Why the DA did the right thing in Johannesburg

Issued by John Steenhuisen, MP – DA Leader
03 Feb 2023 in News

A tree that is freshly rooted can easily be plucked. A tree that is firmly grounded cannot be removed, even with a crane.        – Sufi poet

Firm, sound principles are the foundation for enduring success. And principles matter most when sticking to them is hard. Would a person or political party be considered principled if they only stuck to their principles when it was convenient to do so?

I have said it before and I will say it again: when it comes to coalition negotiations, as with other decisions, the DA will choose that option which we believe to be in the best long-term interest of South Africa. A DA with unshakeable principles, a DA that can be relied upon to stick to a coalition agreement, a DA that is very firm about the line it will not cross – this is the DA that voters need to know they are voting for come the general election of 2024.

This is crucial because in 2024 South Africa will enter an era of coalitions whether we like it or not.

It was painful to hand control of Johannesburg to an ANC-EFF-PA coalition under the hapless “placeholder” mayorship of Thapelo Amad of Al Jama-ah, a party that did not even get 1% of the vote. But it was undoubtedly the lesser of two evils. The alternative was to give in to extortion by the Patriotic Alliance and compromise the DA’s credibility as a party of principle.

Small party, big influence

There are 270 seats in the JHB council, so a coalition needs 136 seats to form a majority. In the 2021 local election, the voting was highly fragmented, with 18 parties making it into council out of the 56 parties and several independent candidates on the ballot paper. Neither the DA nor the ANC are able to form a majority coalition with their natural allies. The ANC (91) and EFF (29) together make up 120 seats while the DA (71), ASA (44), IFP (7), FF+ (4), ACDP (3) and COPE (1) together make up 130 seats.

This situation gives enormous, disproportionate power to smaller parties who become “kingmakers” able to install a coalition at their whim in exchange for their demands being met. This is a subversion of democracy.

In JHB’s case, the Patriotic Alliance, a party with less than 3% of the vote and led by two convicted criminals, was open and unashamed about offering power to whichever coalition would give it access to the greatest opportunities for patronage and extraction.

The DA was not prepared to engage in the politics of extortion by handing over control of Joburg’s coffers to the PA. The DA painstakingly built a multiparty government in Johannesburg to offer a distinct alternative to ANC rule, marked by zero-tolerance for corruption. We did not build it to show that our offer is one of less corruption than the ANC.

Ahead of the make-or-break 2024 general election, it is more important than ever that voters see clear blue water between the DA and the ANC.

Coalition country

The DA is part of 38 coalition governments around South Africa.  The vast majority of these are stable and successful, focusing on service delivery to citizens. The ones that are not are those where the coalition is large (6 or more parties) and lacks a majority in council. These multiparty minority coalitions are inherently unstable.

South Africa cannot afford to replace failing ANC governments with unstable, cumbersome coalitions. Yet this is what happened in Johannesburg, Tshwane, Ekurhuleni and Nelson Mandela Bay metros after the 2021 local government election, and it is at risk of happening at national and provincial level after the 2024 general election.

Proportional representation (PR) electoral systems tend towards a fragmented voter base and coalition instability. This hasn’t been apparent in South Africa because the ANC has until now comfortably achieved over 50% of the national vote. But this is no longer so. If the current state of metro coalitions is replicated at national and provincial government level in 2024, it will lead to permanent instability, with South Africa possibly even becoming ungovernable.

Other countries with PR systems, such as Germany, Denmark and Israel, have legislation in place to promote stable coalitions. South Africa’s electoral framework needs to catch up with the current South African reality that we are fast entering an era of coalitions. Last year, the DA presented a 5-point plan to stabilise coalitions. We are working on three Private Members Bills to implement these proposals.

Meantime, Johannesburg offers valuable lessons for voters ahead of 2024.

Valuable lessons

First, voting for very small parties is risky as it fragments a council and leads to large, unstable coalitions, extortion politics, a subversion of democracy, and bad service delivery. While Joburg’s mayor has a two-month time horizon before he gets replaced, Cape Town’s mayor yesterday launched the City’s R120 billion infrastructure portfolio as the foundation for economic growth over the next ten years. Cape Town residents are reaping the benefit of the DA’s full majority in council.

Second, voters can rely on the DA to enter into coalition agreements in good faith, to publish those agreements for all to see, and then to stick to those agreements.

Third, the DA will not go into government at all costs, and we will not compromise on our core principles. We’d rather be a principled opposition than be part of corrupt coalitions.

Unshakeable principles

South Africa is in the mess it’s in because the ANC has lost its moral compass and because too many voters are prepared to vote for a party devoid of morals. The way to claw back from that mess is not for other parties to abandon their principles for short-term gain. It is for other parties to be clear about what their principles are, and then to stand by them even when it’s hard.