Democracy, the only clear winner in the municipal elections
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OPINION: Democracy is not about governance by a winning party. It is not about simply focusing on the majority at the expense of all else. Democracy, in all its guises, needs to always give the people of South Africa the real sense that their voices and interests matter, writes Tessa Dooms.
Reflecting on the last week in the history of South African politics will require more time and consideration for weeks, and perhaps years to come.
After the initial shock of the political manoeuvring that characterised coalition talks and outcomes in the wake of the Local Government wears off, the shifts in political power and the consequences it will have for government requires much more sober and macro level analysis as the unspoken project to reform South Africa’s political culture is well under way.
What is clear, from the events that led to the forming of coalitions across Metros and municipalities across the country, is that the maturing of our democracy needs a more intentional approach to voter participation, coalition governments and resilient governance in the face of instability. We must intentionally learn from these election lessons about coalition politics and their implications in ways that strengthen our democracy in the lead up to the national and provincial elections in 2024 and beyond.
More than a numbers game
It has often been said by South African politicians that elections and coalitions are a “numbers game”. At first glance, the forming of coalitions, particularly in hung metros such as the cities of Johannesburg, Tshwane and Ekurhuleni, Nelson Mandela Bay and eThekwini, which were counted among the 66 hung councils in the aftermath of the November 1 polls, it may seem so.
It Is significant that in the metro areas only the ANC and the DA were able to breach the 30% vote mark, at various intervals, in hung councils, with variations across metros on the parties featuring as having the third highest votes. At the level of national and provincial politics, since the entry in 2014 of the EFF, we have become accustomed to talking about “the big three parties”.
At local government level not only is it harder to predict who will emerge as the “big three”, but the very idea of a small party is also being challenged. In the context of parties not breaching the 50 plus 1 mark, the seats held by parties that garner much fewer votes than the ANC or the DA, are numerically smaller, but hold substantial power to determine the governance of councils throughout the five years ahead.
The surprise coalitions formed by parties like the EFF, IFP, ActionSA, FF+, UDM and many other parties holding only one or two seats, had a dramatic and substantial impact on the forming of governments in five of the eight metros and a few smaller municipalities.
Without formalised coalition agreements prior to the first council sittings and election of speakers and mayors, they managed to keep the ANC, who had the larger share of seats and the benefit of pre-determined coalition agreements, out of executive power in three metros.
This spontaneous coalition also voted the DA into speaker and mayoral positions, even though they had walked away from coalition negotiations, particularly in the City of Johannesburg, without agreements or enough support to form even minority governments. The act of forming a coalition of “small parties” single-handedly constrained and derailed the power of the parties with the largest electoral votes.
This demonstrates that the will of the people in a democracy based on proportional representation makes it possible for all votes, even those cast to parties with a numerically smaller share of the votes, are not inconsequential.
Democracy and politics are about more than numbers. Our system is not a winner-takes-all approach exactly because it is designed to give a voice and influence to minority interests in society as well as those of the majority. This not only makes voting more meaningful in a democracy, but it also provides an avenue for checks and balances in the event that the majority may not always be right.
Numbers alone do not form coalition governments. Forming governments requires a combination of numbers, a clear mandate, political tolerance and the ability to negotiate complexity. Those additional traits were the difference in the electoral outcomes this week.
Once the dust has settled after the elections of speakers and mayors in the metro councils, for even the closest political observers and parties, determining the winners in the sharing of power was by no means easy.
For the DA, who by all accounts were blind-sided by a coalition vote that handed them accidental mayoral positions, the electoral victories are muddied by the idea that they have positions but no agreements about what power the parties who voted for them will wield in determining mayoral committees, passing Integrated Development Plans and the all important passing of budgets.
For the ANC, who managed narrow victories in Nelson Mandela Bay and eThekwini councils and have won those mayoral positions in exchange for a large coalition power-sharing agreement, that not only means that they hold few positions of power, but also that they have many more interests to balance than in previous coalitions.
Although leaders from both the ANC and the DA have attempted to craft a public narrative of victory, the coalition partners who have enabled these wins have been vocal in asserting their roles and expectations of these numerically larger parties that significantly temper the power and bravado that ordinarily would come with winning the mayorship.
Parties that have influenced outcomes of councils have certainly had much to celebrate in light of the power they were able to imbue in the votes they have been entrusted with.
This, however, does not on its own rise to the level of having won very much. The fragility of the coalitions established in metro areas mean that there is much work ahead of parties who hold the power to negotiate rather than the power that comes with incumbency.
If they succeed in creating and sustaining stable coalitions, ultimately the voters and residents of these metros will be the winners. Until that has been proven, it will be hard to make the case that their efforts have borne the fruits of victory.
The only clear winner is democracy. While parties jostled for power and positions, with varying intents and motivations, perhaps for the first time in South Africa’s democratic electoral history, every voter in hung metros had a reason to keenly watch to see what the party they voted for contributed to the extraordinary outcomes we have witnessed. By it’s very definition democracy is governance by the people.
Democracy is not about governance by a winning party. It is not about simply focusing on the majority at the expense of all else. Democracy, in all its guises, needs to always give the people of South Africa the real sense that their voices and interests matter.
This week our democracy delivered a sense of meaningful participation to voters in ways that captured the imaginations and interest of many more than we have seen in local government politics before.
Long may this interest continue.
* Tessa Dooms is a sociologist and independent political commentator.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL and Independent Media.