‘Both Parties Have A Lot To Prove’: South Africa’s Unity Government And Challenges Of The New Political Reality

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: African National Congress (ANC) President Cyril Ramaphosa (Photo by Per-Anders Pettersson/Getty Images) and Democratic Alliance (DA) leader John Steenhuisen (Photo by Per-Anders Pettersson/Getty Images)

South Africa is entering a new political era with the formation of a Government of National Unity (GNU) between the previously ruling African National Congress (ANC) and the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA). This historic coalition, finalized amidst last-minute negotiations, represents a significant compromise from both sides and aims to stabilize governance at both national and provincial levels.

The GNU comes after the ANC, which secured 40.18% of the national vote, lost its parliamentary majority for the first time since the end of apartheid. The DA, with 21.81% of the vote, has agreed to support President Cyril Ramaphosa’s leadership, marking a shift towards a more collaborative governance model.

The formation of the GNU required substantial compromises from both major parties. The ANC initially proposed a “confidence and supply agreement”, which the DA rejected, insisting on what they proposed as a genuine power-sharing arrangement. This insistence led to the inclusion of the phrase “broadly proportional” in the final agreement, ensuring fair representation of both parties in the Cabinet.

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ANC Secretary-General Fikile Mbalula emphasized the necessity of the GNU, stating, “This is a remarkable step towards uniting our country and addressing the challenges we face.” DA leader John Steenhuisen, speaking at the signing of the agreement, highlighted the importance of this collaboration, saying, “Today marks the beginning of a new era where we put our differences aside for the betterment of all South Africans.”

In an interview with FORBES AFRICA, Gustavo de Carvalho, a Senior Researcher on African Governance and Diplomacy at the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA), notes that managing these differences will be crucial. “The ability of these parties to make difficult decisions together and manage the country without always threatening the coalition is essential,” he says. “Conflict management tools and mechanisms will be put to the test.”

In with the Old, Despite the Rise of the New

At the national level, this coalition is expected to bring stability, with President Ramaphosa likely to remain in office. The GNU will also impact provincial governance, especially in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), Gauteng, and the Northern Cape provinces, where no party holds a clear majority. The DA’s participation in the GNU is seen as a strategic move to influence policy and governance, potentially stabilizing these regions.

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This election also saw the emergence of new political players like Rise Mzansi and ActionSA, which made significant inroads but were overshadowed by the uMkhonto weSizwe Party (MK), led by South Africa’s former President Jacob Zuma. The MK Party quickly became a formidable force, particularly in KZN, where it secured 45.35% of the vote, making it the largest party in the province.

Zuma’s influence has been pivotal in the MK Party’s rise. His called for delaying the election results announcement, citing alleged irregularities, underscored the tension and uncertainty surrounding this election. Zuma stated in a press conference, “No one should declare the results until all concerns are addressed. This is about ensuring fairness and transparency.”

Coalition Challenges

The GNU, while a groundbreaking move, is essentially a coalition, which has had mixed success at the metro level. Previous coalitions in cities like Johannesburg and Nelson Mandela Bay have faced numerous challenges, including instability and frequent changes in leadership. The effectiveness of the GNU will depend on its ability to navigate these challenges and maintain cohesive governance.

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De Carvalho highlighted the ideological differences between the ANC and DA as potential flashpoints. “There are often spaces where the ANC and DA have been at odds, whether in terms of foreign policy, land reform, or the National Health Insurance. These could become clashing points that affect coalition stability,” he explains.

The DA’s insistence on genuine power-sharing rather than a “confidence and supply agreement” reflects its determination to avoid being marginalized in the coalition. This stance was evident during the negotiations when the DA demanded the inclusion of “broadly proportional” representation in the Cabinet. The DA’s participation in the GNU is expected to influence provincial governance, potentially leading to more efficient service delivery and better management of resources.

Stability

The success of this coalition government will be closely watched, as it has the potential to set a precedent for future governance models in South Africa. Ramaphosa, in a recent address, acknowledged the importance of this moment, saying, “We have a unique opportunity to demonstrate that our democracy is strong and capable of adapting to new political realities.”

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De Carvalho pointed out the importance of this administration for both parties. “This administration is incredibly important for the ANC to show they can maintain their goals and objectives and for the DA to prove they can appeal beyond their traditional voters,” he says.

The formation of the GNU marks a significant step towards a more inclusive and collaborative political landscape in South Africa. While challenges remain, the commitment of both the ANC and the DA to this new model of governance holds promise for addressing the nation’s pressing issues and ensuring stability in the years to come.

Provincial Stability

The impact of the GNU will be felt strongly at the provincial level. In provinces like Gauteng and the Northern Cape, where no party holds a clear majority, the coalition government could bring much-needed stability. The DA’s participation is expected to influence provincial governance, potentially leading to more efficient service delivery and better management of resources.

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The MK’s Rise

The rise of the uMkhonto weSizwe Party (MK) has been one of the most significant developments in this election. Led by former President Jacob Zuma, the MK Party has quickly established itself as a major political force, particularly in KwaZulu-Natal. The party’s success is largely attributed to Zuma’s influence and his ability to mobilize support among his loyal base.

Zuma’s contentious statements during the election, including threats to challenge the results, have added to the political tension. However, the MK Party’s significant share of the vote indicates a shift in the political landscape, with voters seeking alternatives to the traditional powerhouses.

Coalition Challenges

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While the GNU is a promising step towards inclusive governance, it is not without challenges. Coalition governments at the metro level have faced numerous issues, including instability and frequent leadership changes. The effectiveness of the GNU will depend on the ability of the ANC and DA to navigate these challenges and work towards common goals.

The framework agreement includes mechanisms for dispute resolution and consensus-building, which will be crucial in maintaining stability. Ramaphosa, in his address, emphasized the importance of these mechanisms, stating, “We must work together to ensure that our government remains stable and responsive to the needs of our people.”

De Carvalho also highlighted the importance of perceptions and public opinion. “The decay in terms of votes for the ANC and the limited growth for the DA shows pressure from the public for changes in governance,” he says. “Both parties have a lot to prove in this new administration.”

The formation of the Government of National Unity marks a new chapter in South Africa’s political history. While it brings hope for a more inclusive and collaborative governance model, it also presents significant challenges. The commitment of both the ANC and the DA to this new model will be tested in the coming months, as they work to address the nation’s pressing issues and ensure stability in governance.