South Africa map with flag

SA HAS entered a new phase of our democratic experience with the advent of both coalition and minority governments flowing from the results of the local government elections of August 3.

What is of singular importance in this regard is the democratic principle that a losing party in an election accepts that it has lost and allows the winning party or coalition to assume control and the reins of office.

This has indeed happened in the metros. Although the conduct of the losing party need not be exactly gracious, it must concede and accept defeat. This has occurred with the ANC in the Nelson Mandela Bay, Tshwane and Johannesburg metropoles, and with the DA in Rustenburg.

A minority government comes into being when in a parliamentary system, of which our metros and other local government councils are examples, no single political party or formal coalition has an overall majority of seats.

Such minority government can still be sworn into office by a majority vote in order to form a government, but can then only proceed with legislation or passing the budget with the support of enough members of the council to provide a majority.

Although this kind of government encourages multiparty democracy, it has the inherent tendency to be politically unstable, since the opposing members have the numbers to vote against the minority administration’s legislation or budget, or indeed even to bring it down with a vote of no confidence.

Where there is a formal coalition, the political situation is more stable.

This is what has occurred in both Nelson Mandela Bay and Tshwane, where formal negotiated coalitions command an overall majority.

In contrast, this is not the position in Johannesburg, where although the EFF gave support to the DA’s mayoral candidate, Herman Mashaba, despite misgivings, it will apparently not further align itself with the DA, and as a result, sits as an opposition party. It will then metaphorically have its cake and eat it. In circumstances where minority government prevails, continued governance will depend on so-called "jumping majorities", although that majority may be different from issue to issue.

It is clear that minority government places manifest responsibility on political parties to act maturely in the interest of the residents of the municipality and not in their short-term interests. We have entered a new dimension of democratic government, involving a multiparty system, rather than one that is dominated by a single party. In this regard, our politicians do not have any experience or many precedents.

It poses a significant challenge to the formerly dominant ANC, which will have to adjust to being an opposition party in a number of metros. Although the ANC has indicated it is "ready to play an opposition role", it is no easy task for it to transform into being a robust but loyal opposition, providing constructive criticism rather than reckless conduct, after having been dominant for more than two decades. There may also be unintended and unpredictable political consequences, one of which may be a reorientation of political parties on economic rather than racial criteria, or personalities.

SA is on a democratic pilgrimage from a past of injustice and oppression that has left us with a legacy of an unequal distribution of wealth and resources, poverty and unemployment. Municipalities, as a sphere of government, have a seminal role to play in the amelioration of such social and economic maladies.

What is required is wise and prudent local government. All our local government leaders must embark on this challenge, which involves acceptance of defeat by a losing party, as explained above. Fortunately, this appears to have occurred in the local government elections, an indication of a maturing of our body politic.

• Devenish is emeritus professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and one of the scholars who assisted in drafting the interim constitution in 1993