Ten pitfalls that SA’s GNU needs to avoid: Flip Buys

The recent election results underscore widespread consensus that the ANC can no longer be trusted with unilateral power and must engage in power-sharing. This pivotal shift follows three decades of ANC dominance and a particularly disappointing last 15 years. Effective coalition governments require ideological compatibility, cooperation, and trust among leaders. However, challenges remain, particularly in South Africa’s unique political landscape, making the success of such coalitions uncertain yet necessary for the country’s recovery. This article was first published by Politics Web.

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By Flip Buys

The election results are a reflection of broad unanimity that the ANC is not trusted with power of government on its own, and that there needs to be power-sharing with other parties. It is symbolic and significant that this shift in power has taken place after three decades of ANC rule, and stems from the poor outcome of the last 15 years.

The ANC refers to a government of national unity (GNU) rather than to a coalition government because this makes the party less vulnerable to attacks from the EFF and MK. Tough negotiations about a coalition raise the question of what the ideal coalition looks like, and what the pitfalls are of a coalition government in South African conditions.

International studies on coalition governments show that viable and sustainable coalitions usually comply with five conditions:

Reasonable ideological compatibility between participating parties;

Sound cooperation and trust between political leaders;

The party leaders have the power to implement the policies associated with their portfolios;

Leadership styles that are unifying rather than divisive or adversarial like the classic British model; and

Small coalitions that work better because they are more stable, although larger coalitions are formed in crises.

The fact that these conditions are not all present in South Africa automatically makes one feel “cautiously pessimistic” about a coalition government’s chances of success. However, there are decisive factors that will determine the success or failure of a coalition government, namely whether the ANC as the largest party and current ruler realises that it cannot govern the country successfully on its own; that power-sharing is needed; and that drastic policy changes will have to be made to get the country back on track.

Time will tell whether the ANC would be prepared to cede real power to its new partners; whether it would be prepared to make policy adjustments and whether it would allow managerial and staff appointments able to implement this policy successfully.


There are certain pitfalls that will have to be avoided if the coalition, or the GNU, is to be successful and can get the country back on the road to success.

Power: The first pitfall is that the DA and other parties may perhaps get important positions but will have no power to perform their duties. Mr FW de Klerk was a deputy president in the previous GNU but he and his NNP cabinet colleagues did not have the required powers. No wonder this GNU only lasted two years.

Policy: The second pitfall is that the DA would have to be empowered to determine and implement policy. For example, a DA Minister of Transport cannot be successful if he or she simply has to implement the ANC’s wrong policy in the “right” way. If, for example, the private sector cannot be involved in helping to achieve a turnaround of the railways and ports, the decay of the country’s logistics system will simply continue.

Management: The DA and other coalition partners will have to be given the powers to appoint and manage their own heads of department, boards and staff. It is not possible to achieve the right outcomes with the wrong people. For example, officials who are opposed to bringing the private sector on board, can derail the entire process.

Conditions: The coalition partners will have to set the conditions for their participation in the GNU, and the ANC will have to be prepared to accept those conditions. The most important conditions deal with matters that could make or break the country. Examples of such matters are the National Health Insurance system, BELA legislation, expropriation without compensation and the multitude of racial laws that are irreconcilable with a constitutional democracy, a functioning state and a growing economy. Along with these they will have to make demands about corruption and reform of the National Prosecuting Authority and the criminal justice system.

Leadership: The President will have to show leadership to drive all these important reforms through, and to communicate these in such a way to his supporters that he will be able to take the large majority with him on this new journey.

National unity: To a large extent, the ANC has already alienated important sectors in society such as business, cultural communities, the health sector and important foreign trade partners. The ANC will have to repair these breaches of trust because the ANC needs these groups that weigh more than they count to achieve success.

National dialogue: The ANC has hyped up the importance of a major national dialogue to find solutions to the country’s many crises. However, such a dialogue will not bring solutions or unity if the ANC or the government organises it on its own, dominates it with a particular ideological agenda, or uses it as a platform to try to regain lost support.

If the dialogue ends up by delivering more of the same instead of yielding a meaningful agreement with role players from inside and outside Parliament, the entire exercise would be just another lost opportunity.

Retention of support: The challenge of participating parties will be to retain their support among their voters if the ANC continues to cling to its unworkable ideas, and the voters of partners such as the DA begin to blame their leadership for the fact that their votes against the ANC are now being used to keep the ANC in power. Mr Tony Leon’s DP destroyed the once powerful NNP when they (the latter) were part of the ANC dominated GNU after 1994, and were blamed for their collaboration with the ANC.

There are indeed important differences between 1994 and 2024, the most important of which is the ANC’s loss of majority support. The coalition partners’ success will be measured by the extent to which they can succeed to water down the ANC’s most harmful policies, and whether they can achieve practical progress to stop the current slide towards state decay. Smaller participants in a coalition are often blamed for what goes wrong without getting the recognition for what goes right.

Opposition: The danger exists that a vociferous MK/EFF leftist opposition in parliament without a moderate opposition on the other side could erode and undermine the GNU’s support. This would especially be the case if the DA and other moderate parties do not achieve success and the ANC clings to obsolete policies for fear that it might lose more support to the left or split even further. The important role of a competent opposition cannot be underplayed, and the question is who would be able to fulfil this role effectively.

Cultural accord: A large group of leaders and community organisations in the Afrikaner world recently drafted a comprehensive declaration. In terms of the declaration, they offer to help solve the crises in the country if a cultural accord is concluded that creates the space for them to continue to exist safely as a cultural community.

It is important for the country’s future that a highly educated and enterprising group of people that have been excluded on many levels since 1994 are again involved as equal partners in the reconstruction of the country. It may even be necessary that a veto arrangement be built in to prevent policies that threaten the fundamental interests of groups, for example Afrikaans schools.

The coalition road to the future is riddled by pitfalls. The trick is going to be to use the short-term window of opportunity to open long-term doors to success. Political fluidity is always short-lived and one must strike while the iron is hot. When the GNU is going through difficult times participants may well heed Winston Churchill’s words when he said there is only one thing worse than fighting with allies, and that is fighting without them.

No one can “save” the country on his own. For this reason, it is necessary for the ANC to realise that it would have to relinquish its sole power and would have to share it with parties and civil institutions in order to pull the country from the brink of the abyss to higher ground. If the opposition parties in the GNU judge that they cannot effect any substantial change, they will have to leave it after a reasonable time to avoid giving a semblance of credibility to an unreformable government.

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This article was first published by Politics Web and is republished with permission