The great DA-EFF coalition conundrum

SHOULD the DA agree to a coalition with the EFF in order to form a government in metros such as Tshwane and Johannesburg, possibly other places too?

Put another way, should a social democratic party committed to the free market team up with a revolutionary movement that advocates radical socialism? And vice versa? It’s a complex problem.

For the DA the potential prize is easy to identify: power, and with it the chance to enhance its brand as a party of excellent service delivery. In turn, through a metro government or two in Gauteng, a chance to ensure a long-term foothold in the province ahead of the 2019 national elections and beyond.

Likewise, the potential downside is easy enough to identify: a compromised government undermined by the EFF’s own agenda, along with a thousand other political landmines inherent to such an agreement. Damage to the DA’s brand as a party of excellent service delivery could have dire consequences for the 2019 elections and beyond.

Any potential upside is more difficult to see for the EFF. It is hard to imagine any universe in which a coalition with the DA — its mortal ideological enemy — would have any long-term benefit for the party or its brand.

As the majority party, the DA and its support base could perhaps stomach an EFF coalition; safe in the knowledge that the party controls the fundamental levers of power — the money and the mayoralty.

ULTIMATELY, the EFF would be subservient to the DA’s grand agenda. But there is no scenario in which the EFF would be allowed to exercise that sort of primary control in a coalition, and so, one must ask, how could such an arrangement possibly benefit the EFF?

Power is only useful to a party from a political perspective if it can be used to promote and enhance its brand. But the EFF’s brand is enmeshed with revolution and radical socialism. It would be agreeing to a dispensation designed to deliver the very things it stands against.

You get the sense that for a coalition with the DA to work the EFF would effectively have to sacrifice itself; or, at least, to potentially sacrifice the ability to strengthen its brand and grow in any meaningful way ahead of 2019. Government would act as a constraint; the EFF could no longer behave like it does in, say Parliament, as disrupters and agitators. It would now be held to a different standard.

For example, in 2015, as part of a “national occupy land week” the EFF called on “all homeless people to identify open and unoccupied land wherever they choose and engage in the struggle to restore their land”. You can’t advocate that kind of thing if you are actually in government.

That was a lesson the DA had to learn after it won Cape Town in 2006. Of course, its behaviour as an opposition was always more reasonable. Nevertheless, it could no longer promote any idea that it could not be held up to in its own governments. Its policy programme had to become more sophisticated and its role in the opposition carefully balanced against its role in government to harmonise the two. Were the EFF to do that, it would strip a great deal out of its political repertoire which largely relies, in all honesty, on its never having to actually account for anything it says and rarely for anything it does.

It was arguably a great relief to the EFF that it did not win control over any council. That buys it a certain amount of time to remain accountability-free. Once you are part of the system, it is much more difficult to oppose it. And that goes to the heart of the EFF’s dilemma.

THERE is also the inevitable effect of a coalition on the smaller party over time. Subsumed by the greater influence of the majority party (primarily because it controls the key levers of power; thus a bigger public profile), its standing is reduced and, often, it becomes drawn into the ideological universe of its more dominant partner. It happened to the Independent Democrats (ID) in Cape Town, which eventually merged with the DA. It is difficult to resist; more difficult still to maintain a clear and separate identity and almost impossible to capitalise on it and produce electoral growth.

That might be less true for the EFF, which is far further from the DA than the ID was. But it remains true that many minority parties have found coalition governments to be more like graveyards than places of rejuvenation and new life.

But there is some pressure on the EFF from the other direction. This election was a deep disappointment. The DA and the ANC crushed it. With multimillion-rand election budgets, they could squeeze the life out of it through posters, radio, and television adverts. Its reputation, built largely on media hype, was found to be rather fragile. The election result revealed there is a cap on the market for radical socialism and the EFF is running out of space to grow. So, it needs to think about its ultimate goal. Its current brand doesn’t seem to be delivering great success and, unless it mellows out, the opportunities presented in Gauteng might be as good as it gets for a very long time.

This analysis is focused on a DA-EFF coalition, but, from the EFF’s perspective, a coalition with the ANC has its own problems, although arguably less fundamental than with the DA. The EFF was born of the ANC. It is its more radical alter ego. It would be easier to justify such an arrangement — it could argue it was there to guide the ANC, make it more empathetic to the poor and to help it rediscover its revolutionary credentials. But there is Jacob Zuma, and his shadow looms large over the EFF, and Julius Malema in particular. It is difficult to see him or the party being able to ignore it.

A coalition with the DA (or ANC) would have to be sold to the EFF’s membership and support base. The party has engendered nothing but extremism in both. It would be asking them to swallow a big pill. It won’t go down very well. The DA, too, would be risking some internal division. Helen Zille for one has long since advocated that “a coalition with the EFF would be unworkable given the huge ideological gulf between our parties. The fact is that the ANC and the EFF are two sides of the same corrupt coin.”

Many will share that view and balk at the very idea of giving the EFF the time of day.

These are, by and large, practical political problems. There is the principle too. Politics is the art of the possible and compromise inherent to it. The greater good is the guide; public interest too. But principles are not absolutely negotiable, any party must have a bottom line, and, on that front, a coalition between the DA and EFF certainly tests this. To the degree that any such coalition would require an ironclad explanation.

One such plausibly principled explanation is that a DA-EFF coalition, whatever its inherent contradictions and problems, would be better than an ANC-led administration.

YOU can be sure that is the bedrock on which the DA would justify such an agreement — putting the people first, so to speak. But again, for the EFF, that is a more difficult sell. It would be an admission that the DA is not the real enemy and when push comes to shove, that it offers a potentially better tomorrow than the ANC ever could. As far as political concessions to your competitors go, that is a big one. There would be electoral consequences.

Both parties have put firm, apparently “nonnegotiable” principles on the table already. The EFF has the foundation of its policy framework, what it calls its “Seven Non-negotiable Pillars”. The DA has drawn an abstract line in the sand; DA leader Mmusi Maimane has said it would require any potential partner to share four basic requirements: constitutionalism, free market economy, absolute nonracialism, and professionalism of the state.

Among others, the EFF’s nonnegotiable pillars include such things as the “expropriation of SA’s land without compensation for equal redistribution” and the “nationalisation of mines, banks, and other strategic sectors of the economy, without compensation”. The party promises to “abolish” tenders and to provide, “free, quality education, healthcare, houses, and sanitation”.

It is true, some of those are national policy positions the party might be able to overlook. But when it comes to things such as abolishing tenders, the “nonnegotiable” would quickly have to become negotiable — the DA is all on board tenders in Cape Town and Western Cape, only it does them differently. And the DA itself would seemingly have to compromise its bottom line too, because there is simply no way, shape or universe in which the EFF could ever be described as committed to the free market economy.

Those are fundamental principled compromises on both sides, and they have consequences. But sold the right way — that any such arrangement is about the people — it could work.

READ THIS: POINT OF ORDER: ANC won, but must stay relevant

That the DA is already prepared to compromise its bottom line is self-evident. In a profile in City Press, Maimane ruled out a coalition with the ANC on the grounds that “the ANC comes out of a leftist socialist ideology. It’s a state-orientated approach.”

But, of a potential EFF coalition he said: “We will have to decide on a plan of action.”

In truth, the EFF’s “state-orientated” approach is positively Maoist compared with the ANC. Voters would be justified in asking, why the double standard?

But all the practical and principled problems can be managed if you have the right person in charge. Describing the 2006 negotiations for Cape Town, which led to a seven party, DA-led coalition, then-DA party strategist Ryan Coetzee said: “There is a risk in having a coalition, there is clearly a downside, there is a vulnerability. What you have to assess is whether you are capable of managing that vulnerability so it is not exposed and, instead, it is used to the benefit of the party. In (DA mayoral candidate Helen) Zille we had the right person. You have to set up an agreement and then manage the relationships. We got the mayor and we got the money and, in Zille, someone able to manage the relationships.”

Which means, personality often makes or breaks such things. The DA’s mayoral candidate in Johannesburg, Herman Mashaba, is new to politics. A self-made millionaire, critical of policies such as black economic empowerment and fully committed to helping business drive economic growth, he would seem to encapsulate the antithesis of what the EFF stands for. Less is known about the DA’s Tshwane mayoral candidate, Solly Msimanga, but he too is new to the big stage (in fairness he has been in politics some considerable time) and managing the EFF would be a highly complex and fraught business requiring political maturity and insight of a special order.

Of this you can be sure: a DA-EFF coalition will bring with it a series of contradictions and conflicts hard to imagine in their depth and breadth, ranging from personalities to policies. Whether either has the experience, political nous or personal conviction to maintain a healthy functional coalition remains to be seen, but in both there is a big risk.

Fewer tests are more revealing of political parties than power and the potential for it.

A potential coalition with the EFF, in order to gain power in critical centres of influence such as Tshwane and Johannesburg will be the ultimate test for both the DA and the EFF. What cannot be denied, however, is the rarity of the opportunity they both face. The chance to unseat the ANC in a significant fashion does not come along every day and its apathetic voters, disillusioned with Jacob Zuma, could well come back into the picture in the near future. This door could be open for a limited time only.

Does the reward outweigh the risk? There is a strong case that it does. And, from the DA’s perspective, a very strong one; it would seem almost obliged to give it its best shot. No doubt it will. But the EFF is a different kettle of fish. It has, in a potential coalition with the DA, a chance fundamentally to set itself apart from the ANC and, by latching on to the DA’s performance, benefiting from what would hopefully be better service delivery.

But that would require some sacrifice on its part. And whether it is willing to do that remains to be seen. It has good reasons not to. But it needs to bear in mind there is a chance that door will close and, more importantly, it might well close hardest on the EFF.




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