WSM: Can the GNU survive its predators?

William Saunderson-Meyer on what the birth pains of the new govt says about its prospects. This article was first published by PoliticsWeb and is republished with permission.

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By William Saunderson-Meyer

Phew! The GNU was almost stillborn. 

After a scary fortnight-long labour and a string of birth complications, the rickety-legged calf has at last, to everyone’s great relief, popped into existence. But don’t overindulge in paternal pride. It’s an unprepossessing creature and the predators are multifold and already circling. 

If the Government of National Unity (GNU) is to avoid the routine fate of the real gnu — otherwise known as the wildebeest — it will have to hit the ground running to avoid a life that’s nasty, brutish and short. After all, on the veld, this ugly, awkward creature is a favourite snack pack of the carnivores.

There are obvious and generally unflattering similarities between the political GNU and the real gnu. African folklore has it that the wildebeest was created out of the leftover bits of other animals: warthog head, buffalo neck, zebra stripes, giraffe tail, and cruelly, the brain of a flea.

The GNU, too, is a pick-and-stick creature, an uneasy combination of ill-fitting parts. There are the humiliated, angry socialists of the African National Congress, the smug free-marketeers of the Democratic Alliance, the traditionalists of the Inkatha Freedom Party, and the populists of the Patriotic Front. Finally, bringing up at the rear, there’s a mix of opportunistic little parties that, unlike a wildebeest’s tail, lack even the useful function of keeping the flies at bay. 

The only two parties that matter are the ANC and DA. The others are there merely to try to soften for hardline ANC voters the embarrassing reality that it is not in a national unity government, but a coalition with the party that the ANC leadership has for 30 years successfully demonised to those very same voters.

The best deals in terms of longevity are the ones that leave both parties feeling that they’ve won. The GNU is decidedly not in this category, at least not for the DA. 

The DA got only six of the eight ministries that it was theoretically entitled to in terms of its 22% share of the vote. To add insult to injury, the party also lost an important one it coveted, that of Trade & Industry. President Cyril Ramaphosa initially agreed to this but peremptorily withdrew the offer under pressure from his party. 

Nevertheless, the DA will head some big ministries where it has the skills to make a difference. However, to do so, it will have to overcome the resistance of the ANC apparatchiks deployed as directors-general, as well as the party cadres who populate virtually the entire executive echelon of the public service. 

Home Affairs and Basic Education are both critical but desperately underperforming departments that touch every family’s life. Big kudos and potential votes if the DA can turn these around. Again, the likelihood of stonewalling and sabotage, as well as — especially with the SA Democratic Teachers Union — militant resistance, is high. 

Public Works & Infrastructure, as well as Communications & Digital Technologies, are theoretically also important departments. The challenge will be to the Stygian gloom of dubiously awarded tenders and shambolic management. Turning them around will be a slow process and, as the ANC resistniks in these departments well know, the DA doesn’t have time on its side.

Agriculture could have been important but DA leader John Steenhuisen will be heading a ministry stripped of its political tendons, land restitution. This is now part of a new department, Land Affairs & Rural Development, which will be headed by the Pan Africanist Congress leader Mzwanele Nyhontso. 

The PAC, which got all of 37,000 votes — equivalent to 0.23% of the vote or approximately one-hundredth of the DA share of the vote — is a radical black nationalist party that believes that all South Africa’s problems stem from “the original sin of the whites taking our land violently”. Its leader told the Cape Times this week that it was the GNU’s responsibility to ensure that the “land is returned”. 

The wooden spoon of the DA’s half-dozen ministries is Forestry, Fisheries & Environment. It’s the country dweller’s equivalent of Sport, Arts & Culture which Ramaphosa mischievously gave to former gangster and jailbird, Gayton McKenzie of the Patriotic Alliance.

The DA has done a lot better with its half-dozen deputy-ministerial posts. They are in critical portfolios: Finance, Higher Education, Trade, Industry & Competition, Water & Sanitation, Electricity & Energy, and Small Business Development. Unfortunately, except in Electricity & Energy and Small Business Development, Ramaphosa has matched every DA deputy minister with an ANC one standing at their shoulder. 

Unless the ANC hyena has suddenly morphed into a puppy dog, one can assume that those ANC deputy ministers are not there to be helpful. They’re there to prevent their new DA colleagues from rocking the boat.

Perhaps more important than the portfolios they have, are the ones from which they are completely excluded. They have no say in International Affairs, Defence, Police, Justice, or Employment & Labour.

In response to its liberal critics who believe it undersold itself in the GNU, the DA keeps reiterating that its primary goal was to avoid, “for the sake of South Africa”, what it calls a “Doomsday coalition” between the ANC and Jacob Zuma’s uMKhonto weSizwe and/or Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters. The party’s next priority, as important surely, is to ensure that its participation in the GNU is effective.

Unfortunately, the cards are stacked against it. The GNU has been set up to negate the DA’s influence and undermine its performance at every turn.

For the privilege of its tentative role in the GNU, the party, of course, has had to surrender its position as the Official Opposition. That’s a tragedy. Over three decades, the DA has perfected the art of leveraging its limited powers to maximum effect.

DA Shadow Ministers generally did an excellent job in monitoring their ANC counterparts, quick to assess and respond to every government action or inaction. Similarly, in the parliamentary portfolio committees, the DA members nit-picked every bit of legislation, their scrutiny alerting the media and civil society to the often less obvious problematic implications of the many poorly drafted Bills the ANC churned out. Then, when it failed to get changes made within the lawmaking process, it took to the courts, relentlessly pounding the government with clever, and mostly very successful lawsuits, to force constitutional compliance.

None of that will happen anymore. Zuma’s MK, headed in Parliament by an impeached judge, will now have the job of Official Opposition. Lucky South Africa.

In contrast to the DA, the ANC should be cock-a-hoop with the GNU, surviving in power to fight another day at minimal cost. With 40% of the vote, it got 66% of the Cabinet positions. The ANC retained the key posts of President, Deputy President, Speaker of Parliament, and Chairperson of the National Council of Provinces, with DA support, before the deal was even signed.

The survival of Deputy President Paul Mashatile, tainted as he is with corruption allegations, is significant. Given how close he is to the EFF, and by extension to MK, this is a placatory bone to ANC leftists who had hoped to do the deal with these toxic ANC offshoots.

Similarly, Ramaphosa has signalled to the party’s corrupt elite that while the spigots of corruption and patronage may be turned down, they’re not being closed. Ramaphosa’s “campaign” against corruption and patronage continues at a tortoise pace. 

Blade Nzimande, implicated in alleged financial shenanigans with student funding, loses the National Education part of his previous portfolio but retains the Science & Technology part — a clear sop the SA Communist Party of which he is the national chair. So, too, the tainted Gwede Mantashe, who will continue to destroy the labour-soaking mining and energy sectors in heading a ministry notorious for its corruption.

The next weeks and months are going to be exciting. The GNU will be tested soon and hard. It will struggle to survive unless it can quickly start delivering the economic and employment benefits that more pragmatic policies and efficient government can potentially unlock.

National Geographic’s Peter Gwin, writing a few years back about the wildebeest’s annual migration through the Serengeti — during which about 250,000 of them perish — makes the point that one shouldn’t be misled by the gnu’s ridiculous looks, simpleminded manner, and often suicidal behaviour. 

“One measure of evolutionary success is population,” he notes. “In this sense, the wildebeest, at upwards of 1.3 million, is by far the most triumphant large mammal in the Serengeti.”

Similarly, against the odds, maybe our political GNU can survive, despite the ANC’s obvious bad faith. Personally, I’m not betting the farm on it, though. Neither should the DA. Nor South Africa.

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