Coalition governments – a labour perspective

by Apr 18, 2024Amandla 92, Feature

Coalition governments have long existed throughout the world. Some countries, particularly those in the Global North, have managed to overcome many of the initial challenges presented by the various political formations that needed to work together on often conflict-ridden issues. In some countries, coalitions are a norm rather than a novelty; institutional arrangements have been established to regulate them. South Africa, however, now 30 years into its democracy (and relatively young in comparison to other nations), has only recently had to start seriously considering the realities that are presented by coalitions. 

SA coalition history

The first democratically elected ANC administration could be considered to be an initial example of a coalition, although perhaps not in the strict sense. To allow for the country to transition away from apartheid governance, a power-sharing arrangement was brokered between the incoming ANC and the outgoing National Party (NP). The result was a coalition of sorts. Then, as political parties and their related organisations began to reconfigure, emerge, converge, fracture, and even re-converge, various low-level forms of coalition were established. 

However, in the early years of democracy this phenomenon was relatively insignificant, as the ANC was dominant in both national and local government elections. 

The Intlungu yaseMatyotyombeni Movement protesting in Cape Town. Widespread allegations of malfeasance and corruption sparked a period of community uprisings, commonly known as ‘service delivery protests’. Factors such as these saw the ANC lose considerable support in the 2016 and 2021 local government elections.

Change began to occur once the governing party gradually started losing favour with the base, especially around the lack of adequate service delivery. Widespread allegations of malfeasance and corruption became a norm in the South African political lexicon, and they were primarily linked to mismanagement at the municipality level. 

This sparked a period of community uprisings, commonly known as ‘service delivery protests’. In-fighting, as well as breakaway political parties, disillusioned supporters on the ground; factors such as these saw the ANC lose considerable support in the 2016 and 2021 local government elections. 

The City of Johannesburg

The City of Johannesburg (CoJ) is the largest metropolitan municipality in the country. The complex and intricate experiences that followed the decline of the ANC throughout the country in elections have been reflected in the CoJ. Initially, it seemed that the motivation of the opposition was to completely disempower and dislodge the ANC from governance structures in the City. Opposition parties, such as the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and the Democratic Alliance (DA), formed coalitions with each other and smaller parties. 

However, this formula was complicated by ideological differences. These made it difficult for some coalitions to work sustainably over a long period. Policy formation is an extremely contested political terrain and this placed parties at odds with each other. The South African political ecosystem is rich with parties and other formations from almost all ideological persuasions. These range from ultra-right wing conservatives and free-market neoliberalists, to political parties with a more nationalist orientation, to formations with a leftist perspective (an example of this would be the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party [SRWP]), although its critics have argued that it is leftist in name rather than substance). There are points on which some of these parties can agree for the sake of the coalition. However, disagreement is inevitable and the coalition begins to collapse. 

The election of specific candidates, especially in the mayor’s position, became a tremendous bone of contention for many parties. The coalition arrangements in the CoJ led to many votes of no confidence, as well as a handful of mayors each occupying the position for a short time. Furthermore, the element of individualism, as well as party-based personal ambition, started to feature heavily in decisions that needed to be taken within these coalitions. After the 2016 and 2021 local government elections, political parties experimented and actors tried to make sense of this essentially uncharted territory. Parties to the coalition often needed to choose between allegiance to their respective political homes and working as a unified and legitimate coalition government. 

In all of this complexity and political manoeuvring, critical issues such as service delivery stagnated. For the most part, at least for the marginalised poor and working class, it seemed that the hope of a change in socio-economic conditions at the level of local government would not manifest. However, the pertinent question becomes: where is labour in all of this complexity?

Labour contained

We must first acknowledge that the Left has become significantly weakened. This is due to internal, external and global factors. Following the transition to democracy in 1994, the South African Left was at the zenith of political discourse and activism. It played a significant role in the anti-apartheid struggle, especially following the banning of political parties such as the ANC and PAC. The strength of workers at the workplace, especially in key economic sectors such as mining and manufacturing, made the working class, including communities, a politically significant force. 

This force needed to be quelled through legislation and policies, to ensure that capital could resume its endless march towards accumulation and profit-maximisation, without having to concern itself with an incredibly strong, well-organised and unified Left. Legislation to advance the interests of workers was passed, such as the Basic Conditions of Employment Act, the Skills Development Act, and the Employment Equity Act. Social dialogue mechanisms, such as bargaining councils as well as the National Economic Development and Labour Council (NEDLAC), were created. This labour relations regime sought to bring trade unions within a regulated and significantly less confrontational institutional framework. Unfortunately, for trade unions in general and workers in particular, this agenda has been largely successful. 

The Tripartite Alliance

Furthermore, the relationship between trade unions and political parties, in particular the ANC through the Tripartite Alliance, made it difficult for labour to fully express itself. 

This is quite clearly seen in the policy formation space. Cosatu had been unrelenting in its opposition towards the free-market, fundamentalist macroeconomic policies that were developed and championed by the governing ANC. However, due to the unequal nature of the Tripartite Alliance, labour was often rendered mute in such key policy debates. 

Despite these challenges, organised labour, through Cosatu, continued its support of the ANC in both local and national government elections. The close relationship between the ANC, Cosatu and the SACP, especially in the early years of democracy, gave trade unions some leeway in advancing the interests of workers. There has been much concern within Cosatu, as well as its affiliates, that should the ANC lose significant power in both the general and local elections, this would render labour completely marginalised. This is because many other political formations have been unequivocal about their positions on issues relating to the working class. 

For example, it has often been argued by conservatives that the labour laws in South Africa are cumbersome and that the state is spending too much on social protectionist measures that should rather be left to the market. Such arguments have of course been a cause for concern amongst the Left that, should certain political formations gain significant electoral support, the historic gains made by Labour would be reversed. 

However, the irony is that workers’ interests have been progressively reversed by the ANC through its adamant insistence on continuing with its neoliberal policy trajectory. 

Union fragmentation

Apart from these external challenges, internal issues continue to plague trade unions. Breakaway unions have formed and have only served to divide a thoroughly fractured working class. Ideological differences, coupled with the entrepreneurial spirit that many in trade unions have developed, have made the movement vulnerable to internal disintegration. These realities have made trade unions inward-looking and competitive amongst themselves, instead of operating in unison against the perils of the capitalist mode of production that workers are constantly confronted with. 

A coalition government in South Africa is almost a certainty at this point. However, the future seems bleak for the working class in such arrangements. On the one hand, continued support for the ANC ensures that anti-worker, neoliberal policies will proceed unabated. On the other hand, support for other political formations will ensure that those policies become cemented, and historic gains of labour will inevitably be reversed. Meanwhile, internal divisions and ideological divergences concerning political party choices among workers continue to fragment an already disabled trade union movement. 

A way forward

It seems that the most plausible way forward lies in labour forming a ‘coalition of sorts’ amongst unions and across federations. What continues to make the Left weak is its undeniable fragmentation. Major federations and their affiliates, both in the public and private sectors, continue to pull in different directions on important social and economic policies that have significant impacts on their constituencies. These divisions have only served to weaken the once dominant working-class collective, and the prospects of finding a political party or a coalition government that genuinely caters to the interests of workers seems remote. 

Therefore, as complex as the task of Left unity may seem under the current material conditions, it is now a path that needs to be taken to ensure that the interests of the working class, as well as communities, are maintained and championed. 

The author is a trade union official and activist.

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