Government of national unity a ‘last resort’

Professor Siphamandla Zondi is the Director of the Institute for Pan African Thought and Conversation. Picture: Supplied

Professor Siphamandla Zondi is the Director of the Institute for Pan African Thought and Conversation. Picture: Supplied

Published Jun 19, 2024



The ANC has decided to pursue the option of the Government of National Unity (GNU) after failing to win a majority in the general elections held three weeks ago. It has justified this as ideal for fostering unity and collaboration

In the process, the ANC has projected itself as concerned more about national stability and progress than about its self-interest or its dominance of our political system. This is a political strategy of a party bruised by losing about 17% of its vote, thus losing its long-held dominance over the electoral democracy.

But the question is not just in the GNU idea attracted the ANC, but also what are its implications for our maturating system of competitive politics? Is this a necessary route or a convenient by-way?

GNUs are not needed in the normal transitions between governments in a democracy. They are a sort of patchwork used to rescue countries from crises, deep divisions or post-conflict situations. They help fragile countries or political systems avoid risks that come with competitive politics that produces winners and losers and generate tensions.

A GNU is not an ideal a country goes for or aspires to but it is a valley of lessons and adjustments troubled countries need to reach the stability necessary for a thriving competitive politics and economy. They ensure that the whole country wins and therefore rob winners of their actual victory and shield losers from the pain of losing, often for the greater good of society.

GNUs assist a lot in managing the mistrust that accompanies post-conflict transitions through power-sharing, thus giving even small parties a share of executive power. Therefore, they are a useful tool for building confidence among key political and economic actors in the transition.

GNUs are often suggested as a deadlock breaker during national conventions about transitions after crises. They assist in managing deep divisions and horse-trading associated with such conventions.

This is why GNUs are often fragile and short-lived. They are transitory and transitional in their nature and nurture. The South African one collapsed after only two years. However, this was not a major problem because it formed on the basis of a winning party accommodating a losing party with a significant constituency. So, when it collapsed, the government did not collapse but simply morphed into a majority-led government under the ANC.

What is being proposed presents challenges in several areas. The first is that while we have all been shocked by the extent of the decline in the ANC vote, we have not entered a crisis mode. Political parties including the ANC are negotiating ways of forming a coalition government and the talks seem to proceed smoothly.

In this process, the options of a coalition government left by the party with the largest vote share, the ANC, include ANC-EFF-IFP, ANC-DA, and ANC-EFF-MK. The ANC is able to also put together a grand coalition with many parties including, small parties. None of the negotiations exploring these options have failed from what we have heard.

There are also efforts to explore minority coalition governments such as those led by the DA and its multiparty charter partners minus the ActionSA that has withdrawn from the arrangement. This would push the ANC into the opposition joined by others. This would divide the political system along left-right lines, but enrich policy and political dialogue across the ideological line. It would firm up the place of ideology into our inter-party politics.

A GNU should be considered as the last resort

The ongoing talks better lead us organically in that route. If it all comes to GNU, it must be different from the usual patterns of national unity reduced to apportioning executive positions among the political elite. Rather, it must invite those constituencies that are outside party politics including civil society and business to contribute. A GNU that fosters both a social compact long promised in the National Development Plan and social cohesion practically would help to further the maturity of our social democracy.

Professor Siphamandla Zondi is the director of the Institute for Pan African Thought and Conversation.

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