You see, life is not always either/or; it’s not always black or white. Lots of grey areas. We’re all human beings trying to make sense of life, trying to figure out meaning, our essence.
Much has recently been said and written about the place and value of coalition politics in South Africa, especially given the founding of the Multi-Party Charter in August 2023 (this new name hopefully banishing the unfortunate term “Moonshot Pact” to oblivion). I do not intend adding anything to the political speculation and arguments, interesting as they are, but would rather use this article to focus on these recent developments from a specifically conflict resolution perspective. Once we understand that most of our politics revolve around our cyclical, unresolved South African conflicts, it becomes clear that we need to approach all such politics as symptoms, and those conflicts as the cause of our challenges.
I have written about South African coalition politics earlier this year (COALITION POLITICS IN SOUTH AFRICA - The Conflict Conversations (conflict-conversations.co.za), which article deals with specific strategic considerations. In this article I want to focus on a few more general conflict resolution reflections now that we have reached this stage in our national politics. I set out these thoughts in simple point form at this stage, as I intend dealing with the topic at greater length in future work.
1. The value of coalition politics
An investigation such as this one of course starts from a simple point of departure. If you are satisfied with the present government’s performance then we are simply dealing with democracy in action, the majority of the voting public in South Africa have made their will known through the election process, and there is no real need for coalition processes. If, on the other hand, you hold the view that the current government should be voted out of office in order for South Africa to achieve stability and its’ best potential, then coalition politics become more urgent and relevant to you. On this side of the equation one of the interesting questions that arise, from a political and a conflict management perspective, is to what extent the South African democracy is a true democracy and a reflection of what the majority really wants.
For our purposes here we can start with the simple observation that coalition politics will generally be less stable than political rule by a single party. Disagreements and discipline are generally dealt with more efficiently when it is handled within the parameters of a single organization with its established history, rules and relationships than those same conflict events in a loose conglomeration of parties and individuals. If the biggest issue that binds you together is a version of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”, then you are on shakier ground than a more monolithic organization. Of course, even if that relative instability is accepted, coalitions may at times be necessary, and other than this observation, and what it implies for future coalition conflict strategies, I have no real objection to coalition politics.
2. Coalitions – the implied concession
Parties involving themselves in coalition politics concede, tacitly at least, that the opponent cannot be beaten without collaboration. This may seem a rather self-evident concession, but as we will see, it has important potential consequences in the South African political landscape. It may furthermore be a necessary concession, with benefits that may be acquired, but from our conflict study perspective, it is an important crossroads reached and passed.
3. Coalitions – the deep harm of polarization
All politics tend to polarize people, of course, but our uniquely South African political history leads to some very troubling conflict causes and triggers. Unlike many political coalitions say in modern Europe, our coalitions are not just formed around one or two issues such as climate change or immigration, designed for limited use. It has, in many instances, developed into a congealment of deep-seated worldview differences and value disagreements. Added to these conflict triggers we find three decades of frustration, conflict rigidity, growing mistrust and a pervasive sense of futility in many political resolutions, which in turn leads to conflict escalations that serve as further conflict events that have polarized us as a country to an unusual degree, a degree that should concern all of us.
4. Coalitions and identity conflicts
Polarization, especially at the toxic level experienced in South African politics, exists as a result of our politicians’ general inability to understand and use identity conflicts to transform hearts and minds. Conflict studies and practice (as well as related disciplines ranging from psychology, neuroscience to social sciences) of the last decade have made remarkable progress in showing how our identities and values are formed and manipulated, and how these drive and entrench our worldviews and conflicts. Amongst other very practical and useful insights this knowledge make available to us is the observable fact that mishandling these identity conflicts not only fail to convince people of your argument, but they actually cause people to become more convinced of the truth of their previously held positions.
The practical effect of this, again observable on a daily basis in South African politics, is that the way that coalition politics is driven actually makes matters worse as far as actually convincing people to change their minds are concerned. This then leads to inevitable polarization and conflict rigidity, and the loop is closed. Pronouncements at and after the Multi-Party Coalition formation process have shown that nothing has changed, and that the skilful use of identity conflicts in South African politics remain an elusive dream, at least for now.
5. Coalitions – the price of failure
Coalition politics require a high degree of responsible political activity. Given ongoing, cyclical fiascos such as the Mandela Bay coalitions and others, I remain doubtful that we have reached the required level of political maturity needed to do this correctly. From a conflict management perspective, any further failures, personality conflicts or political sabotage will simply cause further frustration, distrust and conflict rigidity, and we will have found a new and deeper level of political despondency. This also highlights the dual conflict challenges facing coalition politicians – the external conflict challenges, as well as the internal ones potentially caused by the dynamics of the coalition itself.
Despite the abovementioned considerations, and my scepticism about the probability of meaningful success with these coalition processes, I do believe that its time has come, it is necessary, and it can be of great benefit to us if done correctly. The politicians gathered for the initial group are by and large an experienced group, somehow set in some very outdated conflict resolution habits but generally of good intention and purpose. I have little doubt that some of the initial challenges (such as the place and role of Mr. Steenhuisen, the participation or not of Mr. Gayton McKenzie and a few other considerations) will be successfully navigated.
If this process is managed correctly, it can provide the country with great benefits despite the end result in a 2024 election. If our politicians however continue to run it as they have mismanaged coalition politics up to this point, as we can clearly see from these examples we dealt with, coalition politics will be a further missed opportunity in our political history, a further harmful cause of further conflict. For this process to work will require an entirely new approach to politics and conflict from the involved politicians.
Conflict, skilfully managed, is a wonderful, necessary energy in the running of human affairs. Mismanaged it leads to suffering and avoidable misery and degeneration of our collective interests. The sought for strength does not lie in numbers, it lies in using your existing numbers in a better, more efficient manner, to now start dealing with these conflicts correctly. The South African voter deserves this, at the very least.
(Andre Vlok can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org for any further information)