Is South Africa’s GNU a second new dawn? From left to right: Nelson Mandela, Frederik Willem de Klerk, and Cyril Ramaphosa

Ranga Mataire, Zimpapers Politics Hub

THE inauguration of President Cyril Ramaphosa for his second term marks the beginning of a new chapter in South Africa. The African National Congress (ANC) will now form a government of national unity (GNU) in collaboration with other political parties that received votes in the May elections.

This is not the first time that South Africa has entered into a compromise political arrangement with other political players. A similar arrangement was crafted in 1994 when South Africa attained freedom.

Nelson Mandela, the country’s founding majority leader, found it the best and most unifying decision to get into a GNU with former white foes of the National Party, led by Frederik Willem de Klerk. Mandela was at the time the most popular political prisoner who was released from jail by the same person he was to consummate a GNU with. The GNU gave birth to what South Africans called a Rainbow Nation.

Mandela and de Klerk were later awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 for bringing out a democratic dispensation in South Africa.

But that was 30 years ago. Back then, Mandela was coming out of prison as a global icon having spent 27 years in jail. Mandela and his ANC party went into a GNU with the National Party despite winning an outright majority in the first democratic elections.

The purpose of that GNU, according to Mandela, was to heal old wounds and ensure a peaceful transition given the hostilities that existed between the blacks and whites. It was also meant to ensure continuity of crucial institutions of governance. And as recently alluded to by some analysts, South Africa risked plunging into chaos and anarchy had the GNU not have been constituted in 1994.

Today, 30 years after 1994, the ANC finds itself in a difficult situation after its vote share fell short of the majority that would have given it the mandate to constitute a government on its own. It is the most popular party, but it did not win enough votes to constitute a government. The ANC therefore had to invite other parties into a unity government.

The parties that came third and fourth, the uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) and Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) respectively, refused to be part of the GNU. The ANC had no choice but to get into a pact with the Democratic Alliance (DA), which came second, and other smaller parties; the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), GOOD, and the Patriotic Alliance (PA).

According to the agreement, the proposed GNU will make by consensus. If no consensus is possible, the principle of sufficient consensus will apply. The sticking point is where the “Statement of Intent and Modalities” pact says sufficient consensus exists when “parties to the GNU representing 60 percent of seats in the National Assembly agree.”

Since the ANC has 40 percent of the votes and the DA has 20 percent, it means that if the latter disagrees, the ANC would be forced to resort to other smaller parties for support. Unfortunately, the other parties combined with the ANC will not reach the 60 percent threshold, leaving the DA with “veto powers.”

Other critics point to the diametrically opposed ideological standpoints of the ANC and the DA. The ANC leans more to the left. In international relations, supports Palestine against Israel’s genocide, and supports South Africa’s membership of BRICS. Under ANC, South Africa maintained cordial relations with Russia despite opposition from the West. The ANC also supports affirmative action to right Apartheid’s inequalities.

On the other hand, the DA is seen as a remnant of apartheid’s National Party, formed to protect white minority interests. It opposes affirmative action policies, such as employment equity, a policy that has allowed qualified black professionals to occupy positions in a white-dominated corporate South Africa.

The DA’s international relations position is starkly different to the ANC’s. This was demonstrated before the elections. While claiming to deplore foreign interference, the DA wrote to the US for help to monitor what it claimed was external influence in the election.

“It is our contention that as the ruling elite grow desperate to retain electoral support ahead of the upcoming elections, they may be willing to put their narrow political interests ahead of our country’s broader interests and sacred constitutional values. Here, we are witnessing an increasing willingness by the ANC to forge alliances with malign international actors whose regimes are characterised by tyranny, terror and oppression,” read the DA letter.

The DA supports Ukraine and Israel, and many wonder how consensus would be possible on such pertinent international issues. ANC secretary, Fikile Mbalula, has however allayed fears of dysfunction in the GNU. The ANC, he says, will not be swayed from its principle.

This is a thorny path for the ANC and much will depend on the demands being made by other political players in the GNU. The DA’s stated desire to have one of their own appointed as a Minister in the President’s office is an alert to the ANC to be extra cautious. It is apparent that the DA wants a lever on a de facto “Prime Minister”.

Much will also depend on President Ramaphosa, a consummate negotiator who led talks that culminated in South Africa’s freedom in 1994.

Judging by the ANC secretary general’s tone, it would appear that the GNU is a necessary hiatus station that would see the oldest liberation movement in Africa emerging out of the inconvenient pact a much stronger entity. 

After all, there are lessons north of the Limpopo. A GNU forged in 2009 gave Zanu-PF a time to re-strategise, allowing the party to retake its two-thirds majority in 2013. 

There is no reason to doubt that the ANC, Africa’s oldest liberation movement, will come back stronger.



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