselves out of the doldrums and into a future of prosperity without first removing the cancerous political actors, and then having new leaders who are all pulling in the same direction.

A magic formula

Another key aspect of building a sound coalition is coming up with an arithmetic or actuarial formula both for assigning the number of cabinet positions and deciding on which positions each partner of the coalition gets, based on each party’s percentage of the vote. This could include assigning number values to each cabinet position based on strategic importance. The partners would then add this to a pre-agreement and it can be part of a joint press conference in which it can also be explained to the media and the public. 

If the coalition falls short of a majority, then any smaller party wishing to join the coalition must agree to abide by the conditions of the coalition and do so publicly in front of the media in a press conference, so the agreement is recorded.

This magic formula and the priority agreement will ensure that our competitive democracy remains intact even as the coalition works towards consensus building while in power. This is key, because the professional relationships between the leaders of different coalition partners will set the tone for how effectively and efficiently the coalition partners can implement policies.

Learn to horse-trade effectively

Outside of the priority areas, coalition partners have to learn to horse-trade effectively. Horse-trading is a necessary part of any coalition government, and it requires skilful compromise and effective relationship-building. It requires those in the coalition to understand where compromise is necessary and which wins they can take back to their constituents. 

The South African public must not be subjected to endless blame games and thinly veiled political opportunism, because that will ultimately hand back impetus to an ANC/EFF/brown envelope coalition, which will be disastrous for the country. 

Merit, merit, merit

As Mmusi Maimane pointed out in a recent Business Day article, more latitude needs to be given to the President to appoint the best candidates to cabinet positions. He goes on to say:

“Section 91(3)(c) of the Constitution needs to be amended to allow the President to appoint anyone they deem fit to serve as cabinet ministers. At present the section states that the President “may select no more than two ministers from outside parliament”.

Having an in-built technocratic element to government, especially in key portfolios, will serve to protect the public against the bungling and endless shuffling of career politicians between portfolios and has the upside of people with actual expertise being appointed to lead in key roles in government.

It seems to me that pre-emptively building a coalition with solid and binding agreements before the elections happen will give opposition coalitions much more of a chance of succeeding. Specific political party voter preferences will depend on which party is the senior partner, but they will also assure voters that their votes will not be used to bolster and keep the ANC in power through dishonest horse-trading and brown envelopes. Voters do not want to be patronised and told that they wasted their votes by voting for a specific party.


Sindile Vabaza is an avid writer and an aspiring economist.