Government of National Unity in South Africa: A lifeline for the ANC or a real push for unity?


THE recent South African elections have left the ruling African National Congress (ANC) in a precarious position. For the first time in its history, they failed to secure a simple majority, compelling them to explore alternative governance structures. The ANC's proposed solution is an interesting one: a Government of National Unity (GNU). And this has sparked intense debate, with some seeing it as a genuine attempt at unity and others (like myself), seeing it more as a desperate bid for survival.

Government of National Unity in South Africa
African National Congress president Cyril Ramaphosa, centre, and fellow party national executive members. [Image: Per-Anders Pettersson/Getty Images]

The ANC's call for a GNU comes amidst growing public discontent with the party's performance. If anything, the results of 2024 elections in South Africa proved that the electorate punished the ANC for its shortcomings by denying it a majority. The ANC's grip on power is loosening, and the gloomy prospect of losing even more seats in future elections is one that cannot be easily dismissed. The GNU, by bringing in opposition parties, would essentially neutralize the threat they pose to ANC's hegemonic control of South Africa—allowing the ANC to maintain a semblance of control.

However, the opposition, particularly the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), remains deeply sceptical. They see the Democratic Alliance (DA), a potential partner in a GNU, as embodying the interests of former colonizers; and a fundamental clash of ideologies precludes any meaningful cooperation. The alternative – a coalition government – would empower smaller parties, potentially jeopardizing the ANC's control over policy decisions.

One may realize that under a GNU, opposition parties have a lot to compromise. For example, DA will have to compromise on on its vociferous drive for unfettered free market policies. Its inclination to swing right will be curtailed. If they fail to do so they will be left out and become a minority, which will be politically paralyzing for them in terms of law-making. It will be bad optics for them as well.

Simultaneously, there are those who argue that a Government of National Unity (GNU) contradicts the principle of non-cooperation with perceived adversaries, such as the Democratic Alliance and those seen as oppressors from the apartheid era. This is because, in reality, a GNU provides a degree of stability to market forces. This stability, however, is at odds with the desires of the majority of South Africans who advocate for a governance approach that prioritizes the poor, aiming to rectify the disparities engendered by apartheid and neoliberal policies. In essence, a GNU could potentially diminish the chances of implementing a radical economic transformation in South Africa.

What could potentially be a viable strategy for opposition parties is the formation of a Coalition. The first of its kind could be a leftist coalition, which may unsettle market forces and the white monopoly capital. This could incite a media frenzy, but it also presents an opportunity for South Africans to unite against neoliberal, capitalist, conservative, and white supremacist ideologies. 

A coalition comprising the ANC, EFF, and MK could curb capital and hold the elites accountable. This would provide the ANC and South Africans with a balanced opportunity to address the Phala Phala issue without conceding to their adversaries. The EFF has already initiated legal proceedings on the matter, and if the courts rule in their favor, the ANC could invoke the step-aside rule and oust Ramaphosa. His removal could potentially save the ANC from internal discord, facilitate renewal, and ensure genuine unity among the oppressed. It could also steer them towards effective policy implementation, activate efforts to eliminate corruption, and distance the party from being puppets of white monopoly capital.

Another possible outcome to explore could be a coalition of the ANC, IFP, and DA which will do well to please the market forces and promise some level of policy predictability and moderate economic transformation, dashed with a bit of social conservativism. However , it will not grow the economy or advance the fundamental aspirations of South Africans. It will be highly pro business . This coalition will be the reason for MK and EFF to destroy the ANC by exposing them as traitors who collaborated with the enemy. It doesn’t guarantee stability for the ANC or survival for Ramaphosa. So one can clearly conclude that based on these scenarios the ANC is cornered and their only way out is to compromise with their lost comrades on the EFF and MK. A GNU doesn't sell.

While the ANC paints the GNU as a positive, progressive step towards national unity, I argue it's a cynical strategy to cling to power. I can point to the party's recent history, marked by corruption, incompetence, and lack of accountability as evidence that the ANC's true motivation is self-preservation, not genuine reconciliation. A GNU will help the ANC neutralize it's opponents and give it a chance at regime survival. Because this has worked for their sister liberation movement ZANU PF in Zimbabwe in 2009. After losing to opposition and grappling with an economic melt down a GNU helped ZANU PF to gain a lifeline that assured them victory in 2013. The successes of the GNU helped ZANU PF regain the trust of Zimbabweans. The opposition has tried to claim the successes as well but haven’t really worked for them in attracting the critical rural constituency who are majority. I am aware of the other complex factors that impede opposition penetration in rural communities but that is a conversation for another day. 

There is some truth that GNUs come with a certain level of economic stability and growth but they are not a guarantee of political stability, especially in SA’s case. There are several irreconcilable factors that divide the political players and historical interest that can’t be compromised. A GNU will definitely take the land question of the policy table and attract cooperation from white commercial farmers who benefit from the current spatial apartheid in SA . A GNU unites the elites more than it unites the suffering ordinary working people.

The debate surrounding the GNU boils down to a fundamental question: Is the ANC truly committed to national unity, or is it merely seeking a way to maintain its grip on power? The candid observation is that the oldest political party in Africa has realized its loss of power and is seeking regime survival as well as willing to compromise other players to achieve that.

Conclusively, South Africa is a deeply divided society that needs unity and collective healing as soon as yesterday. However, it will not be unified by elite political compromises that stagnate the aspirations of radical transformation which address the declining sociopolitical conditions and injustice that South Africans endure. The ANC can't be allowed to chose expediency over principles. The ANC must correct its contradictions and cleanse itself. However, it must not sell out on the aspirations of the people by the impending GNU compromise.

*Takura Liam Kanhenga is a human rights activist who writes here in his personal capacity. 

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