As South Africa heads into the local government elections this week the country seems poised to enter a new era in the shape of our democratic landscape. This period will be marked by factionalism-cum-coalition politics. A speed dating version of alliance forming in which unconventional power brokers get to decide who runs a city, who controls a budget and most importantly, who received patronage. The winners will rejoice and the losers will fight, sometimes violently to hold on to their short-lived privileges.
Necessary coalition politics
There has been much speculation about the Democratic Alliance taking the metros of Port Elizabeth, Johannesburg and Tshwane from the ANC. Our forecast is that this possibility is largely overblown. As the pre-election energy dissipates, so will the curving tails in the polling data and the result will be that the DA take PE, don’t come near Johannesburg and get a foot in the door in Tshwane. This will set the scene for a coalition between the DA and ANC in the Jacaranda city creating an incubator for non-racial, bi-partisan coalition politics at the foot of the Union Buildings. This is great news for South Africa. The country needs the centre right in the ANC to meet the centre left in the DA and realise that their political fortunes are inextricably tied to one another. Such a union seems unthinkable at this point given the mud slinging and name calling that has gone before. It would be like a traditional wedding between a Zulu prince and Xhosa princess. Which family gets to dominate the festivities? Whose culture will rule the roost? But just as such marriages are increasingly commonplace in our rainbow nation, so one is now required in our politics. The DA-ANC coalition is the counterbalance of economic pragmatism required to offset the utopian socialism espoused by the Economic Freedom Fighters. So, the ANC will hang on to power this year and in the next two by a thread but will likely sew up the breach by making friends with the blued party. The Gauteng middle-class ANC voters will make the calculation that their political survival will ultimately need to trump ideological paternalism.
The Kingdom of KwaZula-Natal
Things will not be as rosy in the Kingdom of KZN. The administrative fumble of the National Freedom Party sets the scene for a provincial political crisis. The violent political history of KwaZulu necessitates that the Independent Electoral Commission find the loophole necessary for the NFP to contest the elections. Peace requires this. But institutional responsiveness is not yet a hallmark of post-1994 South Africa. There will be power battles in KZN reminiscent of the 1985-1995s. Sadly, opportunistic traditionalists in the kingdom will exploit the instability for selfish ends at the expense of the people waiting in vain for schools, clinics and industry to dot the hills across their province.
Limpopo-Mpumalanga no-man’s land, fundamentalist ANC Northwest
The EFF will make a strong showing in the northern provinces where a culture of corruption has been deeply entrenched and political opportunism no longer harbours loyalty to the ANC. This will lead to interesting though disastrous experiments in local governance as a Hugo Chávez-style socialism takes hold. Fortunately, and unfortunately, a licence to operate can always be bought at a price and a handful of mines will keep digging up the province while not much else progresses. Sadly, as we saw in Venezuela, it takes a couple of decades for militant idealism to bear fruit – or demonstrate its fruitlessness – by which time reconstruction must begin from a lower base than before “the revolution”. The contrast will be stark between these red spaces and the fundamentalist ANC chaotically controlling the North West province.
Cape Town city-state
Cape Town will chug along in the direction of a well-oiled city state, scarred by rising inequality and social disparities as the accelerated success of tourism and the likes of IT services leave many uneducated inhabitants in the dust of Gugulethu. The 18km from there to the city centre will tell tourists the whole story of South Africa’s post-apartheid socio-economic conundrum.
Finding our democratic centre
South Africa is becoming a federalist state. A political buffet where the voter gets to decide which flavours of political overlordship seems most attractive. The range and contrasts will be astounding and the complexity somewhat debilitating. But of course that was to be expected when we created a rainbow out of a melting pot at the tip of Africa.
These developments are positive for the long term while spelling uncertainty for the economy and will no doubt place strain on the social fabric in the short term. What South Africans need to do is lift their gaze beyond the candidate lists and office bearers of the now, and re-imagine a South Africa truly united in its diversity. This will require new levels of tolerance. It will necessitate a broader church of discourse and accommodation of difference of opinion. Can you have a country where a mini Venezuela in the North cohabits with a mini Monaco in the South, with its national economic centre in a 1950 Sheffield-style Gauteng? We are about to find out.
What is needed is that South Africa finds its political centre. This means that leaders, business leaders, community leaders such as priests and pastors and civic leaders in schools, universities, city councils and the like, stand up for democratic values, the rule of law and equality. It will be hard to keep focused on the ideal of equality as shortermism in the guise of radicalism polarises the debates about economic policy, distribution and fairness. However, only by pressing through the maze of opposing demands and separating the political noise from citizen’s rightful political demands, can the leadership emerge required to see the South African project succeed.
Responding to former president Thabo Mbeki’s request to chair a commission on electoral reform, Frederik van Zyl Slabbert asserted that South Africa needs a federal system to better accommodate the complexity of its political nuance. While the likelihood of such a change of the system is now distant, the broader conceptual notion that South Africa is going to be a nation of diverse pockets of political intrigue is increasingly evident. It is the responsibility of concerned, committed citizens to hold out this vision of our future to guide us through what is likely to be the fracturing of the order we have become accustomed to since our first successful democratic election.