South Africa’s Government of National Unity: A Fragile Alliance on the Brink.

South Africa finds itself at a pivotal crossroads with the recent establishment of a Government of National Unity (GNU) in the wake of the African National Congress (ANC)’s unprecedented electoral setback on May 29th, 2024. For the first time since the end of apartheid, the ANC, a historical pillar of South African politics since 1912, has fallen below the required majority. This dramatic shift marks a profound public rebuke, driven by widespread disillusionment with unfulfilled promises and the party’s prolonged grip on power. The formation of the GNU is not just a political necessity but a reflection of the nation’s yearning for genuine change and accountability.

The electorate’s resounding rejection has compelled the ANC into an uneasy alliance with its former adversaries. While some within the ANC argue that voters desired a coalition between the ANC and the Democratic Alliance (DA), this is a misinterpretation of the election results. If the numbers tell us anything, it’s that 60% of South Africans did not want the ANC in power, and approximately 70% rejected the DA. Therefore, it is clear that the public’s preference was not an ANC-DA coalition but a call for a significant shift away from these dominant parties.

However, it was evident that the current ANC administration, which in many ways deviates from the ANC’s storied liberation heritage, would align with the DA, given their shared economic policy perspectives. This alignment was facilitated by the DA’s desperate desire to avoid an ANC coalition with other parties, often referred to as a “doomsday coalition.” The market welcomed this union, anticipating the policy certainty and predictability that an ANCDA coalition was perceived to bring.

The GNU, in many respects, resembles a metaphorical construction site where the African National Congress (ANC) holds a dominant presence yet lacks absolute authority. Much like ten black casual workers overseen by a white foreman, the ANC’s numerical strength in the cabinet suggests influence but not control over the decision-making process. Despite occupying approximately 60% of ministerial positions, the ANC must navigate a complex landscape of coalition dynamics and consensus-building with other parties, such as the Democratic Alliance (DA) and others.

A pivotal development in the GNU cabinet is the integration of the public enterprises’ ministry into the office of the presidency. This move by President Ramaphosa consolidates control over critical economic sectors and state-owned enterprises under his direct authority. While aimed at streamlining governance, this centralization of power raises significant concerns regarding transparency and oversight. By reducing traditional ministerial oversight, there is a risk that checks and balances could diminish, allowing presidential decisions to wield disproportionate influence over policy directions. This shift underscores broader questions about democratic accountability and the equilibrium of powers within South Africa’s evolving political landscape, challenging the collaborative ethos envisaged by the GNU.

The coalition agreement underpinning the Government of National Unity (GNU) hinges critically on the principle of sufficient consensus in decision-making, granting each participating party a de facto veto power over proposals and policies. This arrangement not only enhances each coalition member’s leverage but also potentially incentivizes brinkmanship and the strategic exploitation of disagreements to advance narrow political agendas. While aimed at ensuring equitable decision-making, the requirement for sufficient consensus may paradoxically amplify tensions and procedural hurdles, complicating governance and casting doubts on the coalition’s ability to navigate the complexities of South Africa’s political landscape effectively.

With decisions in the cabinet contingent upon agreement from diverse political factions such as the Democratic Alliance (DA) and others, the ANC faces the daunting task of navigating complex negotiations and compromises to advance its policy agenda. Furthermore, the potential for opposition parties to dominate portfolio committees adds another layer of complexity for the ANC. Historically dominated by the ruling party, these committees are now poised to become arenas of scrutiny and accountability, where opposition voices can challenge and influence governmental decisions. This shift emphasizes the need for adept coalition management and strategic negotiation skills to achieve consensus-driven governance. Thus, while the ANC maintains a substantial presence in the GNU, the requirement for consensus and the influential role of opposition parties in portfolio committees may hinder policy implementation and governance effectiveness, presenting ongoing challenges to the coalition’s unity and operational efficiency.

While the South African constitution mandates collective responsibility for cabinet decisions, it notably lacks clarity on the division between decisions made collectively by the cabinet and those within the realm of individual ministers. This ambiguity creates a potential breeding ground for discord within the coalition, as ministers aligned with different parties may independently make decisions that bind the entire cabinet. Such scenarios risk fostering mistrust and exacerbating ideological divisions, thereby undermining the coalition’s unity and its ability to govern effectively. The absence of explicit guidelines on decision-making authority within the cabinet presents a fundamental governance dilemma, where actions by individual ministers could ignite intra-coalition disputes, posing a significant challenge to the GNU’s promise of cohesive and effective governance.

The Phala-Phala scandal, where $580,000 mysteriously vanished from President Ramaphosa’s farm in 2020, has the potential to shatter the GNU’s stability. Claimed as buffalo sale proceeds, the theft’s criminal undertones were unveiled by an independent panel led by former Chief Justice Ngcobo, nearly prompting Ramaphosa’s resignation. Despite this, the ANC used its majority to block further inquiry. The EFF has taken this to the Constitutional Court, arguing abuse of power, with a pivotal hearing set for August. An unfavourable ruling could resurrect the scandal, with anti-corruption forces like the DA possibly pushing for impeachment. Even if the court rules in favour of Ramaphosa, an opposition party may reintroduce the issue, potentially leading to his impeachment since the ANC no longer holds a majority. This looming turmoil teeters on the edge of fracturing the GNU, leaving the political landscape hanging in suspense.

The path forward for South Africa’s GNU is strewn with obstacles, demanding courageous leadership, genuine compromise, and an unwavering commitment to the aspirations of all South Africans. The true test of this coalition will not be today’s crises but those of tomorrow, such as potential global conflicts like a war between China and Taiwan, which could expose the differing foreign policies within the coalition. How the GNU navigates these challenges will ultimately define its legacy.

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Written by EJIKU Justine (1)

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