Six reasons a GNU will not last five years in SA: Martin Van Staden

The prevailing silence on the longevity of a proposed ‘government of national unity’ (GNU) is striking. Assumed to last until 2029, realities suggest otherwise. Coalition instability, business community’s weak influence, opposition’s inability to handle ANC’s conduct, familial ties within ANC, and upcoming municipal elections cast doubts on its sustainability. The history of failed unity governments in South Africa warns against misplaced optimism, advocating for a more mature approach of confidence-and-supply.

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By Martin Van Staden*

It is remarkable how silent the commentariat is about the longevity of the now much-vaunted pitch for a ‘government of national unity’ (GNU). The assumption underlying almost all of the commentary is that the agreement struck this week will apply right up to the next general election in 2029. This could not be further from the truth.

By Wednesday, 12 June, it is widely assumed that the Democratic Alliance (DA) and Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) will join the African National Congress (ANC) in its proposed GNU. Others might tag along as well.

There are, in my view, at least six reasons why such a grand coalition will not last a full five-year term and should instead be rejected in favour of a confidence-and-supply ‘no-alition’.

1. Coalition chaos

Politics in the central and provincial spheres of government are different from those in the rough and tumble of municipalities. But it would be silly to pretend that the coalition instability we have seen in municipal councils will not, at least occasionally, reproduce itself in the other governance spheres, or that the GNU would be exempt.

The fact is that South Africa is not used to coalition politics and lacks the political maturity that makes them sustainable.

In certain European countries, the understanding exists that radical fringe parties are persona non grata in government, meaning they are not approached or even considered for coalition partners by either side of the political spectrum. Yet, here, there is casual talk about allowing entities like the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) to take up high office.

And the ANC, in turn, is so used to being in power that the very notion of concessions or compromises seems offensive.

These three related parties – ANC, EFF, and MK – are agents of chaos. If they do not get their way, they physically protest (disruptions in legislative chambers), issue threats of force (to make the country ungovernable), and even kill (the chaos around Jacob Zuma in July 2021).

But other than the robust turnover we have seen at municipal level replicating itself with the GNU in the central and provincial spheres, other factors also point to a coalition held together by duct tape.

Read more: Ramaphosa calls for reforms as coalition deadline looms

2. Weak business community

It might be true that many, perhaps most, ordinary people favour a GNU, but the strongest impetus for the GNU is coming from the local and international (big) business community.

If South African big business is the strongest element in the potential success of whatever plan you are cooking up, you are in trouble. In this country, political ‘access’ and social compacting by big business has yielded them exactly nothing of substance.

The influence they carry is notable, but it is not deep reaching, primarily because big business refuses, almost as if in principle, to press their advantage and extract significant concessions. They demand things, and a reassurance is usually enough to make them back down.

This kind of posture will not keep the ANC, DA, IFP, and others together in a GNU. Business would need to get significantly more assertive first and learn to leverage its immense power in more Machiavellian fashion.

3. Opposition can’t handle the heat

Pieter du Toit has argued that the DA is ‘on the verge of a complete re-engineering of its political mechanics and philosophy if it can agree to terms with the ANC.’ He further notes that the DA’s coalition talks framework is largely ‘based on the main tenets of existing ANC government policy.’ This is evident from the framework document itself, where all this so-called ‘federalist’ party could say about decentralisation is we’ll have to talk about devolution sometime, I guess.

No mention of privatisation. No mention of austerity.

The DA, therefore, before any agreement has been made, is already preparing itself for co-option, something I warned about in 2022 and repeatedly thereafter up to the election.

But no matter how much the DA embraces a marriage with its erstwhile enemy, it will be unable to abandon itself so fully that it would be able to stomach ANC looting for a full term of five years. This makes the DA’s participation necessarily precarious, and the IFP alone cannot keep the ANC in government.

Someone’s finger will always be hovering tentatively above the ‘eject’ button.

Read more: 🔒 FT: Can the party that liberated South Africa still hold it together?

4. Blood is thicker than water

On the other hand, if, at any point during the GNU’s existence, the ANC is pressed into a corner – not likely but fantasise with me for a moment – that requires it to engage in real policy reform or abandon corruption, it will begin looking for a way out.

That way out is perhaps best represented by the low-hanging fruit of a tie-up with the weakened EFF and the Patriotic Alliance (PA). Both of these parties have expressed their willingness to coalesce with the ANC already.

It could also be with MK.

The MK is waiting in the wings for Cyril Ramaphosa to cease being ANC leader. This could happen in the blink of an eye if enough ANC National Executive Committee members are convinced that their fortunes lie elsewhere, and will happen (if history is regarded as a teacher) at the ANC’s 2027 elective conference. Then, MK says, it will be more than happy to enter a coalition with the ANC.

It is well-understood that the ANC does not desire a coalition with the EFF or MK, because it would have to share patronage and perhaps risk itself being co-opted by its more energetic children. But it will necessarily prefer such a tie-up over having its leaders go to prison or for the party to be seen openly abandoning the National Democratic Revolution.

Blood is thicker than water, and the ANC, EFF, and MK all ultimately share blood and values. The PA, in turn, morphs into whatever it needs to be from one moment to the next to secure prestige and patronage for its leaders.

5. Municipal elections

South Africa will undergo municipal elections in 2026, which in years past primarily pitched the ANC against the DA.

There are rumours that the GNU agreement will include cooperation at the municipal level, but it seems unlikely that either of these parties will lack an appetite to campaign against the other for the immense benefit that a win in big municipalities could represent for their future fortunes.

Read more: NSN: Is Zuma and MK planning another insurrection with Russian support?

6. A fake ‘unity’ government

Finally, let us not forget that South Africa did have a government of national unity in the 1990s already, and it collapsed within two years of its formation. The reason it collapsed could also be the reason that this GNU will collapse: it was not really a government of national unity.

National unity governments are meant to make decisions on the basis of consensus between the partners. It is not really a government of ‘unity’ if the largest partner can simply do whatever it wants.

In the 1990s, the ANC rejected with contempt any suggestion that the old GNU would govern by consensus, and it proceeded to overrule its partners in that coalition whenever a significant disagreement arose. This time is no different, as consensus decision-making has not even been mooted as a necessary component of the agreement.

One holds out hope that the parties (whether now or in the future) will opt for confidence-and-supply rather than naïvely believing that a GNU is sustainable at this point in South Africa’s political development. Such a mature decision will preserve the important role that the opposition must play over the next five years and ensure certainty by keeping the ANC in power alone without being surrounded by (worse) radicals.

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*Martin van Staden is the Head of Policy at the Free Market Foundation and former Deputy Head of Policy Research at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR).

This article was originally published by Daily Friend and has been republished with permission.