With elections around the corner, the prospect of the first provincial coalitions being formed after 8 May looms large.

While political coalitions are formed at the expedience of the political parties, their impact on service delivery is less clear.

Recently released data on local government hint at how coalitions affect municipal governance. These insights offer an observation into how provincial coalitions may impact voters.

Earlier this month two reports on the quality of local governance were released. Ratings Afrika’s report focuses on the financial well-being of municipalities.

According to Ratings Afrika the best performing municipality in the country is Swartland in the Western Cape.

Swartland, with a score of 86, is closely followed by Senqu in the Eastern Cape (85).

The worst performing municipalities are Modimolle in Limpopo (2) and Matjabeng (Welkom) in the Free State (4).

Ratings Afrika indicates that, of the nine provinces, municipalities in the Western Cape tend to be the best governed financially (municipalities have an average score of 63).

The worst performing province is Free State where municipalities obtained an average score of 17 – two points lower than the worst performing Western Cape municipality (Drakenstein with a score of 19).

Ratings Afrika concentrates on municipal finances with a particular emphasis on whether the municipality runs an operating surplus. This emphasis is unfortunate as it is not the role of municipalities to make a ‘profit’ and operating surplus can also be taken to reflect unnecessarily high service charges or taxation levels.

The second report, by Good Governance Africa (GGA), rates municipalities according to their management of finances and the level of services they provide.

These factors are used in the Government Performance Index (GPI). According to GGA the municipality with the best performance in the country is Mossel Bay in the Western Cape. The Eastern Cape’s Senqu retains, as with Ratings Afrika, the second highest ranking.

According to GGA the worst performing municipality is Msinga in KwaZulu-Natal. GGA’s twenty best and twenty worst performing municipalities are juxtaposed in the map below. Most of these top twenty performing municipalities are in the Western Cape (12), 4 are in the northern Cape, 2 are in the  Eastern Cape. Only one of the twenty top performing municipalities are in Gauteng or KwaZulu-Natal.

The GPI includes measures of service delivery in each municipality resulting in areas with large service backlogs obtaining low scores. Consequently, as can be seen on the map, the municipalities with the worst GPI rankings tend to incorporate large parts of former bantustan areas.

It is the service backlogs associated with the homelands and not necessarily poor governance that result in the poor GPI rankings. Government performance is better indicated by the extent to which service backlogs are addressed rather than by historical backlogs the administration inherits.

To the extent that the GPI reflects historical backlogs, it misrepresents government performance – particularly at the lower end of the GPI.

The GPI does a better job of differentiating performance levels between municipalities where service levels tend to be high.

The GPI shows that the political dimension to governance and government performance.

Three-quarters of the top twenty municipalities are governed by the Democratic Alliance (DA) or by  DA-led coalitions. The remaining five are governed by the African National Congress (ANC) or an ANC-led coalition.

One-quarter of the 20 best performing municipalities are governed by coalitions.

This falsifies the idea that coalitions are necessarily bad for government performance. Coalitions are only formed when no single party has a clear majority and the assistance of political partners are required to form a government.

While coalitions render governments as stable as the political alliance they also ensure improved levels in the oversight of those administrations. Increased oversight, coupled to the consequences of the coalition slipping up, help to limit abuse and improve government performance.

However much depends on who is a party to the coalition. With the exception of the Congress of the People (COPE) the successful coalitions in the twenty best performing municipalities involved predominantly Afrikaans parties like the Karroo Genmeenskap Party (KGP), Freedom Front Plus (FFPlus) or the Khoisan Revolution (KSR).

Coalitions or alliances with other parties have yielded less positive results. For example, GGA ranks Cape Town, governed by the DA, as the best performing metro.

The worst performing metro is Johannesburg which is governed by a DA alliance with the support by the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF).

Alliances with the EFF have proved more fragile and less conducive to improved performance.

Several other DA-coalitions dependent on EFF support (Nelson Mandela Bay, Mogale City) proved unsustainable and collapsed thereby undermining government performance.

The experience of municipalities suggests that political coalition is not necessarily associated with political fragility or poorer service delivery.

The heightened political competition and increased oversight associated with coalitions may be to the benefit of citizens. Perhaps some provinces may benefit from this situation after 8 May.