🔒 RW Johnson: SA’s true GNU may soon arrive 30 years late, better than never

In a candid reflection spanning decades of South African governance, the sobering reality behind the promise of “National Unity” is unveiled. Recounting the pitfalls of ANC leadership, RW Johnson unveils a nation adrift, marred by inefficiency, corruption, and ideological fervour. Yet, amidst crisis, glimmers of hope emerge as the Presidency tentatively reaches out to business and civil society, hinting at the long-overdue possibility of a new Government of National Unity.

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By R.W. Johnson ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Not long after the 1994 election I spoke to a friend who was an ANC MP. He said, “Look, there’s a basic problem about the so-called National Unity government” – which included both NP and IFP ministers. He said, “There’s not the slightest doubt that the ANC needs an awful lot of help in understanding how to govern a large, complex and difficult country like South Africa. Some of my colleagues are the salt of the earth but they have absolutely no experience of government and they don’t know that they don’t know. Their heads are full of paranoia and ideological slogans. They’re in absolutely no state to conduct the sober and detailed business of governance. They need mentoring in this for years to come.”

I asked if that would happen. “Not a chance”, he said. “The one thing that is certain is that they will avoid the reality of any sort of co-operation with the NP or IFP ministers who’ve had actual experience of government. They’ll pre-caucus before every cabinet meeting to make sure that the ANC line prevails on everything. There will be no sharing, no compromises. They’ll dodge and weave and say whatever is necessary to avoid it. They’ll go over it or under it or around it, but they will absolutely never allow any non-ANC voice to be heard.” I asked him about the title of the ANC’s 1994 manifesto – “Ready to Govern”.  “That is really a joke”, he said, “but I just wish it was funny.”

After that conversation I was hardly surprised when De Klerk and the National Party abandoned the GNU in 1996. It had been a charade. In the years that followed it was possible every now and again to glimpse an ANC minister who had really mastered his portfolio – Trevor Manuel was the outstanding case – but they were very, very few and far between. When Stella Sigcau died journalists poured over her record, trying to understand what exactly she had done as a minister. They could find nothing. There were many other such cases. Many ministers spent their time on foreign visits, party meetings, conferences, receptions and other non-performative occasions. After a year or two Van Zyl Slabbert observed to me that as far as he could see most ANC ministers thought the country flew entirely on autopilot. After all, it had sailed along perfectly well during all those years that they had been in exile, so why wouldn’t it just keep sailing along now ? Meanwhile the ANC rapidly got rid of all the established civil servants who knew the workings of government and replaced them with people who knew nothing. There was a wholesale loss of institutional memory. 

We know the results of all this. And, of course, it was the same story at provincial and municipal level. I remember running into Stan Trapido, an Oxford colleague and an old South African leftie, in 1999. He had come out on a visit wondering whether things were being inflected left or right but was shocked by what he saw: “It’s just a complete and utter mess”, he said. The business community tried to help, drew up an economic development plan and offered to release hundreds of expert managers to the government to use in any way they wished. Thabo Mbeki felt insulted by this offer and, absurdly, ignored it. 

 Of course many of the whites who offered to help were somewhat insensitive. And if one saw, for example, the blithe, even naive self-confidence of the Natal business community as it had supported the KwaZulu-Natal Indaba in the 1980s, with its optimistic vision of multi-racial governance, one realised that they often failed to understand the complicated social and psychological pitfalls they faced. But their basic strength was very simple. As anyone who had lived and worked in KwaZulu-Natal knew, any company, institution or agency which was going to work well there had to harness the best efforts of white, Indian, Zulu and Coloured people. If you could get them all pulling on the same rope, you could achieve lift-off. If not, not. Among South Africa’s provinces Natal had always had the highest black: white ratio demographically and that truth had been borne in on people there perhaps earlier than anywhere else.

Since then the years have gone by and South Africa has evolved to its present crisis. There is no need to describe this in detail. Suffice it to say that after thirty years of ANC governance the country is on its knees with power cuts and water cut-offs paralysing the cities, the infrastructure everywhere in decay, crime and corruption out of control and the visible failure of the state in every sphere.  

In the last few years, however, there have been signs that the Presidency has begun to appreciate the seriousness of the crisis. In October 2020 Ramaphosa set up Operation Vulindlela to fast-track economic reforms. This followed the resuscitation of a Policy Advisory Unit in the Presidency. Put bluntly the situation is that many of the line ministries are completely inert. Their ministers aren’t competent, their civil servants lack capacity and there is often corruption. We have, for example, a Ministry of Mineral Resources which has failed to approve a single mining application in a whole year, and which has failed year after year to maintain a proper cadastral system. In effect it is a ministry where initiatives go to die. But there are quite a few ministries like that.

In effect the Presidency has realised that to all intents and purposes a good deal of the government “machine” simply doesn’t work. So the Presidency is taking initiatives of its own. To make progress on these projects Ramaphosa has had to work mainly with business. The result is that there is now continuous and high-level contact between the presidency and the business community and the results have been quite promising. 

A further step was taken last week by Deputy President Paul Mashatile who has been placed in charge of the growing and already nation-wide emergency over water supplies.  For it is clear to one and all that if reliable supplies of clean water cannot be made available to South Africa’s towns and cities the country will face utter collapse plus probable health emergencies. The government has been fiddling around with the broken electricity supply for seventeen years now but the water situation will have to be dealt with far more rapidly and decisively. Mashatile has a record of working with the EFF but he surprised many by announcing that both Solidarity and Afriforum would be partners in the government’s efforts over water. These are, indeed, formidable and capable organisations, but traditionally ANC ministers have regarded them as reactionary Afrikaner bodies which are politically beyond the pale. Clearly that taboo no longer holds.

Finally, we now have an election which seems bound to produce a hung Parliament with a consequent necessity for a new governing coalition. There are clear signs in various parts of the political spectrum and the business community that many hope and expect that the result will be a new government of national unity (GNU), consisting of the rump ANC and the DA or, perhaps, the wider Multi-Party Charter grouping. Indeed, the financial markets seem so sure of this that the Rand has been stable and even slightly strengthened in recent weeks. Certainly there is widespread horror at the thought of an ANC-EFF coalition and there seems no doubt that such a development would trigger capital flight, a collapse of the Rand and the large-scale loss of key skills. The Rand’s behaviour suggests, however, that the markets are disregarding that possibility.

It will be seen that if indeed a new GNU emerges after the election this will have occurred as a result of a growing detente between the Presidency and the leaders of business and civil society organisations. In effect the African executive, faced by the growing evidence that ANC rule has reduced the country to chaos, will thus grasp at the helping hand of the business community and the racial minorities. So the GNU which should have happened in 1994 will then happen a generation later because the much-chastened ANC has realised at last that it cannot govern alone. 

Such a GNU would be full of problems. For a start it would be bitterly opposed by Cosatu and the SACP who would realise that it would mean that they would lose much of their leverage with government. In addition, and whether or not the GNU formally said so, it would mean the abandonment of the National Democratic Revolution. It might, too, also imply a sharp cutting back of BEE and various corrupt practices. Many ANC pressure groups would feel threatened. But the DA would also be extremely wary, knowing only too well that coalition minority partners are quite frequently the fall-guys at the next election. In addition, the DA leadership is weak, only a small number of DA figures in the Western Cape have had any relevant government experience, and any DA or MPC ministers would find themselves presiding over ministries full of ANC-aligned civil servants, quite a few of whom might be involved in corrupt rackets of one kind or another. 

Against that such a government would have to announce that its aims were practical, not ideological: that they wanted to sort out at speed the crises over water, electricity, the railways and ports and simply get the country working again. There is no doubt that such objectives would command wide public support. But of course both the EFF and MKP would assail such a government, accusing it of being a sell-out to white monopoly capital. Both these two populist parties would be bound to denounce the de facto recognition that a majority African government had failed, for they would immediately understand that, if the GNU worked, their own path to power would be permanently blocked. 

Which in turn, of course, would be why the GNU could not afford to fail, for such a failure would abandon the stage to radical African populists who would rapidly capsize both the economy and public order.  Ironically, it was much the same in 1994: the idea was that the elites had to agree a Constitution and set up a GNU in order to stop the wild men on either side from calling the shots.

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