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The devils they know: Small parties eye coalition pay dirt at expense of battered ANC and DA

Daily Maverick logo Daily Maverick 2021/10/14 Wayne Sussman

Asked with whom they’ll be prepared to form a government if there is no outright majority, smart political parties will say they plan to win outright and won’t work with anyone. But the horse trading will begin in earnest as results emerge. And unlike in 2016, where it was a case of doing deals with the devil both sides did not know, this time it’s different after five years of messy, fractious and unstable coalitions that have been bad for service delivery.

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What has happened since 2016

In 2016, the ANC lost its outright majority in four of the eight metros. In the days that followed, the IFP, Freedom Front Plus, African Christian Democratic Party, Congress of the People (Cope) and the United Democratic Movement gravitated towards the DA, while parties like Al Jama-ah and the African Independent Congress lined up in the ANC partner column. Election kingmaker, the EFF, hitched its wagon to the opposition, provided it could work from the outside and not take up executive positions in council.

From 2016 to 2021, the IFP left the opposition and moved to the ANC, while Cope’s councillors decided to work with whomever they deemed fit – staying the course with the DA in Witzenberg (Ceres) and Nelson Mandela Bay, while siding with the ANC in Knysna and Johannesburg.

The crowded space in 2021

The election marketplace is considerably more crowded this time, with new parties on the ballot, including ActionSA, Good and the Abantu Batho Congress. Then there are parties, such as the Patriotic Alliance (PA), that had meagre returns in 2016 and are likely to be a factor in many more coalition talks. And there are interesting local and regional parties that are likely to play a key role in the destinies of municipalities for the next five years.

[caption id="attachment_1046829" align="alignnone" width="2000"] © Copyright (c) Daily Maverick , All Rights Reserved ActionSA leader Herman Mashaba. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)[/caption]

Since 2016, independent councillors have held the balance of power in two municipalities. Do not bet against that number rising after 1 November. 

The path to growth principle

When the politicians gather on 3 November to thrash out deals to determine who rules where, they should have all residents in mind when they decide with whom to coalesce, with the objective that their contribution will be felt by those who voted for them and that residents will see that this party has made things better. 

This can be especially difficult for a smaller party. However, it is critical that the baubles and personal benefits of an executive position do not distract councillors from laying a platform for their party to do even better in the following elections. Good performance with demonstrable results is the first key step on the path to growth.

A second factor is that opportunities for growth are better if the king of the political kingdom is weaker. In 2016, parties like the DA, EFF and IFP benefited from a vulnerable ANC – by winning over some ANC voters and through others staying at home. In this election, I would argue that many parties see a path to growth through not only a marked ANC but a dazed DA. These two parties gobbled up 81% of the vote in 2016. Things are very different from 2016, where only one major party had a target on its back.

First prize will be to bring the ANC and DA under 50% in as many municipalities as possible where it enjoys an outright majority, then see if it is better to remove them from power, because if those bigger parties lose the keys to the ship, they could be even weaker next time around, and there could be even more growth at their expense. 

Better the devil you do not know – a 2016 story

[caption id="attachment_1068017" align="alignnone" width="2560"] © Provided by Daily Maverick EFF leaders; Julius Malema, Hlengiwe Hlophe, Godrich Gardee Floyd Shivambu and Dali Mpofu during the party’s media conference regarding coalitions on August 17, 2016 in Alexandra, South Africa.  (Photo by Gallo Images / Beeld / Felix Dlangamandla)[/caption]

One of the quintessential images of 2016 was Julius Malema flanked by Godrich Gardee and Floyd Shivambu. In trademark red, on a dry late-winter’s morning, with Alexandra as a backdrop, Malema announced that the EFF would back the DA and other opposition parties in councils across South Africa where the ANC was under 50%. Key to this calculus was the idea that a weaker ANC is better for the EFF and his supporters (then) would rather hold their noses and do a deal with the DA and its suburban support base than with a Jacob Zuma-led ANC. 

The DA brains trust would have also done the maths. This was a chance to replicate the fabled Cape Town story across the country, in places like Johannesburg, Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay. DA voters flocked to the polls to register their anger against Zuma. Malema’s rhetoric might have worried them, but the disdain for Zuma outweighed their fear of expropriation without compensation. 

It was fine to do deals with the devil both sides did not know. But the agreements between the DA and the EFF did not have the desired results. Both have little to show for their time in government in Johannesburg and Tshwane. 

This time all the proverbial devils are known. The ANC and its supporters have seen from the outside what it would be like to work with the EFF or the DA. DA voters will see little point in walking down the cooperation road with the EFF again, and EFF supporters will question what gains they made in the past five years. All three parties will be wary of each other. 

Losing votes to the other camp

[caption id="attachment_1057819" align="alignnone" width="1924"] © Provided by Daily Maverick DA in Nelson Mandela Bay launching their Manifesto for the 2021 local government elections, led by DA leader John Steenhuisen  and DA Federal Council Chairperson, Helen Zille.. (Photo: Deon Ferreira)[/caption]

I imagine John Steenhuisen will grimace during his morning shave, knowing that his party is likely to lose key votes and seats to the VF+ in battleground municipalities like Tshwane and JB Marks (Potchefstroom). It will irk him that some voters lost in 2019 are not coming back in 2021. It will also frustrate him that some fly-by-night regional party in the Western Cape will take votes from his party. However, at least those parties would rather govern with the DA than the ANC. 

This election is unique in that it is plausible to expect the DA to lose votes to parties who have more common cause with the ANC. This means the chance of DA coalition governments will diminish, while ANC coalitions in former DA municipalities are likely to increase. 

The PA routed the DA in three by-elections in the south of Johannesburg, and gave it a headache in Nelson Mandela Bay. The party has more in common with certain ANC factions than the DA, so it is plausible the PA will knock on Luthuli House’s door before the DA head office. 

For Good leader Patricia de Lille to keep her spot in national government it is not unreasonable to deduce that the ANC will want to extend that deal to municipalities across the Western Cape where the DA will finish below 50%.

[caption id="attachment_1067859" align="alignnone" width="2560"] © Provided by Daily Maverick Good leader Patricia de Lille (in the white shirt) arrives in Woodlands to see how the registration process is going on 18 September 2021 in Mitchells Plain, South Africa. (Photo: Gallo Images / Die Burger / Jaco Marais)[/caption]

Notably, Good won a by-election against the DA in George in 2020, and the party’s path to growth in the Western Cape is more at the expense of the DA than the ANC. 

Al Jama-ah, meanwhile, took votes off the ANC and the DA in 2019. The party has had a stable relationship with the ANC during the last term of local government and this is likely to continue. 

Ulundi’s intentions?

KwaZulu-Natal differs from other provinces in that power is shared on an executive committee level with all parties who have substantial representation on the council. This means the IFP and ANC are bound to sit together on the committee in most municipalities.

[caption id="attachment_1067862" align="alignnone" width="2560"] © Provided by Daily Maverick IFP members at the party's manifesto held in Greyville, Durban on Thursday night. Photo: Mandla Langa[/caption]

Coalition agreements matter in KZN when it comes to municipalities where no party wins an outright majority. For example, in AbaQulusi (Vryheid) in 2016, the ANC won 21/44 seats while the IFP won 19/44. The DA-EFF coalition agreement allowed the IFP to win the mayoralty as 23 councillors out of 44 voted for the IFP candidate and 21/44 councillors (the ANC caucus) voted for the ANC. 

The IFP moved over to the ANC in 2019. What will it choose this time? Is its path to growth in KZN through a weaker ANC or one where mayoral positions are carved up fairly in the northern part of the province where no party wins an outright majority? This is one of the mysteries of the 2021 elections. 

Two retiring 2016 coalition actors?

The African Independent Congress’ coalition deal with the ANC endured for the last local government cycle. This enabled the ANC to govern Ekurhuleni with relative stability – unlike in its flashier metro cousins of Johannesburg and Tshwane. The party fell from 0,53% of the national vote in 2014 to 0,28% in 2019. If this trend continues it will struggle to replicate its good showing in 2016. This time the ANC will need to look for more parties to do business with, especially ones that will not cause too much drama. 

[caption id="attachment_1057949" align="alignnone" width="2200"] © Copyright (c) Daily Maverick , All Rights Reserved From left: ACDP leader Kenneth Meshoe. (Photo: Leila Dougan) | Cope leader Mosiuoa Lekota. (Photo: Gallo Images / Netwerk24 / Collen Mashaba) | UDM president Bantu Holomisa. (Photo: Gallo Images / Foto24 / Mary-Ann Palmer) | Inkatha Freedom Party President Velenkosini Hlabisa. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sandile Ndlovu)[/caption]

Cope will battle again in these elections. As it continued its electoral tailspin in 2019, party discipline continued to wane. Hence, councillors in Johannesburg and Knysna voted with the ANC rather than the DA, although Cope stayed put with the DA in Tshwane, Witzenberg and Nelson Mandela Bay. The DA knows that in most municipalities Cope will not be returning – a blow to the former. 

Coalition of uncommon objectives

This election will be about coalitions of uncommon objectives. It will be very hard for the EFF to adopt the position it did in 2016, and it will be more difficult to turn down invitations to sit around the coalition table. 

The upshot is that, while citizens who have lived under coalition administrations have generally not seen improved service delivery, they are expected to become a reality for even more South Africans after these elections. DM

Wayne Sussman is an elections analyst for Daily Maverick.

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