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OpEds

So GNU – now what?

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He was, of course, late again. President Cyril Ramaphosa’s much awaited Cabinet announcement didn’t start on time, but no-one was surprised.

The announcement of the Cabinet signalled important messages. Democracy had withstood the onslaught of a bruising election and an African National Congress (ANC) loss. The ANC was willing to share power, and it was doing so with predominately “white” parties such as the Democratic Alliance (DA) and the Freedom Front Plus (FFP). More importantly, it demonstrated that the ANC would move the country away from the extremism and popularism of Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and Jacob Zuma’s uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) party. Sanity had prevailed, and South Africa had avoided the iceberg, at least for now.

Looking tired, Ramaphosa rattled off the names of South Africa’s next executive, cobbled together as an unwieldy coalition of 11 parties, each pursuing their own positions, power, access to resources, and patronage for their supporters.

South Africa’s Government of National Unity (GNU) looked like a hybrid animal somewhere between a buffalo and an antelope, akin to a wildebeest or what the Khoisan refer to as a Gnu.

The president, deputy president, 32 Cabinet ministers, and 42 deputy ministers constitute a hugely bloated executive, pandering to the needs of all of the coalition partners. The ANC had kept all of the juicy Cabinet positions and government departments that would drive desperately needed economic growth for itself. Many of the ANC’s corrupt and incompetent ministers had returned to the Cabinet in superficial disguise, some in military camouflage, some in petrol-attendant outfits, but it looked a little like putting lipstick on a pig.

To have the DA’s leader, John Steenhuisen, miraculously appear as minister of agriculture and the FFP’s leader, Pieter Groenewald, manifest as minister of correctional services, seemed like sidelining potential talent.

If nothing else, Ramaphosa is a realist. Coalitions are formed from necessity not desire. After his disastrous first term as president and leading his party to a devastating election implosion, Ramaphosa needed to keep the ANC in power, making as few concessions as possible, creating a stable government, and steering it away from the dangers of parties that wished to repeal the Constitution, destroy the independence of the judiciary, and lead the country to inevitable economic collapse. For that, he needed 201 seats in South Africa’s 400 seat National Assembly. Given his difficult circumstances, Ramaphosa outsmarted his opponents.

In the 2024 election, the ANC suffered a crushing blow, being decimated by a 17.5% decline in electoral support and dropping to a mere 159 seats in the National Assembly. Years of corruption, greed, and incompetence had finally taken its toll on the once mighty ANC, and the myth of invincibility surrounding South Africa’s liberation movement was finally shattered.

In spite of the ANC losing 17.5% of voter support, the DA fared poorly, attracting almost none of that support, improving its electoral performance by a mere 1% and stealing its new voters not from the black middle class, but from right-wing Afrikaners, who abandoned the FFP to return to the bleached seats of the DA. The DA landed up with 87 members in Parliament.

The ANC needed an additional 42 seats to remain in power. The president feared the radical and reactionary views of the MK and EFF parties together with the instability those parties would bring his government.

The horse trading for positions and power began. The DA negotiated poorly, constantly changing its position, from not desiring Cabinet posts to changing the number of ministries it wanted in Cabinet. Knowing that Steenhuisen was desperate to “save South Africa” from what he termed a “doomsday coalition” of the ANC, EFF, and MK, his hand was significantly weakened. A divergence of views existed within the party between those desiring the DA to be a “super opposition” controlling oversight of the executive through Parliament, and Steenhuisen’s wish to govern the country.

The ANC strategy was simple. As long as it had the ace of the DA in its back pocket, it could ensure that it was never subject to the extravagant demands of the EFF and MK. But Ramaphosa feared dependence on the DA from both a political and perception perspective. The optics of a GNU was more palatable to the ANC than coalition with the DA itself.

In order to neuter the leverage of the DA, the ANC needed to build a grand coalition of smaller parties which could provide it a 201 seat majority in Parliament even without the DA. The inclusion of the Inkatha Freedom Party, the Patriotic Alliance, the FFP, and the rats-and-mice smaller parties, got the ANC into a cobbled-together coalition of 201 of the 400 seats in Parliament, even without the DA. This move neutered the DA, diminished its leverage, and forced it to accept a lesser role in government.

As we find our way in the new political reality, here are 10 things to look out for in these unchartered waters:

  1. The GNU agreement requires “sufficient consensus” between the coalition partners on government’s programme of action, consensus being 60% of coalition support. Whether this makes the country ungovernable is an interesting question;
  2. The ANC and its leaders used the coffers of the country as a personal piggy bank to loot and pillage the wealth of the country. Whether the new coalition can stem the tide of greed and corruption is an important question;
  3. The ANC retaining Cabinet responsibility for mining, transport, foreign affairs, housing, and trade – all previously unmitigated disasters. Attracting foreign investment and stimulating the economy will be a significant challenge;
  4. For the DA, being in Cabinet gives it Hobson’s choice. Being in the tent has muted its ability to challenge and criticise the government. Retaining its support while being a partner to the ANC will be onerous;
  5. Ramaphosa’s future is in doubt. Having proven himself an ineffective leader and presiding over the ANC’s electoral decline, Ramaphosa’s future looks bleak. He seems determined not to be removed from office, to appoint his own successor, and to become chairperson of the G20 in 2025, allowing him a dignified exit thereafter;
  6. The greatest loser was the EFF. The party suffered a significant decline in the polls, lost its mantle as the radical opposition, and will ultimately lose its privileged position as coalition partner in Johannesburg, Ekurhuleni, and eThekwini, thereby depriving it of key sources of revenue to fund the activities of the party and the lavish lifestyles of its leaders;
  7. MK’s election success may be short lived. It provided a new home for many Zulu speakers, but achieved little electoral success beyond the ethno-cultural confines of the Zulu nation. Its leader, Jacob Zuma, is 82, albeit in far better physical and/or mental shape than Joe Biden and Donald Trump, but he won’t remain vital and active forever. MK has five years to transform itself into a real party, with real leadership and support beyond its exclusive Zulu mandate;
  8. For many of the rats-and-mice parties, being part of a GNU may well spell their death knell. Patricia de Lille’s GOOD party proved the point when she joined the previous Ramaphosa administration. Being in Cabinet deprives you of a platform, and many of the smaller parties may not survive another election;
  9. The role of opposition in the new Parliament will fall to the MK party as official opposition and the radical fringe disrupting EFF. With the DA in government, the role of loyal logical opposition will fall to Mmusi Maimane’s Build One South Africa and Herman Mashaba’s ActionSA;
  10. Coalitions don’t last forever, and none of the ANC’s election partners will want to fight the next elections stymied by their association with the ANC. At some point, the coalition must crumble, and the partners must return to their role as opponents, albeit probably keeping the ANC in power through a supply and confidence agreement.

There are forces desperate to scupper the GNU. At least one media house, funded by the Public Investment Corporation in questionable circumstances during the Zuma years, seems hell bent on painting the GNU as a capitulation to the white monopoly capital. One hopes that South Africans are smarter than to fall for another Bell Pottinger style disinformation campaign.

But countries aren’t built by disinterested presidents. To build a country, we need some real leadership, something we haven’t seen in quite a while.

Sitting in our game vehicle watching the migration of the GNU through the African savanna, let’s buckle our seatbelts, this is going to be bumpy. We may as well sit back and enjoy the ride.

  • Howard Sackstein is the chairperson of the SA Jewish Report, but writes in his personal capacity.

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