🔒 UPDATED: The Economist: Another SA lesson in democracy for the world.

In South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa’s re-election as president is set to form a “government of national unity,” anchored by the ANC and DA. This coalition aims to uphold the 1994 democratic values and implement vital reforms. The move reflects a commitment to democracy and showcases the nation’s resilience and pragmatism in governance.

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From The Economist, published under licence. The original article can be found on www.economist.com

© 2024 The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved.

A national unity government can save democracy and the economy ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

photograph: ap

Jun 14th 2024|cape townSaveShareGive

Editor’s note (June 15th 2024): This article has been updated.

Desmond Tutu once wrote that “we in South Africa…sell ourselves short.” In a country with many problems it is easy to forget its “remarkable achievements”, argued the late Nobel peace laureate. He felt that the world had much to learn from the largely peaceful transition to democracy in 1994; the Truth and Reconciliation Commission he chaired that shed light on the darkness of apartheid; and the forgiveness of ordinary black people scarred by decades of white rule.

If Archbishop Tutu were still alive he might have added the events of June 14th to his list of feats. Members of parliament re-elected Cyril Ramaphosa as South Africa’s president, with the 71-year-old now expected to form a “government of national unity”. The coalition, anchored by Mr Ramaphosa’s African National Congress (ANC) and the erstwhile official opposition, the Democratic Alliance (DA), was necessitated by the results of elections held on May 29th. The ANC won just 40.2% of the vote, depriving it of its parliamentary majority for the first time. To gain the support of most MPs Mr Ramaphosa could have joined with dangerous populist parties. Instead he and his new partners have swiftly opted for a government that adheres to the values of the 1994 settlement and has a chance of overseeing vital reforms. Its formation will reflect well on the rainbow nation’s fledgling democracy.

The outcome was not inevitable. In the aftermath of the result many figures in the ANC were against a deal involving the DA, which won 21.8% of the vote. Gwede Mantashe, the powerful party chair, reportedly preferred a tie-up with a few smaller parties and the “devil we know”: the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), a race-baiting hard-left party run by former leaders of the ANC’s Youth League, that won 9.5%. Others wanted to work with uMkhonto weSizwe (MK), a new party led by the former president, Jacob Zuma, and which won a stunning 14.6%.

In characteristic style, Mr Ramaphosa trod carefully. On June 6th, after a meeting of the ANC’s main decision-making body, he announced that the party had chosen to form a government of national unity—and would talk to every major party about potentially joining. At first this seemed a ludicrous case of Mr Rampahosa trying to have his cake and eat it. Negotiators from other parties joked that the president was leaving it to his opponents to decide on the coalition on his behalf.

If that was the case it worked. Both MK and EFF made such unreasonable demands that, in effect, they ruled themselves out. The EFF wanted the finance ministry and insisted it would not be part of the same government as the DA, which its deputy leader suggested was a puppet of the “white capitalist establishment”. MK, which has been spouting Trumpian lies about the election being rigged, demanded the resignation of Mr Ramaphosa—a stipulation the ANC quickly ruled out.

Mr Ramaphosa was probably relieved by the hubris. He could tell his caucus that he had at least tried to talk to the populists. But while never publicly stating his preferences, they have been implied. After the ANC meeting he spoke of coalition partners needing to respect the constitution (ruling out at least MK, which wants to ditch the “colonial” document) and non-racialism (excluding at least the EFF, whose leader has spewed vitriol against whites and Indians). In a newsletter sent on June 10th he wrote of the importance of Operation Vulindlela, a presidential initiative to accelerate market-friendly reforms. It was an unsubtle nod: by this point DA negotiators had already highlighted the same scheme as one of its priorities.

Read more: 🔒 Member’s Only Ep1 – Witnessing SA’s ‘second transition’, a political watershed

To its credit the DA has been conscious of the time constraints (the vote for president took place just 12 days after the election results were formally announced, or 1/54th of the time it took Belgium to form a government in 2018-20) and the gravity of the moment. It drew a few reasonable red lines. For example it emphasised respect for property rights and central-bank independence, both of which the EFF wants to weaken. It stressed fiscal prudence and Operation Vulindlela but, notably, did not ask for anything more than the existing pledges of the outgoing ANC government.

In separate talks the ANC hammered out a deal with the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP). It is a Zulu nationalist party but one that believes in democracy and the constitution, unlike MK. Its involvement in the coalition is an important nod to the interests of Zulus, the country’s largest ethnic group. Velenkosini Fiki Hlabisa, the IFP’s leader, may get a prominent cabinet job. On June 12th he spoke of how the coalition could also heal wounds between his party and the ANC; the two fought an undeclared civil war in the early 1990s that killed thousands. For the ANC the presence of the IFP, and a few tiny parties, in the government is crucial as it makes the coalition seem less like just a tie-up between it and the DA, which some of its base sees as a “white party”.

The ANC, IFP and DA have also agreed to work together in the two largest provinces, Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal, after no party gained a majority in parallel regional elections. In KwaZulu-Natal, where mk won 45.4% of the vote, the coalition will have a wafer-thin majority: parties other than mk and eff have 41 of the 80 seats.

A lot remains to be worked out. A formal written agreement, including details of how decisions will be made (a key aspect for the DA, which must show its supporters it is not giving the ANC a blank cheque), is expected soon. Then Mr Ramaphosa will need to appoint a cabinet. He is expected to assign seats roughly in accordance with the vote shares of the constituent parties.

The government will then need to govern. South Africa could do with radical reforms to solve its entrenched problems. But simply having competent administrators would go some of the way. Expect the coalition to focus on the priorities of Operation Vulindlela, such as reforming Eskom, the state-run utility; unclogging ports; fixing water infrastructure; streamlining skilled visas; and attracting more mining investment.

There is much that could go wrong. There will be tensions within the administration. Moderates in the ANC share many of the same goals as liberals in the DA. But they come from different political cultures: the former sees itself as a movement, the latter more like a Western political party. And they will not see eye to eye on issues such as race-based policies. There is also the risk that the sheer dysfunction of the state will make it hard for even well-meaning ministers to get results.

Then there are the challenges from outside the government. MK and EFF will argue that—like 1994—this is a shady deal cooked up by black and white elites who are the puppets of big business. Julius Malema, the eff’s leader, said that he would work with MK to oppose the new government. He called the DA “zionists” and the “enemy”. Mr Zuma is showing himself to be a Zulu Mugabe, implying that his supporters will turn to violence unless “satisfied” with the election. In KwaZulu-Natal, the epicentre of mass unrest in 2021 encouraged by Mr Zuma’s henchmen, law enforcement will need to be vigilant. Even if things are peaceful, Mr Zuma will want to destabilise the fragile coalition that will run the province.

Mr Ramaphosa will have the hard task of keeping the support of the ANC. Some in the party blame him for its disappointing result in the elections. Without a majority he has fewer cabinet jobs to use as currency to buy loyalty. If his government’s policies threaten the interests of important constituencies, such as civil servants and trade unions, he will come under pressure. Since he is expected to step down as party leader at the next major ANC conference, probably in 2027, there will be senior figures who will be biding their time before trying to nudge him out of the presidency, too.

The DA will have to square its participation with its base. At present it can make a convincing case that keeping EFF and MK out of power is worth it. But as time passes, the salience of that threat will fade. If the DA does badly in its stronghold of Cape Town in local elections in 2026 then the party might have second thoughts.

Yet all these potential problems are for the future. Whatever happens next, the incoming government of national unity has already achieved something profoundly important: keeping Mr Zuma and the EFF away from power. This coalition may not be imbued with the optimism and idealism of the one Nelson Mandela ran with his former enemies from 1994 to 1997. But it is also impressive proof that there is a pragmatic and principled centre in South African politics. Thirty years after 1994, the Rainbow Nation has shown that it still has lessons in democracy for the rest of the world.


Democratic Alliance Statement: The DA becomes a party of national government

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