The Minister's Prisoners' Dilemma

Smaller coalition partners must choose whether to trust the ANC to cooperate and risk loss of support, or to cut them loose and benefit from being the only opposition to the right

Robert Duigan


Robert Duigan


Jul 3, 2024

The Minister's Prisoners' Dilemma

In game theory, the simplest model used to illustrate the problem of strategies between people is called the Prisoner’s Dilemma. You and another criminal are in neighbouring police interrogation cells.

Detectives offer a deal: if you both clam up, you both get jailtime. But if one of you talks, the impimpi goes free, and the other gets a full sentence. Do you split on your partner in crime and take a small sentence, or do you trust him and clam up?

This is the dilemma facing small parties in the current coalition government. The DA and IFP are trapped, and cannot leave, so they will have to simply absorb the resentment of the public their impotence will inspire.

But smaller parties are freer - and if they split by the end of the year, they can tell their supporters they gave it an honest shot, but cannot be part of this corrupt and fruitless enterprise any more.

State of play

Now that the dust has settled, the balance of powers is evident. The ANC has retained control over the executive process of selecting directors-general of the various departments, meaning that all non-ANC cabinet ministers will have to try to persuade ANC cadres, over whom they have no power, to follow their instructions.

The ANC has also retained all of the most vital parliamentary and executive positions, and the President has been selected or five years, and cannot leave unless he is impeached. That means that keeping the EFF/MK out of government doesn’t require being a part of the coalition, just voting against any motions of impeachment.

So what does this mean?

First, it means that that the liberals and conservatives have lost the negotiations, and have been neutered. They have gotten far fewer positions in our massively bloated cabinet than their representation in parliament would theoretically entitle them to, and have no power to do their own jobs.

That means that nothing will change, and the status quo will be preserved. This is not the worst outcome - reforms like the NHI and so on may be slightly more difficult to get rolling, since everyone will be trying to stall it, whether to punish the ANC, or simply to prevent a national economic and medical catastrophe.

Second, the status quo is now all there is - the DA, which represented a change to the system, is now a part of the establishment, and will not be seen as “new”, because nothing will change. That lends strength to the arguments from the RET faction in parliament, who will argue that since nothing has changed, whites must secretly have been in power all along - how else would you explain black poverty?

What this means is that the only alternative to the current system which is perceived as a viable alternative is now the MK and EFF - Zimbabwefication. The ANC is now the liberal, the conservative wing of parliament, and they represent the right, while the radicals represent progress - who could possibly sound convincing arguing to the man on the street that we don’t need to address inequality more aggressively?

Third, this coalition has a lifespan, and will likely collapse when the ANC is reorganised in 2027. Never has an ANC president survived a full two terms in office. The deputy president will replace them before their second term is up, and the presidency of the party and the presidency of the state are not allowed to be at variance.

The gambit

So let us say you are the minister of correctional facilities, and you are a conservative Afrikaner man. You must now convince a group of intransigent black nationalists whom you cannot fire to transform their own departments from which they benefit personally, without supporting the corruption that would be their compensation.

Quitting immediately may look bad, but sticking around until the end when your hands are cut off will lead to you bleeding to death. And if you succeed, nobody aside from political obsessives or your own party colleagues will notice. You simply cannot win.

When the DA and the ANC go to the polls in 2026, what will they tell their constituents? That everything is beautiful ,and nothing needs fixing? That they are doing a wonderful job, and deserve a second lease of life? Of course they will - but nobody will believe them.

To whom will they turn then?

Action SA has wisely sidestepped this trap, and become the only party to the right of the ANC in opposition. They will be able to offer a credible and sensible alternative on the ground in Gauteng, and may well gain a noticeable number of council seats in the northern metros.

Should the Vryheidsfront Plus bow out after enough time to be considered a serious effort, they can sell themselves as a watchdog, keeping an eye on the complacency and malfeasance of the ruling coalition across the Cape, the metros, and the mid-sized towns.

But if they stick it out until the end, they run the serious risk of being seen as sellouts, however sincere their intentions may be.

The gambit here is this:

The first small party to leave the coalition will reap the rewards in 2026, by showing that they are a)mature enough to make an honest effort at collaboration, but b) not willing to sell themselves out for a mere cabinet position.

Do they trust the ANC will let them do their jobs unmolested and risk bleeding out, or do they look after their own, and risk only their own personal sense of importance?

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