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OpEds

The centre holds, democracy the winner

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South Africa’s future is far more promising today than it was a week, a month, or even a year ago.

What we’ve just witnessed over the past fortnight in our country is a remarkable display of democracy.

We’ve also seen a demonstration of the realignment of our politics which brings with it the potential of real practical change.

While the actual voting process wasn’t perfect and the IEC’s (Electoral Commission of South Africa’s) practices were flawed in some aspects, the polls weren’t rigged and the election was free and fair.

The two weeks leading up to the first sitting of the National Assembly on Friday, 14 June, were defined by uncertainty and flux. The African National Congress (ANC), the liberation movement that had been in power for 30 years since 1994, had for the first time not won an outright majority.

This meant it had to weigh up its options. We weren’t sure which way the country was going to go. Would the ANC choose the path of a populist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) or uMkhonto WeSizwe (MK) coalition, or would it go a more centrist route?

Ultimately it chose the safe, unifying option, and invited all parties to join a government of national unity (GNU).

For two weeks, behind closed doors, negotiations took place and South Africans held their anxiety.

Every day, I received phone calls and messages from members of our community desperate for any kind of insight or indication which way things would fall. We were undoubtedly at a crossroads.

By Friday morning, we still weren’t sure if a deal had been finalised. When members of Parliament (MPs) began the process of swearing in at the Cape Town International Convention Centre, we still weren’t sure.

We now know that it really did come down to the line because of a disagreement between the ANC and the Democratic Alliance (DA) over one specific clause and representation.

It was only two hours after the parliamentary sitting began that pen was finally put to paper and the deal between the ANC and the DA was formally signed.

What followed in the National Assembly was a beautiful demonstration of democracy. Parliament carried out its business with dignity and decorum as office bearers were elected. When problems arose, MPs followed the correct channels and they were resolved.

Chief Justice Raymond Zondo presided over the process with gravitas and respect. Once she was elected, Speaker Thoko Didiza was similarly firm and authoritative. In the provincial legislatures, the process followed suit and premiers were elected.

Ultimately the centre held, and Ramaphosa was re-elected as president, with the support of DA MPs.

The proceedings had a South African flavour about them. There was singing, verbal jousting, and hilarious quips from MPs. Only in South Africa can an opposition leader call the president corrupt, incompetent, and lazy and then go over and congratulate him on his re-election.

We may never know how close we truly came to the brink, but in the end, it was a peaceful transition of power from the sixth to the seventh administration. There has been none of the anarchy and lawlessness we witnessed in July 2021.

Law enforcement has been vigilant, and there has been deployment of additional forces to KwaZulu-Natal as former President Jacob Zuma’s MK party has upped its rhetoric.

It’s now running a comprehensive and deliberate misinformation campaign to undermine the credibility of the vote and the GNU. MK somehow also managed to fumble a successful campaign in KwaZulu-Natal, with 45% of the vote, and not transfer it into a coalition government. This means that it will be even more disgruntled.

There’s an ominous threat of violence, but law enforcement and intelligence officials would have learnt key lessons from what happened in 2021.

We now know that five parties have joined the GNU – the ANC; DA; Inkatha Freedom Party; Patriotic Alliance; and Good. The GNU has been lauded, and it does bring with it much hope and potential for recalibrating our government.

But it will also be a difficult new political landscape to navigate.

Ramaphosa’s first real challenge after being inaugurated will be the composition of his cabinet. He will need to keep the ANC’s tripartite alliance partners happy by including representatives from the unions and the South African Communist Party. He will then also have to find space in an already bloated cabinet for the GNU parties’ candidates. The real question will be whether the DA will be allocated key portfolios, and whether these could translate into tangible change in policy and delivery.

The ANC is also going to have to learn how to govern in this new reality. Its long held policy of cadre deployment will have to be reined in. This means networks of enrichment will be closed. The other GNU parties will also now have room to push back on the ANC’s policies. What happens when the first parliamentary committee sitting on the National Health Insurance (NHI) or the Basic Education Laws Amendment (Bela) bill comes into play?

Many have asked me about the government’s policy on the Middle East and the approach to the International Court of Justice. ANC Secretary General Fikile Mbalula has publicly stated that the GNU will have no impact on it, but in practice, it might be a bit different.

The DA will also have to redefine itself now that it’s part of government. Referring to the Phala Phala controversy, Helen Zille has already stated that the DA won’t vote to impeach a president it helped to elect. What then does this mean for the weakening of our opposition?

Julius Malema has already demonstrated his willingness to step up and assume the mantle of opposition leader in the absence of MK in Parliament. This may not actually be such a bad thing – we’ll need him and his MPs to be vocal.

It also means that the media, the judiciary, civil society, and chapter nine institutions will also have to be hyper vigilant.

The next five years won’t be perfect. The future is fraught with potential failure. But at least we’re not going to experience another five years of what we had before. There’s the potential for real progress and change. Hopefully the government’s reformist policies and close working relationships with the private sector will continue, and we’ll experience economic growth, job creation, and improved service delivery. The future really can be better than now.

  • Mandy Wiener is a broadcaster and author.

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