Lessons from Lesotho

With a coalition government likely after South Africa's elections in May, many are looking at the West for examples of coalition politics. South Africans, however, should look next door.

Malealea lodge, Lesotho. Image credit Di Jones via Flickr CC BY 2.0 Deed.

As South Africa heads to the polls on May 29, 2024, most watchers expect South Africans for the first time to force the African National Congress (ANC) out of its absolute majority atop South African politics. Many commentators and plenty of South Africans seem almost giddy about the prospect of a coalition government coming to power. It is undoubtedly true that the ANC has plenty of corruption scandals, and the burden of load-shedding is still hurting everyday economics and citizens’ psyches in RSA. But what are some of the potential pitfalls of a national coalition government in South Africa?

Many of South Africa’s major municipalities have elected coalition governments in recent years. While these coalitions have varied from reasonably effective to complete disarray, a national coalition would involve more complexity, because it is responsible for weighty portfolios like foreign affairs, macroeconomic policy, and defense. Thus, municipal coalitions are, perhaps, not the best model for thinking through the potential risks-rewards of a national coalition.

For a cautionary example, South Africans might look to the tempestuous history of national coalition governance since 2012 in Lesotho, with which South Africa shares its second-longest land border. Lesotho is one of the only African countries with multiple electoral transfers of power over the last decade. Much like South Africa, though, Lesotho has struggled to move beyond the aging leaders who guided the country back to multiparty democracy in the 1990s. Our brief dive into history is not to advocate for any particular candidate, party, or choice, but rather to look at how Lesotho’s experience with coalition governance might illuminate South Africa’s future.

Lesotho’s first coalition government came to power with great fanfare in 2012. There was a long history of disputed elections in the kingdom, a legacy that included a South African–Southern African Development Community (SADC) military intervention in 1998. The 2012 coalition marked the first peaceful democratic transition of power in Lesotho since gaining independence in 1966. This alone should give some hope for coalition governments in South Africa. However, sustained low-level political violence and minimal improvements in service delivery to the poorest and most vulnerable in Lesotho since that time should also give us pause. 

Lesotho coalition governments took office in 2012, 2015, 2017, 2020, and 2022, with a total of three different political parties taking turns in the prime minister’s office. None of these coalitions survived a full five-year term, and political infighting has been a near constant. South Africans should be under no illusion that a coalition that comes to power in June 2024 will be guaranteed enough stability to make it to the 2029 general election intact. 

Coalition-era political violence in Lesotho, including an attempted coup in 2014 and the assassinations of army commanders in 2015 and 2017, has been largely contained within the political and security establishment. There has been no widespread political violence. That said, the violence Lesotho faced is certainly a warning that rapidly shifting political alliances can be broadly destabilizing. This has already been seen in the rising violence against South Africa’s elected municipal officials. 

Facing instability in Lesotho, South Africa and SADC have repeatedly stepped in to mediate. This has likely forestalled an escalation of violence. However, if South Africa were to face similar dynamics it is not clear that SADC has enough muscle to stabilize a country that accounts for roughly as much total GDP as all other SADC member states combined. The current diminished state of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), SADC’s West African counterpart, in the face of regional obstinance is a cautionary tale for those worried about what a destabilized South Africa might mean for that country and the wider region.

Another result of the coalition era in Lesotho has been a massive expansion of the Cabinet. With electoral margins so tight, the coalitions in Lesotho have involved multiple smaller parties. In one case, the coalition comprised seven parties, with each tiny party demanding a Cabinet Ministry as the price for their parliamentary votes. The Cabinet had 16 ministers in the early 2000s, which expanded to 26 in 2017. While the Cabinet has contracted back to 19 ministers at the moment, this proliferation of expensive ministries has soured the public on governance. Many Basotho see politics as simply a game of musical chairs for the well-connected and have disengaged from governance by refusing to vote in national elections. There is also no evidence that the proliferation of ministries improved the delivery of services to the population. If anything, it seems likely to have harmed it. 

So, what are Lesotho’s lessons for South Africa from its 12-year history of national coalition governance? 

First: it might work out all right! With all the unforeseen plot twists in Lesotho’s political situation, it is important to remember that nothing was preordained. Democracy-era South African politics have seen some strange bedfellows: a governing majority with room for both center-right economists and the South African Communist Party is a big tent indeed, and one with limited ideological consistency on matters like land reform or social-benefit schemes. In fact, a coalition government in South Africa could be the sign of a healthy parliamentary democracy that heralds the rise of political parties that can champion the causes of those currently unheard by the ANC. Given the already limited coherence within the three decades of ANC rule, perhaps South Africa now has the opportunity to enter an era of robust deliberative democracy via its coalitions.

Second: however, there is a high chance of political dysfunction. If voters desire steady, predictable financial or social policy and messaging, the potentially volatile mix of parties and personalities in South African politics at the moment would suggest this is unlikely. 

Third, and perhaps most importantly: national coalitions in Lesotho have led to even less governance and attention paid to service delivery. With elections and government turnover an almost constant possibility, politicians spend more time jockeying within Parliament than governing. Individual members of parliament have increased leverage because of the slim margins in coalition governance. This has led to the emergence of more political parties and more MPs switching political affiliations in an attempt to gain new party leadership positions or even ministerial appointments. With their focus diverted to political maneuvering, governance suffers, and the concerns of the people are ignored to the detriment of democracy.  

So, what does post—May 29 hold for South Africa? South African voters can, and should, send messages about the governance they desire at the ballot box. Citizens should carefully vet parties and individuals based on their commitment to governance and service delivery. If a coalition government does result, there needs to be robust and sustained civil society pressure to get MPs to maintain a focus on the needs of the public. This is especially true of the growing number of disaffected voters who feel that they have been neglected in the 30 years since the end of apartheid. The result of Lesotho’s coalition era has been mounting disillusionment among Basotho in the idea that government can solve intractable problems; as such, it is imperative that Southern Africa’s economic and political heavyweight finds ways to keep political parties and politicians accountable to the public. The lives of many of the poorest South Africans might literally depend on this. Keeping South African democracy healthy and effective is important for many in the Southern African region and across the continent.

About the Author

John Aerni-Flessner is Associate Professor of African and World History at Michigan State University.

Charles is a Teaching Assistant Professor in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Global Studies Program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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