Remarks by Deputy President Paul Mashatile on the occasion of the National Dialogue on Coalition Governments, University of the Western Cape, August 4, 2023
Facilitators: Speaker of the National Assembly, Ms. Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, and Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, Ms. Thembi Nkadimeng;
Other Cabinet colleagues, Deputy Ministers, Premiers, Executive Mayors, and Councillors;
Leaders of political parties;
Professor Tyrone Pretorius, Rector and Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Western Cape;
Chairpersons and Commissioners of the Chapters 9, 10, and 11 Institutions;
Leaders of organised labour and business;
Members of the diplomatic corps;
Members of the media;
Ladies and gentlemen.
I would like to welcome all of you to this national dialogue on coalition governments. Our gratitude also goes to our hosts, the University of the Western Cape and the Dullah Omar Institute of Constitutional Law, Governance, and Human Rights.
This is the first time ever that the leadership of as many sectors of our country have met to deliberate on a critical issue that has caught the imagination of the nation and will undoubtedly resonate beyond our borders.
In reality, our deliberations over the next two days are several years late, in that, like everything else, our democracy has been continuously evolving, though with little collective reflection among the broad sections of our country’s leadership. Had we paused earlier to reflect on how best to promote and maintain consensus within our evolving democracy, we might have avoided some of the recent distressing scenes that have played out dramatically in some of our metropolitan municipalities.
The government is keenly aware of the challenge of addressing such a contentious issue as coalition building. Universally, every political party desires to govern. However, when an election produces no outright winner, parties are forced to enter into such partnerships as coalitions to facilitate the effective oversight and conduct of public affairs.
Whatever the configuration of governance, the electorate and the people as a whole expect from those who govern nothing less than the material improvement of their lives, a better future for themselves and their children as well as guarantees for peace and security.
Those who govern also owe accountability to the people at all times for without accountability, the process of governance is compromised. Additionally, where parties battle it out, like the feuding houses of Verona, other things also get lost: among them, improving the lives of the people is often compromised with negative impacts on the wellbeing of citizens. This is all the more so in a country like South Africa, which has, for the longest time, been the subject of international attention. This is accentuated by the age of social media, in which ordinary citizens can be as powerful communicators as any of the global news and television agencies.
Within minutes, a clip about some injudicious or downright ill-conceived incident in Johannesburg, Pretoria, Cape Town, or any small town or village can reach a significant number of the world’s 6.92 billion smartphone users and inform perceptions about South Africa across the globe. These impressions invariably affect the choices and judgements, big or small, public or private, that others make about South Africa. In short, our audience is no longer just our fellow nationals; we sit in a global fishbowl!
Yet, our political focus must unerringly remain on the well-being of our people. Our pursuit of national consensus on how to approach coalition governments is a matter of national interest. Properly handled, it has the potential to bring the necessary stability, especially to the local government sphere, despite the intemperance we have witnessed in relation to coalitions.
This dialogue therefore seeks to promote fidelity to the national interest so that we remain focused on the fulfilment of the constitutional injunction to build a united, democratic, non-racial, non-sexist, and prosperous society.
You will all have seen our discussion paper entitled: "A Policy Framework Towards Stable Governance." It makes the important point that "Coalitions are an unmistakable expression of choices that the electorate has made. It is democracy at work!" It also identifies problems and challenges in the local sphere of government, amongst them: "lack of skills, inadequate revenue, indifference from both administrators and politicians, and the substitution of the public good with self-interest."
The document also makes an important point whose nuances must be kept in mind throughout our discussion. Whereas it asserts "a direct correlation between the constant collapse of municipal executives and them being coalition governments," it also cautions that the "correlation... does not imply causality — that is, coalitions trigger collapses" in that "both the coalitions and their turbulence have separate triggers, albeit somewhat inter-related."
However, the "frequent collapse" of coalitions at the local government level "is deliberate, sometimes even unrelated to the pursuit of the public good, and can be minimised down to a healthy level, with little detrimental effect on municipal administration."
Other distressing problems the document identifies with our recent coalition experiences at the local government level and in the country’s major metropolitan municipalities include:
- opportunistic political behaviour, enabled by institutional loopholes;
- the lack of a threshold for the admissibility of a motion of no confidence and the vulgarisation and proceduralization of the process that are not related to considerations of ethics and competence;
- the monetisation of votes and seats in municipal governance — patronage/rent-seeking, and;
- power-play and relevance; ganging up against incumbents.
The discussion document also says, in passing: "Career politicians, without any prospects of employment elsewhere, face a constant risk of job insecurity". This is no minor matter. It is closely related to a broader sociological characteristic of South African society, which manifests the continued racial imbalance in the distribution of opportunities, wealth, poverty, unemployment, and inequality.
It is also exacerbated by an economy that has not grown sufficiently over the years to absorb greater numbers of job seekers. Together, both factors — the sociological characteristics of our society and the stagnant economy manifest in a stampede towards the political sphere, especially by the youth, who increasingly demand greater representation in politics than the professions and the rise in variants of right-wing and left-wing populism alike. In fairness, populism is not only a South African but a global phenomenon that cannot be understood outside the context of national and international resource distributional imbalances.
Like any other country, our sociological reality impacts the state of political parties and the country. It reflects the political party’s social base and the extent to which, as creatures of agency, every social base exerts itself on the national stage in a dynamic intercourse with others to produce particular outcomes.Consequently, while we must be ready and willing to learn from the coalition experiences of other countries, we must also bear in mind South Africa’s unique sociological and political characteristics. Our history of a unique colonialism that is unlike any other and the enduring legacy of that special colonialism has a direct impact on our politics today and will undoubtedly be the case for a long time to come. We must therefore craft viable partnerships that reflect the South African context in all its nuances, complexity, and opportunities.
A few days ago, I finished reading a book about the destruction of Somalia written by one of the country’s former diplomats, His Excellency, Ambassador Mohamed Osman Omar. The thrust of his thesis is that after the collapse of the Siad Barre regime in January 1991, Somalia descended into civil war and eventually collapsed because the leadership was driven by a "power struggle without restraint." Emphasising the point, he argues that they were inspired by "self-aggrandisement, absence of discipline and national spirit". They pursued Somalia’s narrow "social cleavages based on clan loyalties" — never "willing to learn from our own or from other [people’s] follies."
Ambassador Omar’s observation about his country begs several questions. Perhaps the most crucial is: what must be done to institutionalise fidelity to the national interest, a challenge that is as much Somalian as it is South African? For South Africa, the process is made all the more urgent by the alarm bells sounded in the document we have circulated when it asserts that “the substitution of the public good with self-interest” and that the "frequent collapse" of coalitions at local government level is sometimes “deliberate, [and] unrelated to the pursuit of the public good." What of the fact that we now know from the Somalian experience what can happen to a country when "follies" eclipse the national interest!
Implicit in this is the nature and character of the South African political party and the national political culture that it promotes in word and in deed. We will be well-served to defer to Ben Okri:
“We dream of a new politics
That will renew the world
Under their weary suspicious gaze.
There’s always a new way,
A better way that’s not been tried before.”
This is crucial because the membership and support base of political parties are dreamers inasmuch as they are carriers of political outlooks and messages which, in turn, shape the nation’s political thinking, ways of seeing and doing politics, with profound implications for its future prospects.
I am suggesting that our social structure and its economy are central to all our endeavours. With or without coalitions in any sphere of government, but most especially because of coalitions, South Africa requires a growing economy, which creates opportunities for people beyond the political sphere. As an enduring dividend of freedom, such an economy will be a factor in social and political stability, state and nation-building, all of which can elude us if the economy fails.
We must salute the work done by a number of institutions on how to improve and stabilise coalition governments at the local level. The government has contributed some proposals towards a framework for coalitions. These include:
- commitment to a non-racial, non-sexist, democratic, and prosperous society;
- coalition leadership based on the actual votes received by each party in an election;
- commitment to Batho Pele principles — putting people first;
- working towards poverty eradication through a growing and inclusive economy, and;
- good governance and zero tolerance for corruption.
This is an open process in which everyone is free to make proposals. We intend to synthesise proposals from as many South Africans as possible and to present these in the coming months as a framework for consideration, which may or may not end up in legislation.
In many respects, we are fortunate that we may be the generation in our evolving democracy that co-creates and designs resilient solutions to our political architecture. Coalitions must therefore give us the possibility to consolidate national efforts to create a truly substantive democracy that is based on the will of the people!
To underscore the urgency with which we should respond to this moment of our democracy, let us recall Dr Martin Luther King Jr: "There are millions of poor people in this country who have very little, or even nothing, to lose. If they can be helped to take action together, they will do so with a freedom and a power that will be a new and unsettling force in our complacent national life."
Although this was directed at the America of his time, it carries equal meaning for us. We can ignite the hopes of our people with the demonstration of united leadership, which communicates the message that we have gathered here today as a collective of South African stateswomen and statesmen and not as mere politicians representing their parties.
I, therefore, invite the collective wisdom of all those who led us previously in the making of this country, weaving it together as a proud nation of all who live in it, united in their diversity. I am talking here about our liberation ancestors, who initiated and successfully delivered democratic South Africa. May they come forward and bless us as we undertake similar steps that require the nation to pause in attention and reaffirm its commitment to move forward in concert towards the attainment of a united democratic, non-racial, non-sexist, and prosperous South African nation.
This national dialogue will not stop after tomorrow; it is just the beginning. It is the launch of the dialogue that must spread across our nation as we collectively grapple with the most crucial question: what do we do going forward to serve the people even better?
The motto of this eminent institution of higher learning is Respice Prospice: look back, look forward, and take what is worthy from the past, and build the future. As we grapple with these issues, may we embrace the apposite counsel of the motto of the University of the Western Cape so that we are able to meet the expectations of the people for the material improvement of their lives, and secure a better future for them and their children. So shall we be true to the national interest!
I am delighted to end with some good news. His Excellency, Mr. António Guterres, the Secretary General of the United Nations, has appointed Professor Thuli Madonsela, our former Public Protector, to serve on his newly formed Scientific Advisory Board, which consists of seven eminent scientists to advise on emerging scientific issues so as to maximise scientific advances for the global good.
Congratulations, Prof. Madonsela!
You have done our country proud. We are confident that you will fly the national flag even higher! Your appointment illustrates the fact that we are a nation that has everything it takes to rise to greater heights.
I want to end off with words of President Nelson Mandela: "It seems impossible until it is done." Let us build this great nation together.