Our conflicts are our teachers and liberators because they invite us to wake up and become aware of what we have not yet learned how to handle skillfully.
This article concludes my three-part series on the trend of coalition strategies in South African politics. I have written on the modern strategies and techniques available to politicians and city management teams here COALITION POLITICS IN SOUTH AFRICA - The Conflict Conversations (conflict-conversations.co.za) and we took a more specialized look at the crucial importance of truly understanding identity conflicts, and how a modern coalition would need to apply this modern skill here COALITION POLITICS IN SOUTH AFRICA FROM A CONFLICT RESOLUTION PERSPECTIVE - The Conflict Conversations (conflict-conversations.co.za).
In this article we assess the applied potential of coalitions for the South African political environment (especially as a conflict tool for the 2024 elections), what recent months of attempted coalition politics have shown us as the electorate, and a few final suggestions on how to optimally use this complex conflict solution in the best interest of South Africa.
The theoretical and potential strategic value of coalition politics
Coalition politics, in the hands of knowledgeable and skilled strategists can be a very powerful political and conflict management tool, as history shows us (for example the 17th century Maratha Empire, Kenya’s “Rainbow Coalition" in 2002 or Theresa May’s 2017 coalition).
But coalitions, by their very nature, also contain inherent conflict dynamics that will always leave them more vulnerable, and hence more in need of skilful management, than more monolithic party or individual leadership. Given the understandable levels of the need for change, desperation and even despair in certain circles of the South African political landscape and in the general population, the concept of the political coalition seems to be a perfect match, a much-needed solution to continued ANC political dominance. These hopes and ambitions have been a long time coming, and as such they represent a potential maturation of South African politics. But just as we have seen with perfectly usable conflict tools such as workplace diversity strategies, a good strategy on paper still needs to be applied skilfully and consistently in order to reach its potential. So it is with coalition politics.
Again we will see that this advanced conflict tool, used without the required updated skills and management teams, will not just be ineffective, but it will certainly, and in measurable ways, do more harm than good in a time where some would say we have run out of time. As with all advanced conflict tools (we can again use the application of the BEE principles), we find in practice that misapplication inevitably leads to cynicism about the potential of such a concept, conflict rigidity and distrust, and cyclical conflicts that leads to further interlinked complex conflicts to deal with. Any enthusiasm for coalition solutions should then be tempered with these observable realities. Coalitions, at local or national level, can be very effective solutions, if, and only if, they are done correctly.
For this, modern complex conflicts (of which our political challenges are of course a clear example) must be internalized and applied as a part of advanced conflict practice, not as a comfortable concept from the established political toolbox.
The coalition report card so far
From media and other publicly available developments in our local and national coalition experiment we find a positive reception in certain political circles and in the public domain. From some of those same publicly available practical applications of coalitions we can at this stage however see that while the idea is well received, the hard work necessary to realize it and reach its potential has not begun. The concept, where it is used at all, is still used in the outdated, overs-simplified manner that so often leads to political disaster (as a range of Italian and African political mismanaged coalitions attest to).
My own consulting work with various parties and individuals, and at different levels show a marked enthusiasm for the concept and the potential results, but a strange inertia among some decision makers for the work that needs to be done to achieve it. Coalition politics is still viewed as a simple calculation of manipulating the correct numbers to get into the driving seat, with a few outdated platitudes and meme-level “strategies” thrown in for good measure. This is the present situation, here at the end of the year, and depressingly that level of ignorance or under-achievement extends to some of the advisors actually involved.
Of the realized potential of coalition strategies to effectively join people, to keep them together, to bring new creative solutions and options to the table, and most noticeable of all, its potential to actually move voter perceptions, we see nearly nothing at all, at a time when some of the first green shoots should have been visible.
A few solutions still available
It is the proverbial eleventh hour as far as the 2024 elections are concerned, but I believe that there is still time to derive the true and full potential of coalition conflict strategies. The first two articles have dealt with some of those options at greater length. For now, involved political leaders (at local or national level) should upgrade their knowledge and understanding of true, South African coalition politics, not as their current understanding at level 2.0, but as a completely new approach and conflict tool. Yes, this will require some work and easily manageable operational adaptions.
As we have discussed in the second article, the crucial conflict tool of identity politics (even the concept is only rarely understood) must be internalized and applied throughout all of such coalition partners’ work in the next few months, from public speeches to internal discussions, publicly available statements, local and national strategies and electioneering itself. With that knowledge will come an understanding of the ongoing harm being done by not understanding identity conflicts as an essential part of coalition politics in particular, and in electioneering in general.
Coalition politics can be an important part of the solution that South Africa needs to get us back on the road to recovery and prosperity, regardless whether the ANC gets under or over a 50% voting share next year. At local and national level it can bring a much-needed level of efficiency, accountability and integrity to political leadership and necessary political conflict outcomes. But the warning is urgent and clear: coalitions incompletely understood and badly managed do more harm in political conflicts than the good they are perceived to be able to do. In other words, do them right or do not do them at all.
(Andre Vlok can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org for any further information)
(c) Andre Vlok