The alternative to messy political coalitions

There is an alternative to troublesome coalitions between political parties, which often have significantly different political views and goals – and it is already allowed for in law.

Michael Evans, partner and head of public law at Webber Wentzel, explains: “In numerous municipalities, including five of the metropolitan municipalities, no party was able to achieve more than 50% of the vote, thus triggering an intense and potentially heated negotiation with regard to possible coalition governments at a local level.

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ANC gets 46% in local vote, worst result yet
Local government will never be the same again

Soon after the election, Evans had noted: “With the DA [Democratic Alliance] already having said that it will not go into a coalition with the ANC [African National Congress] or EFF [Economic Freedom Fighters], it is possible that some municipalities will be unable to conclude coalition agreements necessary to ensure proper governance.”

His prediction was accurate. The shenanigans between political parties and chaos of the first council meetings at several cities, towns, metropolitan and district municipalities seemed worse than usual.

“Yet coalitions are entirely unnecessary,” says Evans.

He notes that the Local Government: Municipal Structures Act provides for two types of government at a municipal level.

Winner takes all

The first system of government is the one that has been employed by almost all municipalities across the country over the past couple of decades: the executive mayoral system.

It is a system in terms of which the executive mayor is extremely powerful.

In many ways, the executive mayor has more power at a local level than a premier has at provincial level, or the president at national level.

“It is thus a winner-takes-all system,” says Evans. “Accordingly, when it comes to the negotiations with regard to coalitions, a huge amount of debate will need to take place as to who will serve as the executive mayor and how the executive mayor’s powers will be constrained to take into consideration the other parties in the coalition.”

The executive mayoral system has proved to be highly politicised, with numerous municipalities focusing more on issues of political debate and conflict than on their obligation to engage in service delivery – particularly with regard to electricity, water, waste and, to a certain extent, housing.

However, the Municipal Structures Act offers an alternative system of government that is far more geared towards co-operation between political parties and service delivery. This is the collective executive system.

The alternative

In terms of this system, the mayor is not an executive mayor and largely plays a ceremonial role.

Power does not lie in the hands of the mayor, but in the hands of the executive committee.

The act provides that the executive committee must be composed in such a way that parties and interests represented in the council are represented in the executive committee in substantially the same proportion.

A council can decide on an alternative mechanism, but that mechanism must still comply with the requirements in Section 160(8) of the Constitution which stipulates that the different parties must be “fairly represented” on the executive committee, explains Evans.

He believes the collective executive system will inevitably trigger a more co-operative approach when it comes to issues of service delivery.

How it works

“All the major parties in a council will be represented on the executive committee,” says Evans. “They will meet regularly and be forced to work together. That assists in depoliticising the council and allowing the collective leadership to focus on service delivery, which should be an uncontentious agenda for all political parties.

“In hung councils there will no longer be a governing party and opposition benches because the main parties will all be represented in the leadership structure.

“If the collective executive system is adopted, it will then be unnecessary for political parties to enter into complex and contested coalition agreements,” he adds.

Thus, for example, if one party got 40% of the vote, another 30%, another 20% and another 10%, a 10-person executive committee would be represented on a 4, 3 ,2, 1 basis by those leading parties (assuming they adopt a strict proportional model).

Evans’s arguments make sense – if a problem that might arise can be avoided: that of simply moving the animosity and political fighting from council chambers to executive committee meeting rooms.

In theory, a proportional executive committee can give everybody in town representation. The executive major system does not do this because of its ‘winner takes all’ nature.

When no coalition is needed

When a party gets an outright majority, like the DA in Cape Town and the ANC in Bloemfontein, the executive mayor can (and often will) only appoint members of their own party to the mayoral committee – one as deputy mayor, another as speaker and as others as full-time councillors and chairs of executive committees.

The winning party also has a lot of influence in selecting senior officials in the municipality, such as a municipal manager and directors of different departments.

Any proposal put forward by the winning party and every one of its decisions will be ratified in council, and any proposal by opposition parties easily denied.

In short, a party that got 52% of the vote has full control of long-term development plans and annual budgets, leaving 48% of the town residents without a say.

This is good news for voters who support the policies and priorities of the dominant party, but frustrating if your party is one that couldn’t partner with somebody to get control.

Swing vote

Evans makes the point that a system of a proportional executive committee will lessen the influence of small parties that got limited support in the election, but which can become kingmakers in coalition negotiations.

It often happens that a small party that won less than 10% of the vote in an area can make demands for important positions within a council when negotiating with a party that needs these votes to gain control.

In Knysna, for instance, a Knysna Independent Movement (KIM) councillor was elected deputy mayor to ensure that the two KIM councillors would party with the DA, which won eight of the 21 seats in the election.

This is still not enough to rule the roost in Knysna, which has 21 seats. The ANC won seven seats in the election and apparently got the ear of the Patriotic Alliance with two seats. The Besorgde Plaaslike Inwoners (BPI) and the EFF each got one seat, but those two seats could turn out to be swing decisionmakers.

There are similar situations across SA. Another example is in Gauteng, where negotiations between parties didn’t yield strong coalitions.

The new ActionSA, headed by Herman Mashaba, performed well in its first election, secured important votes, and wants a strong voice in councils where the votes are needed to secure control. The same can be said of the Freedom Front Plus (FF+), which won a few additional seats in several councils.


Unfortunately, money plays a big role.

Councillors from the ruling party get all the full-time jobs, get to serve as committee chairs – and get the large salaries that go with these positions.

The ruling party also gets to appoint the mayor, deputy mayor and speaker. In the case of coalitions, individuals will be hell-bent on trying to secure one of these jobs, because these positions come with big salaries and attractive perks.

The differences in salaries between positions are huge. A full-time councillor from the ruling party earns more than double the salary of a part-time councillor (who may be a member of the ruling party but did not land a permanent position, as well as all the councillors on the opposition benches).

An example from the legislated upper limits of remuneration of councillors says it all.

The full-time mayor in a Grade 5 municipality earns just more than R1 million per annum, while the deputy mayor and speaker may receive R805 000. A full-time councillor and member of the mayoral committee earns R755 000. A part-time councillor has to get by with  R318 000 per annum.

Full-time councillors also get more perks and all kinds of additional allowances.

Maybe the idea of a collective executive system would also help to solve the problem of fighting and negotiating for executive positions, as they are determined by the outcome of the elections.

Evans says municipalities and provincial governments should give careful consideration to shifting from an executive mayoral system to a collective executive system.

“No change in law is required. It simply requires a determination by the provincial ministers responsible for local government.”

Listen to Fifi Peters’s interview with Ratings Afrika CEO Charl Kocks (or read the transcript here):