By Ian Siebörger, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies in the Faculty of Humanities at Rhodes University
South Africa’s coalition negotiations after the November 2021 election were full of unexpected plot twists. November’s news reporting reveals clear, almost cartoonish characterisations of our largest three parties emerging from a backdrop of extremely complex negotiations and a soap-opera-worthy web of love-hate relationships.
One word associated with each of the top three parties encapsulates the way they were represented in the month’s reporting: the ANC was “sidelined”, the Democratic Alliance was “surprised” and the Economic Freedom Fighters made “demands”. These words are drawn from my database of 114 top online news articles from IOL, News24 and TimesLive in November 2021.
Already smarting from receiving less than 50% of the country’s votes for the first time since 1994, the ANC found itself left out of major coalition talks held by opposition parties. One TimesLive headline proclaimed “ANC, EFF sidelined as political parties meet to discuss coalitions”. The word “sidelined” was also used of the ANC in a TimesLive article on the contentious coalition talks in the Johannesburg metro.
Even the once-captured SABC was accused of having “sidelined the governing party” by ANC head of elections Fikile Mbalula for broadcasting shows exposing poor service delivery in some ANC municipalities. With most of our municipalities in financial trouble, you’d think that the SABC would have to try very hard to turn a blind eye to the rot that’s set in.
Poor Mbalula was uncharacteristically quiet for a few weeks after the elections, before coming out with the following lament after having lost most of the metros: “We did not lose elections, we lost to coalitions because of our failure to garner outright majority to govern.
“Smaller parties coming together to oust the ANC; that is what is happening in the metros and others define it as punishment. If there is any punishment, it was dealt to us by our voters who did not come out in numbers to vote and we respect their stance. We will need as a party to address their issues.”
In other words, would-be ANC voters stayed home and the party was left like the big boy in the playground ganged up on by all the smaller kids. Ag shame.
Meanwhile, the DA seemed as though it had walked into a surprise party after being handed mayoral positions in all three Gauteng metros, despite its national support slumping to 22% of the vote, from 27% in the 2016 local government elections.
This happened after the DA shocked other parties by refusing at the last minute to support Herman Mashaba of ActionSA’s bid to become Jo’burg mayor for a second time. This was dubbed a “surprise DA decision” by the Sunday Times, which left Mashaba feeling “double-crossed”.
Then, when initial council meetings took place, with no coalition agreements in place, “the DA received the surprise support of the EFF and other opposition parties to topple the ANC in various metros”. The word “surprise” was used twice more in the News24 article reporting on these meetings. The party started in Ekurhuleni, “when the DA’s Raymond Dhlamini was elected speaker — much to the DA’s surprise”. After it was all done, “DA federal executive council (fedex) chairperson Helen Zille admitted to News24 the events in Johannesburg, Ekurhuleni and eThekwini — where the party is likely to secure the mayorship — came as a surprise to it.”
Of course, then the DA was surprised again as the ANC regained eThekwini, thanks to a coalition with some very small, locally based parties.
There is little love lost between the DA and the other opposition parties who voted with it. EFF leader Julius Malema said that his party’s support of DA candidates “was not an endorsement, but a targeted onslaught against the ANC”.
The Freedom Front Plus (FF+) formed the first coalition with the DA in the Western Cape’s Cederberg municipality. But Lennit Max, the FF+ Cape Town mayoral candidate, made a scathing attack on the DA, saying that it “created fear” to win the vote in that city. His statement made “fear” and “created” two of the words most strongly associated with the DA in November’s news.
For a few days, it seemed as though ANC-EFF coalitions would be the most likely possibility for many hung councils. However, the EFF has isolated itself by attaching unpalatable conditions to coalition agreements, making “demands” a word strongly associated with the red berets.
On 7 November, the Sunday Times reported that the EFF’s “demands have put off many in the ANC”. These demands included, “among other things, the amendment of the Constitution within six months to allow expropriation of land without compensation, and the creation of a state bank within 12 months”.
The DA also used the EFF’s previous demands as a reason to reject both working with the EFF and supporting Mashaba as mayor. An anonymous DA leader said that when Mashaba was the DA mayor of Johannesburg, “He was basically the EFF representative at fedex, who kept on coming to present EFF demands, which, if we didn’t agree to, they would threaten to pull out.” In the same article, DA leader John Steenhuisen ruled out even a minority coalition government in Johannesburg, saying, “The coalition will always, therefore, be subject to the whims and demands of the EFF.”
So the DA seems to have emerged as the big winner in these elections — in the metros, at least — despite its loss of support at the polls and despite its refusal to enter into coalition agreements with other parties. It has taken mayoral seats not on its own merit, but because it is not the ANC. Mashaba sums up the mood by suggesting that the DA was “undeserving”, but “the flame of multiparty alternatives to the ANC has to be kept alive”.
If South Africa is moving from being a dominant-party system to a more vibrant, multiparty democracy, as these elections indicate, then coalitions are going to have to become the norm. We don’t have a two-party system in which, if one party loses the majority, another will gain it. And, in many ways, I think a multiparty system is better anyway.
Since the elections, One South Africa leader Mmusi Maimane and political analyst Ralph Mathekga have both argued that South Africans have sent our political parties a mandate to build coalitions and work together in governing — now the parties need to make it work. I couldn’t agree more. Let’s hope the parties listen and will build stable partnerships for well-functioning municipalities that put their residents’ needs first.