S.Africa: 10 Days to go: GNU dawn for new government — unpacking the good, the bad and the ugly of it all


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Here are the good, bad and potentially ugly characteristics of a government of national unity for South Africa.

With 10 days before a government is formed after the shape-shifting May 29 election, which delivered no clear winner, the ANC has said it supports a government of national unity (GNU). The party’s preference will hold because it received the highest number of votes.

Earlier in the week, different power-sharing arrangements were mooted, including an ANC-DA-IFP pact and a confidence and supply arrangement where the ANC would take the executive and partners hold it accountable by taking the most powerful roles at Parliament.

The GNU was the mechanism used to transfer South Africa from an apartheid autocratic state to a constitutional democracy. President Cyril Ramaphosa played a significant role in the formation of the GNU, and it has again won his favour as it suits his temperament as a negotiator and a believer in big-tent politics.

The good
The GNU is the most faithful expression of the wishes of the 16 million South Africans who voted on May 29. They did not choose any party to have a majority and spread the vote across many parties in a fractal expression of unhappiness with the country’s state and the political class.

That political class has to share power to make up for and show a good understanding of the electorate’s wishes. A GNU is a good way of doing so, and it also has some history in South Africa.

While the National Party leader and then deputy president FW de Klerk eventually quit the GNU, it offered a basis of stability when power exchanged hands. South Africa again needs a basis of stability to remake our country after the election. Unemployment is high, growth is anaemic, and anxiety levels amongst its people are off the charts. The GNU offers a space for mature politics and power sharing.

Cabinet positions are shared, and deadlock-breaking mechanisms are established at an executive level. This will require buy-in from Parliamentary caucuses and high intra- and inter-party discipline to ensure that government and governing continue unimpeded.

The biggest benefit of a GNU is that each party maintains its identity, policies, and positions, and it can, therefore, be constituted more quickly and effectively than formal coalitions. In 1994, the GNU had 24 Cabinet positions. They were divided as follows: ANC (18), National Party (6), and IFP (3). It worked because of the maturity of the politicians who conceived and led it.

For example, President Nelson Mandela said in his victory speech in 1994: “But I must add we are not going to make the Government of National Unity an empty shell. We want every political organisation that participates in that government to feel that they are part and parcel of a government machine capable of accommodating their views within the context of the Reconstruction and Development Programme. We do not want to reduce them into mere rubber stamps, to rubber-stamp the decision of any organisation except to say that that Programme has to be carried out without reservation.148”

The Parliamentary Monitoring Group has posted this excellent archive to show how the GNU worked in 1994. (It’s worth a read.)

The bad
South Africa only has 10 days to sort out the details, and in a GNU the devil is in the details.

South Africa is also experiencing its first populist surge: parts of the ANC are populist, and so is the EFF and Patriotic Alliance. This new politics for South Africa values public positioning, position-bargaining and patronage as vital mechanisms of power. These are the antitheses of a successful GNU.

Coalitions as governments of local unity have been trialled and failed in the three Gauteng cities and in Nelson Mandela Bay. In all four, services have plummeted as coalitions have proven unstable mechanisms through which to manage and lead complex and highly populated cities. A Human Sciences Research Council study has shown that South Africans do not trust nor like coalitions because of these experiences. Trust levels in South Africa are generally low, especially for politicians. The risks of a GNU for all parties who enter it are complex.

The ugly
When South Africa entered a GNU in 1994, the ANC did not yet suffer what its elders call the “sins of incumbency” or the lure of corruption. Fast-forward 30 years, and the party is beset by factions organised around State Capture or by provincial politics that is more about rent extraction than service delivery.

A power-sharing arrangement will mean that the ANC of renewal (the part of the party that accepts the results and hears the electorate’s message about corruption and poor service) has more control than the party’s ‘State Capture’ wing. The story of the sixth administration of the ANC has been a tortured balance between the two.

In a GNU, there can be only one ANC driver because it shares power with the DA, IFP, PA, possibly EFF and other parties.

The biggest question facing a potential GNU is whether or not MK is now trying to get in. If it does, what happens to the party’s two most considerable demands: that there is a referendum on the Constitution and that President Cyril Ramaphosa steps down?

We caution readers that it is early days, and much may change in the 10 days left to negotiate a government. DM

Source: https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2024-06-07-gnu-dawn-for-new-government-unpacking-the-good-the-bad-and-the-ugly-of-it-all/?utm_source=Sailthru&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=first_thing

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