Forming a unity government in South Africa: a herculean task

Talks to form a post-election unity government in South Africa will need to bring together parties with such conflicting goals as taking over white-owned farms and mines, abandoning black empowerment policies and tearing down the constitution.

How well the African National Congress (ANC) harmonizes these divergent and mutually hostile visions will determine the government’s stability, decision-making capacity and policy priorities for the next five years. It will also be a test of Nelson Mandela’s 1994 aspiration to create a “rainbow nation at peace with each other” as politicians try to overcome historic ethnic and racial hostilities that were clearly exposed in the May 29 elections.

“It’s polarized politics on steroids,” said Piers Pigou, head of the South Africa program at the Institute for Security Studies. “It suggests that we are entering a really chaotic and fluid period.” The ANC – which ruled unopposed for 30 years before losing its majority for the first time, winning just 40% of the vote last month – is rushing to agree with its rivals on a unity government that will keep it in power. He has time to do this until the first session of parliament on Friday, and there are several options regarding its structure. Last week, President Cyril Ramaphosa said his party would prefer a national unity government with a large number of parties rather than a formal coalition of one or two. However, within two weeks of the poll, the parties, far from finding common ground, hardened their positions and exchanged insults.

Last week, ANC president Gwede Mantashe attributed the success of former leader Jacob Zuma’s uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) party – which came third – to “Zulu tribalism”, prompting a backlash from Zulus and an MP who called his remark “dangerous and offensive”. ” Meanwhile, Zuma accused observers of widespread fraud and declared all other parties free and fair.

‘PARTY REBELLION’ Mandela was the last leader to form a government of national unity in 1994. Unlike Ramaphosa, the former liberation hero did so not out of political necessity, but to assure a nation divided by apartheid that no group would ever again be marginalized.

Last month’s elections revealed that South Africa is no less ethnically and racially divided than it was three decades ago. “The parties that did well in this election… ran a campaign based on a very narrow nationalist identity politics,” said Oscar van Heerden, an ANC specialist, author and senior research fellow at the University of Johannesburg.

The poll halted progress toward a “united, non-racial society,” he said. Speaking to Reuters, MK spokesman Nhlamulo Ndlhela rejected this view and chided Mantashe for the “divisive” remark. Still, MK won almost half the vote in Kwazulu-Natal, Zuma’s heartland, while the Democratic Alliance still enjoys overwhelming popularity among whites and remains the largest opposition party with 22% of the vote. The far-left Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) enjoys the strongest support among urban blacks, while the ANC enjoys strong loyalty among rural black voters. The Patriotic Alliance, with 2%, campaigned in defense of colored people, as mixed-race South Africans are called.

Investors see a simple alliance between the ANC and the pro-business DA as the most market-friendly. But ANC officials told Reuters that this option had been rejected by ANC heavyweights, with some of them – such as executive committee member Mathews Phosa – seeing DA as a party of white privilege and a long-term vote loser. Instead, the ANC is trying to weaken DA’s influence in any coalition, including smaller parties.

“If Ramaphosa simply formed a coalition with the DA… it would be suicide for party unity,” said Nicole Beardsworth, a research fellow at the University of the Witwatersrand. She said the ANC had always been a broad church, made up of neoliberals like Ramaphosa and the left, including the Communist Party and the South African Trade Union Congress, both of whom had expressed concerns about the deal with the DA.

“So they need to bring in… smaller, more radical parties to balance the demands of the ANC left.” But finding a consensus that will end paralysis and create a working government that will boost South Africa’s flagging economy has its challenges.

“That’s where the rubber hits the road,” said independent analyst Daniel Silke. “This makes it extremely difficult… to make coherent policy.” For example, the ANC and EFF engage in the expropriation of white-owned land for the use of poor black farmers, which DA policies oppose. The DA wants to abandon black empowerment policies that have largely enriched the politically connected black elite, which is a red line for the ANC.

Meanwhile, both the EFF and MK Zuma’s party want to change the constitution, with the former wanting to hand over all land, water and mines to the state. MK wants to replace him with one who would give more power to traditional chiefs. Compounding the puzzle is the fact that the DA has ruled out working with either MK or the EFF, and Zuma’s party insists Ramaphosa must resign, a claim he has vehemently rejected.

(This story has not been edited by Devdiscourse staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)