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Many lessons to be learnt from the 2024 GNU negotiations

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From left, the IFP’s Velenkosini Hlabisa, ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa and DA leader John Steenhuisen are the biggest parties in the new Government of National Unity (GNU). It is just one form of a coalition, which in South Africa’s case has been established to allow many political parties represented in government to work together in the interests of the people, the writer says. Pictures from left: Timothy Bernard, Oupa Mokoena, Timothy Berndard / Independent Media

By Bheki Mngomezulu

The word “coalition” is an umbrella concept. It refers to a form of government which is established when two or more political parties agree to work together. The concept comes from the Latin word coalitus, which means “to grow together”. The assumption is that those parties that form part of a coalition are expected to pull in the same direction.

Depending on when such a coalition is formed, it can be referred to as a pre-election coalition if it is formed before an election, or a post-election coalition if it is formed after the election.

Within this context, a Government of National Unity (GNU) is just one form of a coalition. It is established in cases where many political parties that are represented in government agree to work together. This distinguishes it from a grand coalition which is formed by bigger parties or a minority coalition where smaller parties come together and constitute a government even if it means pushing the party with the most votes to the opposition benches.

Following the general election on May 29, for the first time, South Africa did not have any party which won with an outright majority. The ANC which has been the governing party since the 1994 political dispensation only managed to win 40 percent of the votes – which translated into 159 seats in the National Assembly. The DA and the Mkhonto Wesizwe Party (MKP) only managed 87 and 58 seats, respectively.

This left South Africa with a dilemma of either forming a Grand Coalition or a Minority Coalition.

When the ANC began coalition negotiations, it considered these options.

However, the immediate reaction was negative. The ANC convened an urgent national executive committee (NEC) meeting which lasted for hours to discuss this matter. Eventually, it made an announcement through its President Cyril Ramaphosa that it had decided to pursue the GNU route in the interest of the country.

There was nothing wrong with this decision as it would accommodate many of the 18 political parties that are represented in the National Assembly.

However, with no previous experience in coalition politics at the national level except in 1994 when a GNU was pre-planned and catered for in the Interim Constitution of 1993, forming a GNU this time was bound to be a daunting task.

Indeed, this has been the case.

It is with this background that the question arises: Which lessons must South Africa draw from the 2024 GNU formation experience?

I will highlight a few.

As a norm, coalition governments that have been sustainable in countries like Australia, Chile, Denmark, Germany, India, Netherlands and in many other countries globally were cogently thought through and carefully maintained.

The identification of coalition partners is the first important step. The party leading the coalition discussions must first decide if it wants to bring together only the bigger parties, only the like-minded parties, or parties that hold divergent views so that they can watch one another.

Depending on the decision that is taken at this first stage, the rest of the steps will take a particular direction. Also important at this stage is for the potential partners to agree on how the negotiations will be conducted. This blueprint is the one that should guide negotiating teams.

An agreement on the policy programme that GNU will follow is of utmost importance. It does not matter if the GNU political partners are from the right, left or centre. There should be a point of convergence on policy priorities. This should be informed by the desire to put the country first, not to prioritise the interests of individual political parties.

Linked to this point, all the parties planning to join the GNU must do so with good intentions. Issues such as greed for positions should not be a priority. How each party performed in the election should be considered.

In the same vein, parties that did not get many votes should still be considered when allocating positions. Importantly, the condition for joining a GNU should not be positions or a choice of certain positions. The latter would come naturally once political parties have agreed on issues of principle.

Other factors, which would potentially extend the life of a GNU, include mutual respect, trust, honesty, transparency and fairness.

Should any of these factors be absent, the life of such a GNU would inevitably be short-lived.

As Ramaphosa tried to put together a GNU, he was listening to different voices. This was a good thing.

However, to some, welcoming the DA to a GNU was an attempt to weaken it.

To others, it was a wise move so that DA members could bring a new skill set to the executive. The demands made by the DA frustrated both the ANC and the president thus delaying the appointment of the Cabinet.

Disagreements and demands made at the beginning of negotiations do not necessarily mean that the GNU is a stillborn child. Political maturity and leadership prowess are what would determine the fate of the GNU.

One thing all politicians must never lose sight of is that even in a GNU, Section 84(e) of the Constitution which gives the president the prerogative to appoint the Cabinet is not set aside. Therefore, negotiators cannot negotiate outside of the Constitution.

The delays in formalising the GNU and appointing the Cabinet should be a learning curve.

* Prof Bheki Mngomezulu is Director of the Centre for the Advancement of Non-Racialism and Democracy (CANRAD) at the Nelson Mandela University.

** The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of The African