GNU: The challenge is simply to survive

William Saunderson-Meyer writes on the ANC-DA deal, and its prospects


With much pomp and ceremony, including a flypast of the scrappy remnants of a once mighty air force, President Cyril Ramaphosa was inaugurated this week as head of the country’s seventh administration since the advent of democracy.

Following on the congratulatory clinking of crystal goblets comes the next ritual, the handing out of the poisoned chalices. Ramaphosa will as quickly as possible want to settle with his Government of National Unity partners who gets what ministerial position and whether to shrink the previously bloated Cabinet of 30 Ministers and 36 Deputy-Ministers.

The wrangling with its main partner, the Democratic Alliance (22% of the vote) and to a lesser extent the Inkatha Freedom Party (4%), is already heating up. At issue is the inclusion of smaller parties like Gayton McKenzie’s Patriotic Alliance (2%), and Patricia de Lille’s GOOD (0.2%) and their share of the ministerial spoils. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Whatever the obstacles ahead, all credit to Ramaphosa. The GNU is a remarkable accomplishment. It’s South Africa’s best and possibly last hope of avoiding the calamity it has been drifting towards in the past dozen or so years.

The inaugural razzmatazz at the Union Building was a rare moment of triumph for a beleaguered president who towards the end of his first term was so despondent that he had to be dissuaded from throwing in the towel. He would especially have savoured the celebration since he’s painfully aware that the odds are against him surviving to serve an entire second term.

The widespread euphoria over the GNU is understandable, given that the existential danger of complete State collapse has been averted for now. It’s also predictable, given our history of racial conflict, that the GNU is seen as a “rainbow” moment similar to the agreement that in 1994 ushered in a constitutional democracy — our innate common sense causing us to step back from the brink of chaos to find inclusive solutions.

However, it bears repeating that the GNU was brought into existence not to save South Africa but to save the African National Congress. It is for the ANC the least-worst arrangement that will allow it to govern relatively unimpeded nationally, as well as in the provinces where it no longer has an absolute majority.

So, the real achievement is not that the GNU happened. The real achievement is that it was reached between the ANC’s intermittently reformist wing and the centre-right opposition parties, rather than with what is the ANC’s natural partner, the radical rabble who now rather grandiosely have named themselves “the progressive caucus”.

It’s the ANC’s populist offspring, Jacob Zuma’s uMkhonto weSizwe and Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters that are in almost every aspect of their policies — aside from their wanting to water down the Constitution — closest to the authoritarian socialism of the mother party. And all three are far removed from the liberal orientation of the DA and the IFP.

There are some on the ANC’s national executive committee, many of the party’s members, and all of its trade union and communist allies, who would much prefer to see the original ANC reconstitute itself. It’s testimony to Ramaphosa’s persuasive skills, as well as the fact that, for the moment, the ANC needs Ramaphosa in much the same way that South Africa needs the GNU, that this has been avoided for now.

That narrow escape is thanks to the strategic miscalculations of the toxic twosome. Were it not for Zuma making Ramaphosa’s axing the precondition to negotiation and Malema rejecting any working relationship with the DA, the “Doomsday scenario” of an ANC-MK-EFF coalition quite likely would have unfolded. It remains a distinct Plan B for many.

The EFF comically compounded its strategic negotiating errors, on the day, in Parliament itself. In an article on News24, Helen Zille recounts with relish Floyd Shivambu’s blunder. With nominations for Speaker called for but the ANC/DA deal still unsigned because of last-minute changes to the text, the GNU faced collapse — the DA refused to vote for ANC candidates while the governing party still had wiggle room on the terms of engagement.

“Then,” Zille writes, “From the entire cast of parliamentary characters, the most unlikely one steps up to save the day.” Unfathomably, the EFF’s Chief Whip, Shivambu peremptorily demands a procedurally unheard-of “caucus break” for his party. After much bad-tempered to-ing and fro-ing between Shivambu and Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, a brief “comfort break” is reluctantly allowed.

Fortunately, it was time enough. The deal was inked. No doubt, the DA’s nomination of Shivambu for the Order of the Baobab (Gold) has already been actioned.

The DA, too, has reason to feel pleased with itself as regards the GNU. There is little downside to a party that now for the first time will be able to exercise some leverage over national policy.

Its key demands — constitutional governance in accordance with the Bill of Rights (including the property protection clause); an independent Reserve Bank; and independent, honest public service (which implies no cadre deployment); sustainable fiscal policies; the devolution of power to the provinces and local authorities; and the implementation of Operation Vulindlela, Ramaphosa’s so far haphazardly executed infrastructural reform plan — have all been accepted by the ANC.

Unlike the damaging reverberations echoing through the ANC over a deal with the DA, the number of DA supporters implacably opposed to cooperating with the ANC appears to be small. It’s a particularly insignificant factor when set against the enthusiasm for the GNU of its traditional corporate donors and the sudden warming in attitude to the DA from a hitherto almost uniformly hostile media.

It’s also a moment of great opportunity for the DA. Its share of the national vote has been moribund for a decade, despite the admirable example of effective, corruption-free governance it has set in the Western Cape and the 38 municipalities it runs countrywide. This debut as a leading actor on the national stage gives it a chance to impress an electorate that’s been stubbornly resistant to its charms.

It will, however, have to quickly get used to taking some stick. With the ink barely dry on the GNU agreement, the EFF has already put the DA in a spot with a fresh push for a parliamentary impeachment hearing against Ramaphosa over the Phala Phala scandal, which involves R10m in undeclared US dollars hidden in his lounge furniture.

Previously, the DA vociferously supported such a hearing, in line with the recommendation of an inquiry  chaired by a former Chief Justice. It has now done an about-turn, with Zille saying that it would only support such a hearing “if the evidence suggests [it]”.

Pragmatism, or expediency if you prefer, is of course the currency of politics. No matter how unpleasant the taste it leaves in the mouth, no one could seriously expect the DA to sign into a GNU and then immediately bring it down.

The GNU is a marriage of convenience, reluctantly cobbled together at a moment of crisis. It’s entered into with the full knowledge of the partners that there are irreconcilable differences and that it won’t survive long.

But it doesn’t have to survive long. It just has to survive long enough to break the spiral downward.

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