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Can SA’s political centre hold in a government of national unity?

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Democratic Alliance leader John Steenhuisen congratulates Cyril Ramaphosa following his election as President of South Africa in Cape Town on Friday June 14, 2024. Ramaphosa was elected with the support of the DA as part of a Government of National Unity pact. Picture: GCIS

By Dr. Paul Kariuki

The 2024 national and provincial elections produced an unprecedented electoral outcome.

For the first time in South African political history, the ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), failed to obtain a decisive majority and had rely on the support of other parties to form a national government.

This electoral outcome has exposed the myriad concerns that the public has harboured for a long time over their democracy, which, in many ways, has not delivered to their expectations. As a result of the electoral results, with no outright winner, political parties were now expected to engage with each other and agree on the possibility of co-governing together as partners and forming a coalition pact, lately referred to as a government of national unity (GNU) as proposed by the ANC.

After intense negotiations from all political parties, South Africa has a new Government of National Unity, made up of the ruling party, ANC, the Democratic Alliance (DA), the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), and the Patriotic Alliance (PA). Together, the four political parties hold 67.9% of the national vote, or, as stated differently, 272 of the 400 seats in the National Assembly.

This formation is the most representative of South Africa in all of its diversity. The parties signed a Statement of Intent. The statement is a document spelling out the understanding of two or more parties intending to work together and bound by a legally binding agreement. Therefore, the four political parties commit to working in the interests of the people of South Africa and demonstrate the spirit of unity even in sharing leadership positions for Cabinet and parliamentary portfolio committees.

Arguably, this representation will remain strong to the extent that political parties adhere to their agreement and stick together to deliver on their mutually agreed-upon priorities. The priorities include promoting rapid economic growth, job creation, land reform, restructuring state-owned enterprises, reforming public service, infrastructural development, poverty alleviation, improving basic services provision, addressing spatial inequalities, food insecurity, stabilization of the local government, the participation of the traditional leadership in governance, fiscal sustainability, and macro-economic management.

This broad-based mandate is critical to ensuring that the aspirations of the electorate are captured in the national policies as an expression of respect accorded to their vote. This democratic culture must be celebrated by all South Africans and protected as a legacy for future generations. Moreover, this outcome aligns with the Constitution, which expects the elected political leadership to work together to build a united and democratic South Africa, whose government is based on the will of the people. This political reality captures the desire of the electorate expressed through their vote.

So, what are the implications?

Firstly, the elected political leadership must act immediately and prioritize setting up a Cabinet reflective of their negotiations and the parties’ share of votes. The establishment of this structure is critical, to begin with the work at hand of addressing the challenges facing the electorate. However, it will be important that the size of the cabinet is considered.

A leaner cabinet is likely to be effective in its work and easily manageable, tied to clear and trackable performance agreements.

Secondly, the elected leadership will be able to develop a policy agenda mutually agreed upon as per the Statement of Intent. South Africans are eagerly awaiting a compelling vision for the nation that the grand coalition will put forward seeking buy-in from all citizens including opposition parties.

Thirdly, the grand coalition parties must develop a mutually agreed and binding dispute resolution agreement that encourages and promotes consensus building and acknowledges that disagreements may arise occasionally. When they do, the disputes must be resolved by the GNU Council, an independent board representing all political parties in the coalition. All parties must sign the dispute resolution agreement and accept it as binding.

Fourth, there is an expectation that the Opposition political parties will hold the Executive accountable for its decisions and implementation of government programs once the Parliament has approved the budget.

What can citizens expect from this emerging political scene in the country? Firstly, the electorate can expect heightened accountability and transparency in government dealings. For instance, budgets and bills tabled before various committees and in Parliament will not be passed just like that without intense scrutiny by the members of the Parliament.

So, the emerging political arrangement will heighten accountability for the first time and promote good governance in the public sector. This aspect will strengthen the legitimacy of the National Assembly.

Secondly, the President will be held accountable directly by the GNU members, as the coalition arrangement demands that he suspend his political party agenda in favour of the GNU’s mutually agreed priorities. More importantly, the President will not be expected to be a lame duck or swayed in any direction by the coalition partners. He is expected to be firm, decisive, and consultative simultaneously, ensuring citizen interests are central to governance and policy formulation.

Thirdly, grand coalition partners are expected to be decisive in tackling every form of corruption in the public and private sectors. The grand coalition partners have a significant task of tackling corruption with fear even from their ranks. Fourth, another expectation from the citizenry lies in reforming the public service to de-link it from the ruling party. The opportunity of this grand coalition is to professionalize the civil service dedicated to delivering to the citizenry based on plausible policy propositions.

So, the question is, can the political centre hold?

The answer to this question lies partly in the work that political parties are willing to do to ensure that state institutions are strengthened and that their legitimacy and independence are safeguarded from political interference. This window of opportunity is about restructuring the political architecture of the country and political discourse about coalition governance.

Moreover, the stability of the incoming government largely depends on the political maturity of the political parties and their constituencies, placing the country’s interests first. On the part of the citizenry and civil society, now is an opportune time for robust, active citizenship, challenging the government on any issue that does not augur well regarding citizen expectations and demanding answers without fear.

Furthermore, civil society should proactively engage with the various national and provincial parliamentary committees to ensure they actively exercise their oversight responsibilities over the Executive and provincial governments. Additionally, the sector must play an essential role in advocating policies that capture the aspirations of the citizenry as expressed by their vote.

In conclusion, South Africa has now firmly entered a political phase in which collective decision-making will be central to co-governing the nation. While it is still in the early days, different governing processes are taking place at the national and provincial levels. Therefore, patience is required from all citizens and political parties. At the same time, GNU partners must figure out a marshal plan for addressing the challenges of the nation, a plausible strategic implementation plan, and how they will deliver on their promises of economic growth and prosperity for all South Africans. The electorate’s message is clear: they want results and expect nothing less of this ideal.

Dr. Paul Kariuki is the Executive Director of the Democracy Development Program (DDP). He writes in his personal capacity.

This article was written exclusively for The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.