‘We need to be one’: South Africans on future with coalition government

As South Africa’s biggest political parties remain locked in coalition talks the country’s voters have mixed views about what could await them, from hope that politicians will work across ideological divides to bring positive change, to pessimism that any cooperation will rapidly fall apart.

The African National Congress party lost its parliamentary majority in the 29 May elections for the first time since it came to power in 1994 at the end of apartheid. Amid high unemployment and degrading public services and infrastructure, it secured just 40.2% of the vote and now needs to reach a deal with at least one of the largest opposition parties by Friday, when parliament has to elect the country’s president.

The current president, Cyril Ramaphosa, proposed a government of national unity last week, invoking the 1994-1996 period, when the ANC, the former liberation movement, governed with partners including the National party, which ruled South Africa during apartheid, and the Zulu nationalist Inkatha Freedom party.

Since the vote, the ANC has held talks with parties including the pro-business Democratic Alliance (DA) and the far-left Economist Freedom Fighters (EFF), both of which have ruled out working with one another. The uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) party, which got the third highest vote share having only been launched in December by former president Jacob Zuma, has said it won’t work with the ANC while it is led by Ramaphosa.

On Tuesday, the MK party asked South Africa’s top court to stop parliament sitting on Friday, on the grounds that the election was not free or fair. The election commission has defended the results, and they have been accepted by other large parties.

ANC voter Benson Dube, 47, said his preference was for an ANC-DA coalition. “The DA, they are completely different from the ANC in terms of views. But the MK and EFF, it’s still the same thing, because those guys, they are former members of the ANC,” said Dube, a driving instructor, as he sat outside a small restaurant in a market in the Randburg area of Johannesburg.

“I think the DA will come out with something new,” he said, adding that he thought the DA’s white members were a benefit. “We need to be one, a nation, not to divide – black people’s side, white people’s side.”

Many black voters, though, distrust the DA, which is often accused of favouring the interests of white people. Its leaders deny this, saying the party is “multi-racial”.

“Cape Town, they’re in government … they only work in the suburbs. You go to [the township] Khayelitsha, they do nothing,” said Silas Radzilani, 46, a tree surgeon. He said the ANC would lose his lifelong vote if they worked with the DA: “I will stop, right away.”

Radzilani’s preference was for the ANC to work with the EFF, which was founded by former ANC youth leader Julius Malema after he was expelled from the ANC. “They’ve got the same ideology,” Radzilani said.

“There is no perfect combination, it’s simply about whether [the ANC] can manage the fallout in expectations from their core voters,” said TK Pooe, a senior lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand’s school of governance.

“A smaller combination of the ANC with no more than three parties is preferred owing to the need to address serious and urgent policy issues,” Pooe said. “The more actors in this coalition, the harder it will be to resolve problems and for parties to claim political victories.”

Before the election, 45% of voters said they approved of the idea of a coalition government, while 28% disapproved of it and 23% neither approved or disapproved, according to a telephone survey by Afrobarometer and the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation.

After the vote, some South Africans said they had low expectations of any government of national unity.

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“It’s going to work for a few months and then it’s not going to work,” said Lynette, a 62-year-old DA voter, who declined to give her second name as she shopped in Cresta Shopping Centre, a mall about four miles from the Randburg market filled with international brands such as Le Creuset and H&M.

“I think they should try,” she added. “They [the DA] have to go into coalition with someone, to have some say.

“I would like to see service delivery in all areas. The Western Cape at the moment has been quite good,” said Lynette, a law firm personal assistant, referring to the only South African province governed by the DA. “I would like less crime in the country.”

The coalition negotiations are taking place in an environment of growing mistrust of politics and the state, said Ebrahim Fakir, an analyst at the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa, pointing to the fall in turnout to 58.6% from 66% at the 2019 elections.

“People have major mistrust in public institutions and that’s what’s driven lower voter turnout in my view,” he said.

He added that while parliament could elect the president on Friday, negotiations to form a government may stretch on for longer after that.

The Guardian

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