Why South Africa’s ANC wants a national unity gov’t after election setback

A broad coalition like the one President Ramaphosa outlined on Thursday leaves the ANC less vulnerable to pressures from any one partner.

South African président Cyril Ramaphosa, center, meets with senior officials of his African National Congress party during the ANC's National Executive Committee Thursday, June 6, 2024 in Johannesburg, South Africa. The ANC lost its long-held majority in last week's vote but remained the biggest party. An ANC spokesperson said Wednesday that it was now leaning toward a government of national unity that would bring together many of the political parties in a broad agreement, rather than a direct coalition with the main opposition, the Democratic Alliance. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, centre, meets with senior officials of his African National Congress party on Thursday, June 6, 2024 in Johannesburg, South Africa [Jerome Delay/AP Photo]

Johannesburg, South Africa — Reeling from its worst electoral performance in 30 years, South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) on Thursday said it would seek to stitch together a “Government of National Unity” to administer the nation.

After days of internal debate within the party, President Cyril Ramaphosa told a meeting of the ANC’s top leadership structure, the national executive committee (NEC), late on Thursday, that South Africa was at a moment of “fundamental consequence” and that the country required extraordinary leadership. In last week’s elections, the ANC lost its majority in South Africa’s parliament for the first time since the end of apartheid.

“We therefore agreed to invite political parties to form a Government of National Unity as the best option to move our country forward,” Ramaphosa said.

In effect, that means that the ANC – instead of entering into a direct coalition agreement with its main rival parties, the market-friendly and right-leaning Democratic Alliance (DA) or the far-left Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) – will seek a broad multiparty alliance.

And while Ramaphosa framed that decision as one taken in the national interest, analysts said the move also bears the hallmarks of political savvy, with the ANC’s own interests front and centre. A broad, multiparty coalition reduces the ANC’s dependence on any individual political rival.

Lessons from the past

South Africa was governed through a Government of National Unity between 1994 and 1997 when former President Nelson Mandela appointed former apartheid Prime Minister FW de Klerk as his deputy and appointed cabinet ministers from the National Party and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), the ANC’s rivals at the time.

Three decades later, the ANC, bruised by the May 29 election results, now needs to negotiate an agreement with other parties before a June 18 constitutional deadline to elect the country’s next president. The ANC’s vote share dropped from 57 percent in 2019 – already the lowest until then – to 40 percent in last week’s election. It also lost its majority in the key provinces of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.

Since then, party leaders have been locked in talks about the most viable options for government formation while some members of their youth organisations protested outside the NEC meeting against a deal with the DA.

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(Al Jazeera)

Many ANC members have long described the DA as “anti-transformation”, labelling its market-leaning policies as “anti-poor”. The ANC has fashioned itself as a centrist party that is pro-poor.

Maxine Rubin, research fellow at the Hamburg-based GIGA Institute of African Affairs, said Ramaphosa’s dilemma lies in finding coalition partners that “would not weaken his own position in the ANC while avoiding major compromises of the ANC’s policy positions”.

Forming exclusive coalition agreements with either the DA, EFF or the new uMkhonto we Sizwe Party (MK Party) led by former President Jacob Zuma could have compromised those aims and led to internal ructions. The MK Party has openly said it will only work with the ANC if Ramaphosa is removed.

A grand coalition, by contrast, would keep South Africa’s second largest party, the DA, in the tent, while also engaging smaller parties, eliminating too much dependence on any one coalition partner.

“It will send a good signal to business internationally and domestically,” said Rubin. The DA, in particular, is seen as pro-business.

The DA gained 21 percent of the vote, while the MK Party secured 14 percent and the EFF, 9 percent.

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(Al Jazeera)

Challenges ahead

But it’s not just about Ramaphosa’s political survival or international investors. Political analyst Ongama Mtimka said that should the ANC form an alliance solely with either the DA on the right or the EFF and MK Party on the left, there would be serious consequences for the internal balance of power in the ANC. That, he said, would in turn have implications for how the market perceives the South African government.

He said a move by the ANC to make a deal with the DA could cause an “internal rebellion”.

“[It would be seen as] going right goes against the liberation movement’s myths and traditions,” he said.

While the details of what this broad government of unity would look like are yet to be explained, Ramaphosa said the new administration “will take into account the conditions prevailing at this point in our country’s history”.

The new South African government faces enormous domestic challenges, which are stimulating economic growth, job creation and confronting structural inequality.

According to the World Bank, South Africa is the most unequal society in the world, with a few wealthy individuals on one side and widespread poverty on the other. It also has the world’s highest unemployment rate, at 33 percent, and a youth unemployment rate of 45 percent. Homes and businesses face frequent rolling blackouts, while the country also battles systemic corruption.

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(Al Jazeera)

Ramaphosa argued that a national unity government would focus on building an inclusive economy, creating jobs, ending crime and corruption, and improving service delivery.

Yet, getting that grand coalition together by June 18 will not be easy. The ANC will need to trade positions in the executive and parliament in exchange for support from opposition parties. It will also likely need to commit to reforms, such as taking a harder line against party leaders who have been implicated in corruption and state capture.

The DA has been open to talks with the ANC but has ruled out an agreement with the EFF.

The EFF has signalled its willingness to co-govern with the ANC but has demanded the deputy presidency position in exchange for their support. The MK Party has said it won’t join an ANC-led coalition if Ramaphosa heads it. The MK also campaigned on a platform that included a rewriting of the constitution – something that the ANC has opposed.

Ramaphosa said social cohesion was urgent following a “particularly toxic and divisive” election campaign. As ANC negotiators meet with other political groups, the party has insisted that constitutionalism was a non-negotiable principle for any deal.

“In establishing a GNU, we are building on a very rich history of cooperation across divides and ideologies,” he said. “We are drawing on an experience South Africans are familiar with, and that served the country well.” Now, that experience is about to be tested again.

Source: Al Jazeera