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No lifeline to people-unfriendly coalitions. Strengthen wider democratic possibilities! A reply to Pierre de Vos

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No lifeline to people-unfriendly coalitions. Strengthen wider democratic possibilities! A reply to Pierre de Vos

Raymond Suttner
Photo by Madelene Cronje
Raymond Suttner

10th October 2022

By: Raymond Suttner

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There is much preoccupation with coalitions as “the future” of South African politics, with study visits and much media focus on the question. These are aimed at making coalitions work, including setting a threshold before a party can be represented. This may well strengthen coalitions involving the big three parties in South Africa, but with a questionable programmatic result.

Many people are concerned about government instability, especially now at a local government level with the recent motion of no-confidence in the City of Johannesburg Mayor, Dr Mpho Phalatse, preceded by a recent change of party leadership in Nelson Mandela Bay. There have been similar changes in a quarter of the metros since the 2021 local government election. (https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2022-10-04-prepare-for-a-political-roller-coaster-ride-as-parties-jostle-for-positions-in-municipal-coalitions/, cited by Pierre de Vos, below). This instability may, with the apparent decline of the ANC, also come to affect both national and provincial government.

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The public is concerned insofar as this happens in the middle of an energy and water crisis affecting Johannesburg and Ekurhuleni and other parts of the country. Shortly after Dada Morero of the ANC took office as mayor, it was reported that there was no one tasked with responsibility to deal with the energy and water crisis in Johannesburg. This happens at a time when a mood of anger is palpable, for example, with many more cars breaking traffic rules (which is already common) and endangering others.

There is also a sense that many people have that the ANC's ascension to leadership in Johannesburg and likely to happen in Ekurhuleni and possibly Tshwane is a prelude to a return to a feeding frenzy and continued neglect of the decrepit infrastructure in Gauteng.

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One of the reasons for the success of the motions of no-confidence in many of these metros is the decisive role played by small parties commanding a miniscule percentage of the vote. Even though they have a small number of representatives, they have been critical in ensuring that there is a successful vote of no-confidence in Johannesburg and certain other cases. There appears to be a prospect of a similar scenario playing out in other metros soon and possibly at other levels of government in 2024.

On the basis of this diagnosis, which is correct electorally, and in terms of voting patterns, Pierre de Vos wrote an article in order to offer a potential remedy for the consequent instability of government in South Africa, drawing on lessons from Western Europe, especially in Germany, where thresholds are imposed in order to be admitted as a representative in a legislature or other level of government. (https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2022-10-05-small-parties-big-influence-what-can-be-done-about-unstable-coalition-governments/).

He argues that “to impose an electoral threshold, requiring a political party to obtain a minimum percentage of the votes to qualify for seats in a legislature”, would reduce the instability of government in legislatures where no party enjoys an overall majority.

It would consequently favour the strongest parties and their likelihood of successfully forming a coalition government, with a small number of coalition partners. He illustrates how very many smaller parties would disappear from Parliament and the Johannesburg metro. Furthermore, “the more parties that are represented in the legislative body, the more difficult it would likely be to cobble together a workable government where no party wins an overall majority of seats.”

He concedes that there is a problem at a democratic level, in that (as with the “first past the post” constituency system in the UK today and as was the case under the apartheid parliamentary system), the votes of those who vote for parties that do not win a seat are completely wasted. The expression of the democratic right to vote by supporters of such parties is rendered worthless.

More than that, it may well exclude organisations that are important for the development of our democracy. The PAC has historically had a lot of support among sections of the population, but it has never translated into electoral numbers. Would it be the correct choice – democratically - to exclude such a party, many of whose supporters, among the youth one might speculate, do not register or exercise their vote?

The PAC is present in the consciousness of many people and visual representations of Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe and the use of the term Azania for South Africa are also used by the EFF. This was a prominent feature of some #Feesmustfall protests and still appears to be a strong undercurrent among students.

Likewise, the Black Consciousness movement may decide to seriously contest elections and fail to reach the threshold suggested by De Vos. Again, this is a strand of thinking which is not represented in Parliament, but nevertheless has substantial support in the thinking of a range of people in South Africa.

It has also influenced a lot of organisations like the ANC and in society at large, with virtual banishment of the words “non-white” and the use of the word black to connote Africans, Coloureds and Indians (though there is slippage on this with many official forms using black purely to refer to Africans). Would we want to exclude a party that was formed to advance the Black Consciousness movement on the basis of a technical threshold? Would it be right democratically to erect such a barrier?

There are a range of other potential single-interest parties that may well emerge in this country. In many countries where green parties emerged, these initially struggled to garner votes, but gradually became stronger (and their support has also wilted in some states). In South Africa we may well see electoral contestation of parties devoted to climate change, energy and water, to sexualities under the banner of LGBQTI+, to masculinities and a range of other issues.

To take a different example, I feel strongly about the omnipresence of violence and the general lack of commitment to non-violence. Why not form a party to contest elections based on peace and the principle of non- violence? Should such a voice on a crucial issue not have a parliamentary seat if it receives the conventional percentage of the vote, currently required, but not crossing Pierre de Vos’s threshold, to enter as an MP?

There are a range of other issues that affect our democratic order and Constitution and some of these could well become a platform for a single-interest organisation, which would very likely not reach the threshold that De Vos has in mind and be excluded.

It is also important to remember that some parties that started with below 2% of the vote sometimes grew into formidable forces - all over the world. It is a static view to treat their electoral performance at one moment as comprising what they may become in the long term, given that this may also be affected by changes that may happen in the broader conditions of our society. Being in Parliament gives exposure and can facilitate growth (and also decline). But their potential electoral growth cannot surely be artificially curtailed through a threshold?

One must concede on the basis of the objectives that Pierre de Vos advances that it could well be, if the required constitutional amendment he believes may be necessary is passed, that government stability could be enhanced.

But one cannot unqualifiedly advance stability. What matters, and I am sure Pierre de Vos agrees, is the content of the governance and democracy that is stabilised?

At what expense will this stability be achieved? Government stability now will be stability of two or three parties that are not committed to the wellbeing of the majority of South Africans. I accept the legitimacy of the Constitution but have serious reservations over the legitimacy of the ANC as ruling party and many other parties in Parliament.

If the functionality of Parliament is considered primarily in the sense of parties having working majorities, it removes programmatic issues from our consideration. Parties may with such conditions be able to pass budgets and laws, but with what programmatic objectives?

If we want to resolve the democratic question, and the instability of government, it does not need to be through bending every effort to save electoral democracy. I do support electoral democracy. But I do not support the idea of sending a lifeline to the present parliamentary and electoral system as the only way of retrieving our democratic life and ensuring that it is both stable and transformative. It may be that many see this as “the only show in town”. If that is so and it is inadequate, we need to bend our efforts towards building an alternative.

If we return to why South Africans started to campaign for democracy over a century back, the present Parliament has shown that it is not an adequate vehicle for its realisation.

I do not myself command any vehicle that can achieve the transformative and emancipatory goals that are needed.

But there needs to be a vehicle for advancing these, beyond the forces that have come together in generally commendable efforts like #DefendOurDemocracy. There needs to be a combination of forces throughout society exercising the power of numbers and the power of where they are located as popular and civic organisations, progressive NGOs, religious groups, professional associations, business, workers, women and so forth, using these locations in order to voice what they see as necessary to broaden and deepen our democracy so that it works for all, even if that is resisted by elected representatives.

The combination of forces must use their powers to make the “powers that be” bend to the will of the majority to have their needs met. Whether it is a minority or a majority government, stable or unstable coalition, it must pay attention because the voice that is advancing these ideas will represent great numbers and a wide range of sectors who could be organised. It may be that the power “outside” will over time become the power “inside”.

There have been some visits to study the working of coalitions in Denmark and Germany, for example, now and in the past. The lessons that participants describe do not seem applicable to our current situation with little agreement on democratic principles in South Africa and zero trust between parties and little trust from what is known of public perception of these parties and most public institutions. These problems will not be overcome through technical solutions like thresholds. The European examples are far removed from our conditions.

It may well be that the repeated statement that coalitions represent our political future is an essentially elite understanding and does not represent potential democratic aspirations and possibilities.

It is not correct to send a lifeline to coalition governments and the electoral system at this point in time as the only or main way of saving our democratic life. It may achieve a measure of stability, but more important is to work towards a democratic space and organisational formations which are emancipatory and transformatory, not simply as in functioning but working to remedy the lot of the poor and marginalised, wherever they are located.

Raymond Suttner is an emeritus professor at the University of South Africa. He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities. His writings cover contemporary politics, history, and social questions, especially issues relating to identities, violence, gender and sexualities. His books include Recovering Democracy in South Africa, The ANC Underground and Inside Apartheid’s Prison, all published by Jacana Media. His twitter handle is @raymondsuttner.

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