The dominance of one party (invariably the ANC or DA) in local councils is quickly coming to an end and coalition governments are increasing in frequency. Coalition governments and minority governments have been in place in a third of all municipalities following the November 2021 local government election.
Coalitions have been even more common in South Africa’s eight metro municipalities: five of them did not have a party with a clear majority. All five coalition governments have experienced challenges and at least two of them have collapsed since November.
The City of Johannesburg metro has found it difficult to sustain a healthy coalition. The DA-led coalition took almost four months to finalise and it has been under constant attack by opposition parties, particularly the ANC and EFF. The coalition finally collapsed in September when the speaker and mayor, both DA councillors, were voted out in motions of no confidence.
A rocky start to coalition-building
Since November 2021, coalition-building in the Johannesburg metro has been more difficult and complex than in any other metro. There are 18 parties represented in council and eight of these have just one seat.
By the end of November, the DA, ActionSA, the FF+, ACDP, COPE, and the UDM had formed a working coalition. The coalition had enough seats to form a government in Tshwane but was still at least ten seats short of a majority in Johannesburg.
The parties could not agree on a mayoral candidate; the DA wanted to put forward their candidate while the other five parties supported Herman Mashaba for mayor. At the last minute the DA prevailed: with the surprise support of the EFF the DA secured the mayor and speaker positions. The EFF was not part of the coalition and the DA-led coalition was effectively a minority government.
By December most of the metros had elected their mayoral committee members and committee chairs. In Johannesburg, disagreement over the allocation of these posts meant that the coalition remained a minority government. Mayor Mpho Phalatse announced her mayoral committee by mid-December with the inclusion of the IFP into the coalition.
By end-February, almost four months after the election, the metro had finally filled all political posts in the council. The PA joined the coalition in exchange for a seat on the mayoral committee.
The multiparty coalition now included nine parties with 140 seats between them and freedom from reliance on the EFF’s support in council. There had already been attempts from opposition parties to disrupt and frustrate the coalition, including physical violence at the January council meeting and accusations of fraud against the speaker.
Opposition parties turn the screws
Although the metro was more stable in March and April it was not free of controversy. Minority parties, including one coalition member, accused the mayor of ‘increasing unemployment’. The DA and ActionSA disagreed over the choice of candidate for city manager.
By end-April the PA was again threatening to withdraw from the coalition and Al Jama-ah brought a motion of no confidence against the mayor. Tensions cooled somewhat in May but the PA continued to attack the DA.
Opposition parties continued to attack the coalition through June, focusing on ActionSA’s MMC for economic development and the group head of forensic and investigating services, who resigned his post in protest. Al Jama-ah was eventually interdicted from ‘defaming’ the latter.
The pressure intensified in July with the acting city manager approaching Cogta to force the speaker to act against the mayor. Opposition parties again attacked the DA-led administration, accusing it of reserving jobs for its friends.
The fall of the DA-led coalition
Violence once again broke out in council chambers during the August council meeting, with the DA again laying charges of assault against the EFF.
By late August there was open talk of the ANC, EFF and other parties pushing to take control of all three Gauteng metros. The Johannesburg speaker was removed in a vote of no confidence where a number of councillors within the DA-led coalition voted with the ANC and against their parties’ mandate.
The DA’s coalition partners indicated their desire to elect a new speaker from another party (not the DA). The inability of the DA and its coalition partners to agree on a new speaker led to the PA voting with the ANC and EFF and successfully electing the COPE councillor as the new speaker.
The DA mayor was subsequently voted out in a special council meeting at the end of September.
Council seats and coalitions: a visualisation story
The Flourish story below shows two iterations of the DA-led coalition and a possible ANC-led coalition from October 2022. It illustrates how closely matched the two coalitions are and how difficult it is to maintain a stable coalition in Johannesburg:
Why did the coalition fail?
There are a few reasons for the coalition’s instability. The large number of parties with their varying agendas and antagonistic relationships is a key reason. The complexity of inter-party relationships is another: for example, the IFP’s support of the coalition was constrained by threats from the EFF to dissolve the relationship that the two parties had in KwaZulu-Natal.
The inability of smaller parties, notably COPE, to discipline councillors who defy coalition agreements is another destabilising factor. At the same time, the DA’s top-down management of coalition agreements from its national office has made it very difficult for DA councillors to engage with their counterparts at a decentralised level.
In future articles we will look at coalitions in other metros and the challenges that they face. We will also examine coalition-building in other countries to find solutions for the current instability in local government.