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Coalitions in South African local municipalities: is the constitution enabling democracy or not?

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JULY 2023

Coalitions in south african local municipalities: is the constitution enabling democracy or not?

by Nondumiso Sithole Msc (University of London), LLB (University of the Witwatersrand)

Abstract This article aims at examining the role of coalitions in the context of South African politics, specifically within the local government or municipalities. It has become blatantly clear that the country has entered a coalition-government era. An era which is possibly going to stay for decades to come. There is certainly a projection that there will be an increase in coalitions in the national elections set to take place in 2024. This article will explore and assess what are the strengths, weaknesses, framework as well as the ecosystem in which coalitions flourish and the conditions wherein they fall apart. There will be recommendations on how to best assist with strengthening the operating of coalitions within the context of local governments in South Africa and on how the discourse of coalitions can be moulded to assist in the bettering of governance and service delivery at a municipal level. Coalitions are without a doubt becoming more relevant within local/municipal government structures, and political parties that did not have space previously are finding a niche in which to operate and have a “voice” in local councils. The primary objective of an opposition party in respect of a coalition is to unseat the incumbent, while the primary purpose of the ruling party is to ensure that they remain in power (Kadima, 2014). In as much as there is space for change and inclusivity, there are pertinent questions which must be looked at. Critical to this, is whether South Africa is able to handle coalitions. Does the country have effective systems in place to manage all that comes with the genetic set up of coalitions? Furthermore, what can be done to aid the effective functioning of coalitions in a country such as South Africa? The article also examines the effect of the legislation in place and whether the Constitution as the highest or supreme law is actually assisting at all or is but a silent tool on this matter of coalitions, which are now essential in the running of the country.

Introduction South Africa’s Constitution clearly entrusts and places legislative and executive authority in municipal councils. Therefore, there is a need for the effective exercise of these vested functions. Municipal councils are considered and known to be the highest decision-making body. They are essentially the “captains” and are required to steer the directions of the municipality’s that they govern, shape the strategic direction, and take crucial decisions in respect of not only the municipalities. In coalitions, this requires close cooperation between coalition partners to ensure that the responsibilities of the council are carried out effectively. All electoral systems have thresholds of representation: that is, the minimum level of support which a party needs to gain representation. Thresholds can be legally imposed by the Electoral Act (formal thresholds) or exist as a mathematical property of the electoral system (effective or natural thresholds) – coalitions can be said to be an example of natural thresholds (Motsapi, 2022). Formal thresholds are written into the constitutional or legal provisions which define the PR system. The electoral system in South Africa is based on party-list proportional representation, which means that parties are represented in proportion to their electoral support. For municipal councils there is a mixed-member system in which wards elect individual councillors alongside those named from party lists. The 2021 local government elections produced hung councils in major metropolitan municipalities culminating in political parties being forced to enter into “contractual” arrangements in terms of coalition agreements. South Africa saw the ousting of City of Johannesburg Mayor, Dr Mpho Phalatse as well as the Speaker of Council, Mr Vasco Da Gama being removed as Speaker by the coalition government (Njilo, 2023). This proved beyond reasonable doubt that practically speaking, coalition governments are extremely unstable in nature. Furthermore, and of particular interest to followers of politics and certainly to many citizens who are severely impacted (majority of the time in the townships), is how the instability of coalition governments compromises and hinders local governments or, more specifically, their administration’s ability to deliver services to their local communities. The above hindrance occurs through various negative factors, which will be discussed in detail in the article within the section “What are the advantages and disadvantages of coalitions?”. The optimal or effective functioning of a municipality commences with its leadership. Exemplary leaders set the tone both strategically with regards to and in relation to an organisation’s or, in this instance, a municipality’s vision, mission, goals and objectives. This however requires that a tone of good morals and values be set by leaders (SACN, 2021:262-263). The above sounds good in theory, however, our local municipalities in South Africa are plagued by many challenges emanating from this exemplary leadership, which is required for the successful functioning of any organisation and even the running of a country. Local governments now have an additional layer of complexity attached to coalition governments. Coalitions are formulated out of convenience rather than ideology, which ultimately leads to instability – especially when it comes to portfolios being divided, leaders are often unable to hold coalition partners to account. Party factionalism is another cancer in the effective running of a municipality that impedes the potential of having efficient administrations, has occasioned a lack of direction and decision-making, and played a major role in the interruption of service delivery and reduced investor and business confidence (SACN, @021:262-263). What is of concern, is the position that local governments must “play”, “practically” speaking, because they are the closest government to the people, versus the hierarchy in which they are placed by the provincial and national government. It is submitted that there must be a re-thinking and assessment in terms of the autonomy that is provided to local governments in the “real sense”, versus what they are vested with by legislation or by operation of practices in frameworks or the constitution of government structures. This is one of the biggest challenges of municipalities. Mayors are seen to have less political authority than provincial leaders. Mayors are elected by the party hierarchy and not by communities through elected councillors. Mayors and municipal managers require provincial and national government to offer them support – through legislative instruments and other tools – that “does not” infringe on the autonomy of local government. In addition, the blurring of boundaries between the administration and political leadership has most often resulted in confusion over roles and given rise to political-administrative tension and conflict (SACN, 2021). It is foreseeable that there will always be political changes, however, these changes in essence should not impact on the administrative functions or affect the operating of municipal services, as they currently do. Background A coalition government can be defined as a form of government in which political parties cooperate to form a government. The usual reason for such an arrangement is that no single party has achieved an absolute majority after an election, an atypical outcome in nations with majoritarian electoral systems, but common under proportional representation. The Cambridge dictionary defines coalitions as a group of two or more political parties working together to win an election or govern an area. The term ‘coalition’ is derived from the Latin word ‘coalitio’, which means ‘to grow together’. Thus, technically, coalition means the act of uniting parts into one body or whole. Politically, coalition means an alliance of distinct political parties. When several political parties join hands to form a government and exercise political power based on a common agreed programme or agenda, we can describe the system as coalition politics or coalition government (Gahatraj, n.d.). De Visser (2021) defines a coalition as when two or more political parties agree to cooperate to govern together as a ruling coalition government. There are several different types of coalitions, namely: bare majority coalition government, grand coalition, government of national unity (at the national level), and minority government. South Africa is said to be a representative democracy. This means citizens do not govern the country themselves, but rather, it is governed by individuals or representatives who are members in the different political party organisations and who contest for positions councillors are elected (voted) for to be the representatives of citizens in the various arms of government, i.e., national government (Parliament), provincial government, and local government (municipalities and district councils). This is how political leaders ascend to holding the seats that they do in councils, Parliament, etc. The political party that wins the majority of seats in an election, be it in local government elections or at the national elections for Parliament automatically has the right to form the government, based on attaining over 50% of the votes. This is when a government party is called the majority or ruling party. In this instance the parties that receive a lesser portion of the votes become minority parties or opposition parties. It is essential to point out that the government is not permanent – the citizens give it the right to rule the country for a term of five years (Parliament, n.d.). This is how the South African Constitution is set up to be a majoritarian government system. Whether this constitutional set up is working for or against democracy and the very citizens it should serve, is something that unquestionably warrants reassessment and perhaps must be made a key priority in order to change the despairing state of local governments. What is the “genetic make-up” of coalition governments? Section 26 of the Electoral Act provides that a political party may contest an election if such party is registered and has submitted a list of candidates. Section 27 of the Electoral Act provides that a registered political party that intends to contest an election must nominate candidates and submit a list of those candidates for election to the chief electoral officer (Mhlongo, 2020). South Africa has for some years produced “hung” councils, which unfortunately leads to more problems than solutions, particularly where highly contested municipalities are concerned. A council is deemed to be a “hung council” when no political party wins an outright majority – meaning more than 50% of the seats in the municipal council – thus making the formation of a coalition or minority government inevitable (De Visser, 2023). It is important to understand what constitutes coalitions or the rationales for coalitions. It can be said that coalitions become mandatory or get “imposed” on political parties by the voters based on the outcome of voting during the elections. The outcome is generally one which results in a “hung” municipality or “hung” legislature. It is said that coalitions can create political stability and governability in areas with “hung” municipalities or in legislatures in which no single party has won an outright majority or where there are multiple choices of competitive political parties. If no political party gains a majority of seats in a specific election, the rationale for the formation of a coalition can be said to be one of political necessity. In this instance, the political parties are obliged to cooperate to avoid ungovernable situations, also taking into consideration the fact that inability to form a government may eventually lead to a by-election of the entire council and, in some instances, even provincial intervention – such as with the City of Tshwane, although this was reversed in court. Political parties have a legislated responsibility to the electorate to ensure that a stable government can be formed to respond to the needs of their communities (Ndou, 2022). Firstly, political parties that enter or wish to enter into coalition agreements normally consider the following: there must be an agreement on a policy or programmes, and they must have a consensus from the onset with regards to these policies. The agreement on the policy/policies should be joint and the policy/policies should be properly prepared by the parties to the agreement. The proposal with regards to the above founding aspect, is that coalition partners ought to aim at drafting policies that are practical and will be easy to implement. These easy-to-implement policies must be within IDP/SDBIP. This factor is inherently interesting, due to the fact that manifesto objectives of the different political parties have different party objectives, thus the coalition agreements may not necessarily be amenable to the other coalition partners, or even lawful (Motsapi, 2022). The analysis is that coalition partners must aim at adopting policies that will be easy to implement and not policies that will cause further delays in rolling out service delivery or are unimplementable, as the core objective of municipalities is service delivery. De Visser (2009) states that a policy programme of a coalition agreement must set out the objectives that the coalition wants to achieve in the municipality in which they will be governing, over the five-year council term. The lack of clear objectives by the coalition partners can lead to political parties being dependant on parties to which they are diametrically opposed in terms of party objectives. This was seen with the DA being dependant on the EFF in the City of Ekurhuleni in 2022. So, one can draw the conclusion that coalitions are necessitated by conditions that have nothing to do with party objectives. Furthermore, it is crucial that the policy programme must be detailed, realistic (meaning achievable), and one which all partners in the agreement will support. Lastly, it must be feasible and financially sound. Secondly, the distributing of political positions as equally as possible is an important condition that the coalition parties ought to agree upon. Political parties should ideally receive seats proportional to what they contribute to the coalition agreement. The allocation of seats in key and strategic positions in the executive, proportional to the contribution that the coalition parties made to the overall coalition, is paramount and can play an imperative role. It is the prerogative of the political leader to allocate executive positions. This has proven in the recent scenarios of the City of Johannesburg and City of Ekurhuleni to potentially be a major obstacle for coalition partners, as service delivery comes to a halt when there are constant votes of no confidence submitted in council by parties. We saw the two big metros that were led by the DA for most of 2021, filing papers in court in urgent motions. Therefore, the fights that get taken to court end up impacting how council is run and on council operating efficiently. De Visser (2021) emphasises that institutional arrangements of a coalition government may determine how the incentives for cooperation in a coalition are structured and how they may take formulation. An important part of this is the distribution of political positions. A cornerstone of building a solid foundation is also premised on how coalition parties must consider how political offices will be shared amongst the coalition partners. The three key positions in municipalities that are usually the bone of contention are the Mayor, the Speaker and the Whip. These three positions are now fully recognised in legislation as political office bearers with legislative authority provided for in the Municipal Structures Act 117 of 1998. There have been amendments to the Municipal Structures Act, which has seen the office of the Whip of Council being empowered legislatively and the Whip being provided with “proper” accreditation and authority as a critical office bearer for the creation or, rather, fostering and enhancement of political cohesion. Previously this was not the case when it came to the office of the Whip of Council. It was only the Mayor and the Speaker who were recognised as political office bearers. It will only be with practice and with time that one will be able to measure the role that the office of the Whip and the Whips of Council play or ought to play in the bringing about of cohesiveness within councils that have diverse views, and which are led by coalitions. In addition, to assess key indicators that play an enabling factor in the Whip being able to execute this role effectively or otherwise. Third, it is important that an actual or physical coalition agreement or document is drafted and comes into existence. This document must stipulate the arrangements of the coalition partners along with its terms and actual mechanisms of the agreement must have been entered. Political parties sometimes enter into agreements without any written documentation. Oral agreements often result in useless “he said”, “she said”, “they said” arguments, and furthermore, there is no form of proof showing, or acting as evidence, that there were indeed agreements in place or discussions that took place. This is a major pitfall as political parties cannot hold one another accountable. This point will be elaborated on in the section “Proposed Interventions”. A coalition agreement is a contract-like political agreement that “binds” the coalition parties to the full range of compromises made in the negotiations. The coalition agreement is to serve as a point of reference in respect of the terms and conditions agreed to in the negotiations by the coalition parties. In order to try and effectively constrain parties from drifting from the agreed coalition terms, the coalition agreement covers the procedural rules for decision-making in the coalition, prescribes rules for coalition behaviour, provides for the coalition programme, and reflects the composition of the coalition as well as the scope and functions of the various members in the coalition (Beukes, 2021). These mechanisms are to become the hoist that is meant to pull parties to act according to the objectives of the coalition. However, coalition agreements are not self-enforcing and it is ultimately up to the coalition parties to decide whether to abide by or depart from the coalition agreement. It is submitted that political parties are likely to stray from the terms as there is nothing binding in law. What are the advantages and disadvantages of coalitions? Whether the South African landscape is ready or not, coalitions have become the focal point of governance in the municipal context. Coalitions can become invaluable in advocacy for better and effective governance due to the fact that they have the potential to create structures for organisations’ political leadership to share ownership of common goals. The advancement of advocacy work can be strengthened considerably using coalitions. However, there are both advantages and disadvantages to forming or joining a coalition, especially when it comes to the political leadership. A proposal is that the joining or formulation of a coalition should only be taken after careful consideration following research and risk analysis. It is conceded that the high pressure to provide efficient service delivery by any municipal organisation, can lead to added pressure in terms of entering into discussions and, ultimately, coalition agreements by political organisations. It is, however, an extremely sensitive matter for any political organisation to make with haste and without proper consideration. The decision of whether working with the coalition is the best way to solve governance problems, and whether values and approaches by different political backgrounds with different political views can be shared, is life altering for the residents of any municipality. Not enough consideration is taken or even “due diligence” conducted with this point. It is therefore essential to explore the pros and cons in respect of these agreements, which have an altering effect on the scales of governance at a municipal level. The advantages may be the following: there will be consensus- or majority-based decisions, as they are taken where there has been extensive consideration of views of other coalition parties; nationalism is favoured and regionalism is lessened to a certain extent; regional aspirations may be fulfilled, as they are a result of thorough consideration by the coalition; the tyranny of a single dominant political party is lessened in a municipality or region – a result of power being spread out and no single political organisation being dominant; a more responsible government may emerge as a result of human resources and expertise being pooled together; coalitions have the potential to enlarge bases of support in networks and connections once investors see that there are collaborative efforts in a particular region or jurisdiction that is striving towards achieving similar or the same objectives; there are strengthened efforts in the facilitation of information exchange, skills, experience, materials, and opportunities for collaboration; it provides safety for advocacy efforts and protection for members who may not be able to take action alone, particularly when operating in a hostile or difficult environment; it magnifies existing financial and human resources by pooling them together and by delegating work to others in the coalition; and it helps develop new leadership skills amongst members (Anon., n.d.). While there are some attractive advantages, there are also some glaring disadvantages that come with the formulation of coalition partnerships. The damage they can potentially cause is huge, due to their nature – as witnessed recently in the municipalities of the Gauteng province. Coalitions are a new beast that is untamed and unregulated. The coalition troubles that have been most highlighted and displayed in the news recently are those that occurred in the City of Johannesburg and City of Ekurhuleni in 2022. Coalitions result in unstable governments, where decisions in respect of key issues become a time-consuming process and an exercise in which political parties can bully and strong arm each other through the reluctance of not supporting good programmes. This can have a paralyzing effect on the progress of service delivery and create a lack of clear objectives, or difficult to agree upon common objectives. The large political party which has the numbers can dominate over the smaller and minority party. Furthermore, power is not always going to be distributed equally amongst the coalition members, due to the seats that smaller partners have providing them with a limited say on issues and decisions. Coalition partnerships can also lead to political partners having to compromise their stance on particular issues to accommodate their partners and as a strategy on particular issues as well as partners compromising on their tactics. Certain dominant role players may not always get credit for progressive work and/or objectives achieved, as the coalition as a whole gets recognition rather than individual members – certain members of a different political organisation get or claim more recognition than others, causing conflict and resentment. If the coalition process breaks down, it can harm everyone's advocacy by damaging members' credibility; coalition activities can be difficult to monitor and evaluate. Lastly, there is also pressure on political parties created by legislation to enter into coalition arrangements due to timeframes which are not conducive to the proper and careful appointment of office bearers – the law doesn’t provide sufficient time. In a nutshell, coalitions can have the following negatives attached to them: they can lack clear objectives and/or political parties can have challenges in terms of agreeing to common objectives; the formulation of coalitions themselves can be a daunting task and, moreover, the managing of a coalition can be a very time-consuming and bureaucratic process that can and does take away time from working directly on campaign issues and organisational tasks that ought to be aimed at service delivery issues. One political party can be the more dominant and powerful party, which leads to the obvious uneven distribution of powers amongst the partners. This causes friction amongst the coalition partners and leads to a plethora of other problems in that diverging views crop up on matters of importance and partners end up pulling in different directions. This ultimately leads to partners not wanting to compromise in respect of the positions that they assume on critical matters and issues. The mere fact that there is shared decision-making powers, and because of this shared power, dissenting views emerge. The result in some cases is that decision-making in respect of core issues can lead to staggering, slow progress on matters, and in fact, decision-making processes may become paralyzed. There can also be constrained resources, which can hamper the implementation of policies and programmes of the partners. A coalition partner may not always get credit for the work it does; it is the coalition that gets the recognition rather than individual members. In some cases, certain members get or claim more recognition than others, causing conflict and resentment. If the coalition process breaks down, it has the potential to harm the coalition partners advocacy by damaging members' credibility. Lastly, the coalition partners activities can be difficult to monitor and evaluate, therefore making it difficult to measure or assess the progress and impact that the coalition has had on the governance of that particular municipality and/or region. Situational analysis As a result of this significant change of central power, coalition politics is now an integral part of South African politics. The voting trends and polling suggest that it may play an even more crucial role in provincial and even national politics in the coming years (Ndou, 2022). The local government elections held in November 2021 resulted in 66 hung councils in South Africa. This means that none of the political parties that competed in the elections obtained an outright majority of over 50% or at least 51%. The African National Congress (ANC), which had from the onset of 1994 been achieving over 50%, lost control of its majority councils. This obviously changed because the ANC failed to attain more than 50% and this seemingly amended the trajectory of the composition of local governments, as the ANC had to seek coalition partners. The Democratic Alliance (DA), being the second in command, did not do substantively well either as it achieved less than 22% of the total votes in the elections. These results have borne a complex situation as the two largest political parties have never trusted each other and thus were resistant to enter into coalitions with each other. Out of South Africa’s eight metropolitans there were only two that achieved an outright majority: the DA won a majority in the City of Cape Town and the ANC received outright majority in Buffalo City. The ANC retained Mangaung with only one seat majority (Moffat, 2021). The months of September and October 2022, saw the DA-led municipalities of City of Johannesburg as well as City of Ekurhuleni tabling votes of no confidence motions against their respective mayors, and importantly, the coalition partnerships that were entered into “collapsed”, so to speak. The ruling national party managed to garner enough votes to oust both the mayors. This was, however, short-lived for different reasons in both the top municipalities in Gauteng. The motion of no confidence in the City of Johannesburg was challenged in court and the courts ruled in favour of the ousted Mayor, Mpho Phalatse, citing reasons of procedurally flawed processes to unseat the DA-led coalition. The DA retook the helm, governing the City of Johannesburg via enforcement of court order. The DA-led coalition in Ekurhuleni was also destabilised by the brief removal of the DA-led coalition because of the tabling of the motion of no confidence by the ANC. The instability and ping-pong as seen above shows that the political parties have not grasped the foundations of coalitions or building proper roots for a coalition to thrive. The result of this is failed arrangements. It appears that there is a lack of time or no time to consult with the members of political parties and voters when these coalition arrangements are entered into. The ordinary citizens who voted for these political parties are left in the dark when discussions about coalitions are being conducted. It should also be borne in mind that negotiations for forming coalitions require sacrifices, including shifting from party policy ideology to suit coalition demands (Ndou, 2022). Party politics overshadow residents or community needs; there is always reluctance by municipal councillors and administration to engage with communities. Due to the temporary nature of partnerships, public participation is compromised. Ndou (2022) correctly states that having the coalition activity being in the hands of the elite, we, therefore, need to accept that the elite theory seeks to account for power relationships in the society. Public policy may be viewed as the preference and values of the governing elite or the leadership in power. In this respect, public policy does not emanate directly from public participation. The elite shape and mold mass opinion, then the masses shape elite opinion. Public servants and administrators carry out policies decided by the “elite” or those that are in power and public policy flows downward from nobility to the groups. The failure of dominant political parties – the ANC, DA, EFF and ActionSA – to find common ground in finding practical local coalitions hands enormous and unwarranted power to the smallest parties. The smallest parties somehow end up becoming more powerful as they maneuver the dominant parties in coalition negotiations. They also end up demanding bigger parties to dance to their tune and ultimately situations where “puppet” mayors are the result. Consequently, many coalition agreements are gross distortions of the will of the electorate. When a political party with less than one percent of the voters behind it, is handed the mayoral chain or the speaker’s hammer, it has nothing to do with democracy. That is a subversion of the will of the electorate (Nkamana, 2023). It is this distortion that ultimately leads to voter apathy and a poor turnout in South Africa during elections. The question posed in this article is whether the Constitution is enabling democracy or not when such occurs. It is proffered that the Constitution is a tool that is distorted in some instances to suit the needs of the elite and those that are in power. The Constitution considers local government as an equal and autonomous partner within a non-hierarchical structure of government “spheres”; however, this has been undoubtedly diluted by political arrangements and party structures, which are by their nature and form, hierarchical. Inevitably, the outcome is a general weakening of the local “voice”, with more importance given to provincial (rather than local) leaders and officials (SACN, 2021). Legislation, electoral and other various pieces of legislation are silent on some salient matters pertaining to the operation of coalitions, most crucial is that there is no law preventing political parties from entering into these coalition agreements. This in itself in terms of the South African Constitution would be deemed to be undermining the principles of democracy. And herein lies the epicentre of the destructive position that the very tool that is meant to serve the electorate, the Constitution, ends up indirectly protecting the “rights” of political parties instead of the population. Proposed interventions Coalitions at municipal level in South Africa are mostly chaotic, with devasting impacts on municipal administration and service delivery. Our political parties are therefore doing something wrong. It is not possible to legislate political behaviour without overreach or coerce political parties into stable coalitions. Key interventions are discussed hereunder, wherein there is already existing debate around some of the interventions that are submitted, also with the view of adding to the debate and ideas to assist in laying solid foundations for stability within coalition agreements. Firstly, there is the strengthening of municipalities existing and enabling legislation around the tabling of votes of no confidence in councils. Municipalities already have standing orders, which are effectively policy guidelines and/or by-laws that set out the procedures and processes as to the running of council. De Visser (2023) states that motions of no confidence have become the local politicians’ toy of choice. The most troubled councils experience endless motions of no confidence. These motions can throw the municipality into disarray, leaderless paralysis, and a state of limbo – a prime example being the City of Ekurhuleni. This also occurred in the City of Tshwane in March 2023. De Visser (2023) submits that the law can limit the use of motions of no confidence. There is also the notion that standing orders or policy documents of municipalities should limit the number of motions of no confidence that can be tabled in council. Secondly, there needs to be legislation that is developed specifically for regulating and founding governance procedures, rules and regulations in respect of coalitions. Legislation in South Africa in its totality from municipal right up to the other two spheres of government did not consider the subject matter of coalitions back when it was drafted. The developing or strengthening of legislation can be coupled with the publishing of coalition partners and their agreements. It is necessary that legislative timelines be revised to be able to facilitate a better transition and proper formulating of a “new government” once the general elections are finalised. Extending the 14-day period at the commencement of the term after elections can aid governance. The law insists that the newly elected council elects its main office-bearers within 14 days. In a hung council, this timeline is not practical or conducive at all for the proper establishment of a coalition. Negotiating a proper coalition agreement requires more time, therefore, even 30 days. It is highly likely that if political parties are not provided with sufficient time to enter these coalition arrangements, they only stand a small chance of succeeding. Therefore, it is suggested that the 14-day period must be extended to allow more time for negotiations, hopefully leading to coalition agreements that last. If it is not extended for all municipalities, then it must be done at least for hung councils. No municipality can withstand a prolonged power vacuum at the top. Accordingly, supplementary provisions ought to be made and it must be possible to legislate a holding pattern after the general elections, in which either the outgoing municipal executive, or the municipal manager, is empowered to take the decisions necessary to keep the municipality going (De Visser, 2023). Beukes (2021) and De Visser (2023) both advance the view that coalition agreements should be made public. The argument is that coalition agreements are political programmes of the incoming local governments, and the public ought to know the plans of its government. It is also said that having the agreement published makes it more difficult for coalition partners to breach the agreement, because the public can hold them accountable for their behaviour. Currently, coalition agreements mean little to those who signed up to them, and this is partly because the public does not know what they say. However, making coalition agreements “public” will not necessarily have a binding effect on political parties towing the line and upholding their agreements. It is suggested that South Africa should go a step further and bolster this intervention through prescriptive legislation that will state that for a coalition agreement to be valid and recognised in law, it must be set down in writing and must be made public. It is conceded to that this can be one of the founding or core requirements drafted as part of legislation. An observation is that whether documents are made public or not, political leaders as well as political parties still find themselves in various breaches and violations, in any event. The main effect that the publishing of coalition agreements may have, is that the voters of the various parties can hold parties accountable where it matters the most – at the voting polls and during elections – should parties be found to be in gross violation of coalition agreements. The public scrutiny does not make the agreement legally binding, but rather, politically binding. It is critical that legislation is revised wholistically not just for local government but also for provincial as well as national government. Germany uses practises or a methodology, so to speak, of “political rules” with regards to their coalitions. These rules govern its country through the usage of political conventions instead of legislation. It is said that compliance and conformance with a coalition agreement is not regulated by law, but instead, by “political calculation”. Parties and their leaders are cognisant of the fact that they will be assessed at the next election, for their track record and performance in a coalition as well as their capacity to deliver sound policies. Germany’s electorate does not look favourably on a party or on politicians who do not stand by their word and instead, cause the instability that comes with the breakdown of a government (Peschke, 2023). South Africa’s political landscape does not have the fertile ground nor the political maturity as yet to adopt this method solely as a mechanism, but rather, it requires a multidisciplinary approach which is the combination of both prescriptive legislation as well as political rules. Thirdly, there is a consensus that there needs to be an electoral reform with how the electoral system operates. Currently, power in councils is largely centred in caucuses of different political parties. At a local government level, public representatives are elected through a mixed system, i.e., direct election of ward councillors and proportional representation by political parties. The voice of constituencies is eliminated when decisions are made by a central command of the party caucus in council. For example, a councillor being a member of the EFF may have informed a community that they (the councillor) despise corruption and will not support the ANC, then the councillor becomes elected by that community based on these publicly pronounced views. However, when the councillor gets elected, their party takes a decision to work with the ANC. The voice of the councillor’s community and the undertaking that the councillor gave becomes mute and the voice of their community is eliminated in this manner. All the three big political parties take decisions through caucuses and not constituencies and are guilty of deal making. Another example and recent trend is smaller parties who would ordinary not be getting mayorship positions being given these positions when political parties wrangle for power. Democracy is being undermined with how some coalition agreements are being structured (Nkamana, 2023). Lastly, it seems that a strong contender for being a potentially key factor in the stabilising of coalitions is the role that committees can play to strengthen coalitions. It is therefore cardinal to provide a background on committees or rather, their basis in law. Section 79 and 80 Committees are established in terms of section 79 and section 80 of the Local Government: Municipal Structures Act 117 of 2008. Section 79 of the Act states that a municipal council may establish one or more committees necessary for the effective and efficient performance of any of its functions or the exercise of any of its powers and that the council may appoint the members of such a committee from amongst its members. Furthermore, the council may also dissolve a Section 79 Committee at any time. The Act provides that a municipal council must determine the functions of a Committee and may delegate duties and powers to it in terms of section 32 of the Act. The council of the municipality must appoint the chairperson and may authorise a committee to co-opt advisory members who are not members of the council. The council may remove a member of a committee at any time and may further determine the procedures of the committee (RSA, 1998). Section 80 provides that if a municipal council has an executive committee or executive mayor, it may appoint in terms of section 79, committees of councillors to assist the executive committee or executive mayor. It is, however, provided that such committees may not exceed the number of members of the executive committee or mayoral committee in numbers, i.e., they must be smaller focused groups. A Section 80 Committee must report to the executive committee or executive mayor in accordance with the directions of the executive committee or executive mayor. Importantly, the Act provides that when the above committees are established, “a municipality must take into account an examination of the powers, functions of the municipality and the extent of those powers”. The consideration of the above must be aligned to and tailored to suit the requirements of that municipality in terms of its needs as well as the need for efficiency and effectiveness. It is also a given that the municipality must consider the financial and administrative resources that are available to enable that committee with the support it requires to discharge its duties optimally. There have been numerous debates in terms of proposals of how committees can add more value when it comes to assisting in the strengthening of coalition agreements. Salga is of the view that committees ought to be a core anchor in providing oversight support within coalitions. It suggests that smaller committees ought to be established as the engine for oversight and scrutiny – smaller in size, more frequent, focus on specific (combinations of) portfolios and provide much greater opportunity for engagement than the council meeting; coalition partners can utilise their respective representations on committees to monitor the implementation of the coalition agreements; Section 79 Committees are generally well-suited for oversight over the municipal executive and the administration;committees can be an instrumental mechanism for coalition partners to monitor the implementation of the compromises that were agreed upon in the coalition (Joel, 2023). In addition to the above, a multidisciplinary approach must and can be strengthened through questions in council as well as committees. Most municipalities have rules and policy documents prescribing and providing guidelines in terms of how council proceedings ought to run, as mentioned above. The City of Ekurhuleni uses its Standing Orders By-law, which has as a matter of fact seen much more reliance by political parties in council. Lance Joel (2023) submits that these rules and orders of the municipal council should permit councillors to pose written and/or verbal questions in council meetings – directed at members of the municipal executive. In the City of Ekurhuleni, this has indeed been one of the best tools that political parties utilise to solicit information and answers in scrutinising decisions taken by the executive members of council. It can also be used to check progress in respect of implementation of coalition programmes. This tool can be further used by coalition partners to monitor the implementation of the coalition agreement. There is a view that the executive mayor system needs to be overhauled and the executive committee system entrenched more now that there is governance through coalitions. The submission is that there are already legislative roots to assist this. De Visser (2023) argues that executive committees function differently in that the political composition of the executive committee is largely fixed by law and is not necessarily subject to majority rule. In this regard, coalition negotiations are then able to focus on the key vacancies of the mayor, the whip of council and committee chairs. Crucially, when the coalition ends up collapsing, and the mayor is removed from office, the rest of the executive committee stays on. Consequently, there is a higher chance for a more stable governance system. De Visser (2023) correctly states that the law already provides for executive committees, and approximately 50% of municipalities have them. The MEC for local government may change a municipality from an executive mayor system to an executive committee system. Conclusion The glaring problem with coalition governments in South African municipalities can be seen and concluded to be a political one. It is not mainly a legislative or constitutional challenge; however, it is conceded that, in part, law plays a role. In scenarios where political parties that are seemingly working together have opposing policies, or where political parties are not controlled primarily by their stated ideological commitments but are driven by the urge to acquire large power and the access to resources and patronage that this presents, the normal ideological denominators that may hold coalitions together are absent or become non-existent. It is obvious that this leads to instability and thus the collapsing of coalitions and governance. Given this dynamic, imposing an additional legal requirement on political parties that seek to form a governing coalition or coalition agreements plays a factor in reducing the instability of a ruling coalition. It has been established in this article that South Africa does not have legislation drafted directly for providing guidelines, establishing or even regulating coalition government in totality, i.e., directed at all three spheres of government. It is apparent that with the coming elections in South Africa in 2024, there will possibly no longer be an outright winner or a dominating political party. South Africa is an amended or hybrid version of a parliamentary system of government in all three arms of government, instead of a system with a directly elected head of the executive, or a presidential system. The main difference between the two systems is that with the presidential system the government cannot be replaced, even if a majority of the legislature desires it. The government can be replaced in a legislative system of government if the majority of members of the legislature cease to support it; the position of the executive potentially becomes precarious when one party does not obtain a majority of seats in the legislature. The life of the government in a parliamentary system of government is dependent on the will of most elected political party representatives. Vos (n.d.) states that it is also, to a certain extent, dependant on the will of the political party leaders. A situation where no party obtains a majority of seats in the relevant legislature potentially leads to a more unstable government than in systems in which the head of the executive is directly elected by the electorate. Vos submits that the cause of this, is that in hung legislatures more than one party will have to work together to elect the head of the executive, to pass legislation, and to ensure its long-term ability to govern effectively, and to survive. This suggests that the stability of the government will formally depend on the whims of the elected representatives of political parties in a legislative body, although, in fact, it is more likely to also depend on political party leaders who, for various reasons, retain considerable control over the conduct of their elected representatives (Vos, n.d.). Literature suggests, a parliamentary system can generate more incentives for political parties to form coalitions (Mainwaring, 1990). It is said that this is more likely to transpire when the policy differences between the dominant or majority party and other minority political parties, together constituting a legislative majority, are small. Where these differences are small, it is submitted that the dominant party would be able to make necessary policy concessions to the other parties and offer them enough incentives to hold the coalition together (Austen-Smith & Banks, 1988; Cheibub et al., 2004: 566). In the hybrid parliamentary system operating in South Africa, wherein no party obtains an absolute majority in the legislature, political parties will be forced to work together, either in a formal or informal capacity, in order to ensure the election of the head of the executive, which is a precondition for the formation of a government. So, in the absence of a complete overhaul of the system of government, other smaller changes could and may be affected for the benefit of more stable and efficient coalition government. One can concede that coalitions are not as important as the maturity of the political leaders who can drive the stability and the sustainability of the coalition agreements. This, however, is not what must be a determining factor. Political leaders and political parties must be reminded of the will of the electorate and the will of the citizenry that elected them into power. Political leaders as well as their parties ought to know what accountability is. Investopedia defines accountability as “an acceptance of responsibility for honest and ethical conduct towards others. In the corporate world, a company's accountability extends to its shareholders, employees, and the wider community in which it operates. In a wider sense, accountability implies a willingness to be judged on performance”. The concept of accountability is the foundation of representative democracy. In a representative democracy, the representatives (e.g., MPs) should be held responsible (i.e., accountable) for their actions and decisions. In reality, the accountability of councillors or representatives becomes real when they contest in election. In politics and administration, responsibility was the technical term that was preferred to indicate the duty that persons in public authority had to “respond” in their conduct and actions as public officials. In law, liability was (and is) preferred to indicate that by doing a certain action (or entering into a certain contract) a person has put himself under an obligation and is therefore answerable for the consequences following from that action (or from entering into that contract) (Castiglione, 2012). This is a critical concept in politics but has lost meaning; the nature of coalitions requires the highest form of oversight coupled with accountability. Legislation can again play a role in the enforcement of legal consequences when parties to a coalition agreement fail to abide by the terms and conditions of an agreement, whereby the consequences become that a coalition collapses. The party in breach must be held liable in law and thus accountable. In conclusion, and having considered the historical background, the political and to a certain extent the economic background in line with geopolitical relations, having a single party system may very well be outdated. The political discourse within South African municipalities has demonstrated that they are still a work in progress when it comes to delivering effective governance to South African citizens. Coalitions of course are the new order of the day; however, much work needs to be done, especially when it comes to the regulating of coalitions. It is absurd to have positions of mayors – which are traditionally powerful positions – being handed over to smaller parties, who then abandon their ideologies and mission to occupy these positions, only to get “steered” from behind by the political parties that do have majority seats and are dominant in regions, provincially and nationally. This in law is termed “simulation” or rather simulated agreements or transactions. This is when parties make an agreement as a sham or pretence. They are disguised agreements that conceal the true or genuine intentions of the agreements – the same can be said to apply to some of these political arrangements.


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This report has been published by the Inclusive Society Institute

The Inclusive Society Institute (ISI) is an autonomous and independent institution that functions independently from any other entity. It is founded for the purpose of supporting and further deepening multi-party democracy. The ISI’s work is motivated by its desire to achieve non-racialism, non-sexism, social justice and cohesion, economic development and equality in South Africa, through a value system that embodies the social and national democratic principles associated with a developmental state. It recognises that a well-functioning democracy requires well-functioning political formations that are suitably equipped and capacitated. It further acknowledges that South Africa is inextricably linked to the ever transforming and interdependent global world, which necessitates international and multilateral cooperation. As such, the ISI also seeks to achieve its ideals at a global level through cooperation with like-minded parties and organs of civil society who share its basic values. In South Africa, ISI’s ideological positioning is aligned with that of the current ruling party and others in broader society with similar ideals.

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