Wednesday’s local government elections were the most contested elections since the formal end of apartheid in 1994.
Many councils were not outrightly won by any party, meaning parties will have to cobble together coalitions to govern municipalities.
The conventional argument is that a governing party needs a strong mandate, translated into a large majority, to transform entrenched power relations, the economy and culture. That is true.
However, the problem in many African governments with a large majority in a politically, socially and regionally diverse country, is that the governing party and its leaders often do not govern in the best interests of all, but only to enrich their “own”, whether allies, family or region.
In such cases, governing through coalitions can produce more inclusive democracies, development and peace.
Given the fact that many African countries are so diverse, coalition governments should be the norm in all African countries even when there are clear election winners.
One of the main reasons for violence, instability and corruption in Africa is that most countries have winner-takes-all electoral systems, which allow parties and leaders who may often win with only one vote, to dominate all power.
Sadly, winning African governments and leaders rarely pursue coalitions or co-governing with the opposition.
Winners of elections, even by the narrowest of margins, more often than not exclude opposition parties and their members and supporters from all government positions, government business and even things such as trading licences. In such situations, large swathes of talent are simply ignored.
Capable individuals who are not seen to be part of the governing elite are not appointed to government, commissions and task teams. This means that African societies are deprived of capable human capital. It stunts economic development.
In our increasingly globalised, technological and competitive world, for countries to prosper, it is not necessarily about having abundant minerals, land and financial capital – which, of course, is helpful – it’s about having quality human capital.
Quality humans can think their way through complex problems, imagine new innovative development strategies and can unleash the entrepreneurial energy to build competitive industries crucial for growth, jobs and wealth.
Coalition politics may be the best way to marshal a country’s talents in the best interest of governing.
In winner-takes-all political systems or when a government with a large majority does not govern in the widest interests, violence and instability often arise, as those who are excluded try to assert their rights through violent means.
Coalitions may be able to govern in the interests of a wider number of people and therefore make people feel more included, and less likely to seek violence to get their interests catered for.
Coalition politics may be able to reduce corruption as more parties have access to information on public contracts, appointments and decisions – and better oversight is therefore more possible, including from the media, civil society and citizens.
President Nelson Mandela pioneered the government of national unity concept when he brought opposition parties into his Cabinet, appointed members of the opposition to key positions in government and outside, even though the ANC had won a clear electoral majority.
Mauritius, Africa’s most successful post-liberation government, has governed for long periods through coalitions. In Mauritius, the party of liberation, the Labour Party, in coalitions with opposition parties, has governed inclusively, building quality democracy, fostering inclusive development and peace.
Currently, in South Africa, at local level the ANC is running many KwaZulu-Natal rural municipalities as part of a coalition with the National Freedom Party.
For many years, under the Thabo Mbeki presidency, the ANC and Inkatha Freedom Party also had a provincial coalition government in KwaZulu-Natal. Under the leadership of Tony Leon, the Democratic Alliance governed in a coalition with opposition parties in Cape Town.
Ahead of Wednesday’s local government elections, South Africa’s opposition parties had already taken part in issue-based coalitions. Many of the cases opposition parties took to court have been essentially coalition politics.
For example, the Economic Freedom Fighters took President Jacob Zuma to court for his refusal to pay back public money spent on his private compound, Nkandla. The Democratic Alliance joined the court case.
Coalitions may offer a diverse South Africa and Africa the best chance to build quality democracies, inclusive development and peaceful societies.
William Gumede is chairman of the Democracy Works Foundation. His latest book is South Africa in Brics: Salvation or Ruination Tafelberg (http://amzn.to/1UmFvdK)