These past weeks have been dominated by insinuations and rumours of the Democratic Alliance (DA) considering a coalition with the African National Congress (ANC) in 2024.
ActionSA and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) have at times also appeared to be on friendly terms. If it is not already clear: rapprochement between the reform-minded opposition and the ANC or EFF must be avoided.
Sober South African voters instinctively understand this. But it might be helpful to list some of the most important reasons why, so voters can have their thoughts in order by the time of the 2024 election. To my mind, there are five main reasons why the political opposition must not even consider a coalition with these authoritarian parties of the radical left.
1. The opposition party will be the junior partner
No serious election analyst believes any individual political party will garner more votes in 2024 than the ANC. There are good reasons to believe the ANC will lose its outright majority in Parliament, but it is certain that the ANC will retain the plurality: it will still be the party with the single biggest bloc of electoral support.
It might be that the ‘Wild Dog’ or Reform Coalition, comprising various parties, will earn more votes than the ANC and its ideological partners. If this happens, the Reform Coalition will be able to form a government without the ANC, which is the ideal that this collection of sincere opposition groups must strive towards.
However, for any coalition that comes about after the 2024 election which includes the ANC, the ANC will necessarily be the senior partner. This means it will continue to call the shots, or at the very least wield by far the most influence. Even if there were a DA Minister of Justice, for example, the ANC-dominated Cabinet would still – under the doctrine of collective responsibility – instruct that minister on how they must perform their tasks.
The DA, or any other sincere junior opposition partner in an ANC coalition, will therefore face an uphill battle. Even if the ANC ‘agrees’ beforehand that it will take the junior partner seriously, we have seen that coalition agreements are not yet a respected or binding part of South African politics.
2. The ANC will largely remain criminally inclined
Similarly, the ANC might ‘commit’ that it will now start taking corruption within its ranks seriously. Only a naïve political operator will take this commitment – the umpteenth of its kind – seriously.
While there is no doubt that there are law-abiding individuals scattered throughout the ANC and its deployees in government, as a whole the party has allowed corruption and criminality to become part of its institutional culture. An ANC-in-power cannot solve this problem, because to remain in power it is forced to keep the rivers of patronage flowing. Only an ANC that has spent some time in the opposition, unplugged from the seemingly bottomless pit of South African taxpayers’ money, can hypothetically experience a true renewal.
The story therefore remains the same as under the previous heading: even if the DA was given the post of Minister of Justice and allowed to appoint the National Director of Public Prosecutions, this would change little in practice. The DA-controlled Department of Justice will remain bound by ANC-dominated Cabinet decisions, and the National Prosecuting Authority will still have to rely on the ANC-controlled Police Service to see prosecutions through.
Only if the junior opposition partner is given all the justice arms of the State – the police, prosecuting, correctional services, and the justice department – then combating ANC corruption from within government might be possible. But it is exceedingly unlikely that the ANC would be quite this generous with its junior partner, considering its own vulnerability.
3. The opposition party’s voters will abandon it
Those who voted for the parties that comprise the potential Wild Dogs or Reform Coalition – at its core, the DA, ActionSA, the Inkatha Freedom Party, the Freedom Front Plus, and the African Christian Democratic Party – seem to represent South Africa’s consistent opposition bloc.
Other so-called ‘opposition’ parties, like GOOD, the EFF, the Patriotic Alliance, Al Jamah-ah, and the other rats-and-mice formations, have tended to represent a section of the electorate that is somewhat dissatisfied with ANC performance but quite happy with ANC values. These values exist on the spectrum of radical authoritarian socialism. To this constituency, cooperation with the ANC is not necessarily a betrayal of their parties’ principles.
To the voters of the Reform Coalition, cooperation with the ANC (and to a regrettable lesser extent, the EFF), would amount to a betrayal. The parties of the Reform Coalition possess no mandate from their electorate to seek rapprochement with those who have brought ruin to South Africa’s economy and institutions, and who propose to pursue further policies deleterious to civil liberty, economic freedom, and constitutionalism.
This means that if an opposition party enters a coalition with the ANC after the 2024 election, it will have exactly one term of five years to bring about significant and far-reaching socio-economic and political change, because at the 2029 election, it will most likely be without any significant representation in Parliament. If this junior opposition partner falls short – which it will, given the dominance of the ANC in the coalition – or if it attempts to leave the coalition prematurely, it will be severely punished at the polls, and it will have a very difficult time recovering from this loss in future elections.
4. The ANC will try to devour the opposition party from within
Because opposition ministers will have to obey Cabinet decisions despite the policies of their own parties, the opposition party will in effect become partly responsible for the implementation and enforcement of ANC policy. With time, this must necessarily influence the policy and political culture of the opposition party itself. If a DA Minister of Justice becomes responsible for the Cabinet-approved Hate Speech Bill, for example, that minister will have to associate with and defend the Bill, not only in public. He/she will also feel compelled to do so inside the party itself.
The ministers from the junior opposition partner in the central government will in all likelihood be the most senior leaders of that party, making the potential of indirect ANC influence inside the smaller party greater.
The DA in particular is at risk here. The party endorses a strict conception of ‘separation of party and State’ that I think might be in a tense relationship with modern representative democracy. The practical manifestation of this is that the DA does not tend to dictate policy to its own members who are deployed to government. DA Ministers of Justice might associate themselves more closely with the Department of Justice than with their own political party.
Other parties might be less committed to this principle than the DA, and might call their ministers in the ANC-dominated central government to order – I would argue, an imperative of representative democracy – but this would still be a difficult feat.
Ultimately, the differences between a junior opposition partner in a coalition with the ANC, and the ANC itself, will become blurred. Perhaps a particularly strong opposition party can resist these pressures, but I am not convinced that any member of the Reform Coalition can pull it off.
5. The coalition will fall apart
A coalition between the ANC and a partner from among the sincere political opposition is more than likely to fall apart for the reasons outlined above, and when it does, the opposition partner’s supporters will probably not forgive the betrayal.
The coalition is guaranteed to fall apart, in my view, because the Reform Coalition parties are staffed – if I may be permitted to generalise – by sincere, law-abiding officials and representatives who will feel compelled to withdraw from the arrangement when they realise the criminality and political imposition by the ANC around them will not abate.
I am prepared to wager on this point: a coalition between the ANC and a member of the reformist opposition parties will not last a full term. It cannot, because the ANC does not have the necessary qualities to make such a coalition work. This knowledge, that an ANC coalition will fail, is in my view a good reason to avoid going through the damaging motions of forming it in the first place.
Conclusion: Consider confidence and supply instead
A coalition between a reform-minded opposition party (usually the DA) and the ANC is almost always justified as a way to ensure the ANC does not enter into a coalition with the EFF. If this is the case, and the desire is simply to keep the ANC out of the arms of the EFF, a formal coalition is not the only option available to opposition parties. A sincere opposition party can offer the ANC a confidence and supply arrangement instead.
Briefly, this will keep the opposition party in the opposition and leave government to the ANC, but with the understanding that the opposition will approve the ANC government’s annual budget, and will not call for or support motions of no confidence. This avoids entangling the opposition party with the ANC while also guaranteeing to the ANC another term in office without having to coalesce with the EFF.
ANC corruption and mismanagement will therefore not reflect on the opposition party – provided this party’s communication to its constituency on confidence and supply is clear and honest – and the damaging influences of the EFF will be kept at bay.
To be clear: I am not advocating for confidence and supply as the most preferred option. Having a Reform Coalition government that excludes the ANC and EFF must be the primary goal of the various sincere opposition parties. This will require these parties to cease their destructive infighting and instead work together (within reason) to secure a collective 50%+1 majority in Parliament in 2024.
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