Political suicide for the DA

The party cannot accept a position in a GNU on the Ramaphosa-ANC’s current terms and expect to survive


Much of the press reporting over the negotiations between the ANC and the DA over the formation of a Government of National Unity has focused on the fight over the number of ministerial positions that the DA will receive in the government. The ANC’s initial offer was three ministerial positions out of about thirty. The DA said this was not a credible offer, as if seats were allocated proportionally and inclusively, it would by rights receive nine of these.

The ANC then came back with an offer of six positions, the DA requested eight in response, but Ramaphosa refused to budge. The DA then settled for six. The claim that Zille demanded 12 ministries in her letter of 22nd June was misreporting. The list of twelve portfolios she provided Ramaphosa was an indication of which ministries the DA was interested in, not a demand that DA ministers be appointed to head all of them.

The narrow dispute that brought the deal close to collapse is Ramaphosa’s reneging on his offer to the DA of the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Competition and replacing it with the Ministry of Tourism instead. News24 reports that when news of Ramaphosa’s initial offer to the DA reached them, there was an immediate pushback from top ANC leaders, Paul Mashatile and Gwede Mantashe, as well as the department itself, and the black business lobby. One top official in the DTI said it would be “outrageous” to hand a department at the “heart of the government's transformation agenda” to a party “whose policies are against crucial aspects of that agenda such as BBBEE and affirmative action.”

The immediate effect of Ramaphosa’s action would be to shut the DA out of playing a meaningful role in the economic cluster. Clearly, there is much less reason for the DA to join the national executive if it cannot help drive the reforms needed to increase economic growth, without which South Africa will be unable to get out of its current fiscal predicament, or create a meaningful number of new jobs.

The larger questions this raised was whether the Ramaphosa-ANC can deliver on its side of any bargain, and whether the ANC can be trusted to act in good faith going forward. Most crucially, it remains unclear whether the ANC would even permit DA ministers, once appointed, to wield meaningful executive power.

While a GNU buys the ANC a further five years in power, it poses an existential risk for the DA. The party could perhaps survive, and even grow, if it is able to make a success of its portfolios - however few in number - but this requires certain further absolutely critical, but ideologically difficult, concessions from the ANC.

The ANC has been in command of the national government for three decades, during which time it has pursued a policy of appointing party loyalists to positions in the state, from top to bottom. This was done surreptitiously at first but in October 1998 the liberation movement openly declared its intention of seizing control of all “levers of power” in the state and elsewhere.

In December of that year, it established a National Deployment Committee (NDC) to centralise control over deployments of ANC cadres to all “centres of power” in state and society. It concomitantly adopted a policy which declared that all cadres were required not just to “toe the party line” but also to act as “organisers” to ensure that the ANC’s ideology and programme (what it calls “transformation”) were implemented in all institutions to which they were deployed. In the first half of 1999 the ANC in parliament further amended the Public Service Act to facilitate this dual programme of centralisation and state capture, by giving President Thabo Mbeki control over the appointment and dismissal of Directors-General.

What this potentially means for ANC coalition partners is starkly illustrated by the prior experience of the Inkatha Freedom Party in national government. After the 1999 election the ANC continued in its coalition with the IFP, giving that party the ministries of Home Affairs, Correctional Services, and Science and Technology.

In all three cases ANC loyalists were inserted as DGs, below these IFP ministers. In the case of Home Affairs, Mbeki appointed one ANC ex-intelligence officer as Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s DG in 1999 and then another in 2003. He also appointed an ANC ex-intelligence officer as DG of DCS in 2001. The effect of this was to allow these two IFP ministers the trappings of office but neutralise them politically by ensuring administrative control of their departments was in ANC hands. This was especially so as the ANC majority in cabinet had the final say over policy, which was binding on those IFP ministers, as well.

This was an expertly executed political version of the German military manoeuvre called the “kesselschlacht” (battle of encirclement) whereby you force your opponent into submission not by a direct assault, but by encircling them and cutting them off from their supply lines, and their avenue of retreat. The ANC destroyed the National Party of FW de Klerk in the first GNU in a similar manner, as described here.

This policy of deploying ANC loyalists to top positions in the state has continued to this day. In an affidavit submitted to court last year in defence of cadre deployment President Ramaphosa stated under oath that the Cadre Deployment Policy “applies to senior positions in government such as Directors-General and Deputy Directors-General”. And he also vehemently defended the right of the ANC to deploy cadres to these and other positions in the state machinery that it controlled.

This means that once they have agreed to serve in cabinet any new DA ministers are going to take over departments whose top ranks are, according to President Ramaphosa himself, staffed with ANC deployees. Directors-General are employed on fixed five-year contracts and in terms of the current regulations, should a vacancy for head of department arise, the selection panel should be made of the minister of that department, two other ministers, and a national head of department. The panel would need to reach consensus on their preferred candidate and cabinet would need to approve the choice before the President made the appointment. When it comes to choosing a new DG for their department, the DA minister could potentially be outnumbered three-to-one by ANC people on the selection panel for the appointment.

A real fear of the DA – especially given their post-2016 experience in Johannesburg and Tshwane – is that their ministers will bear responsibility for the dysfunctionality and failures of the sections of the state they are now nominally in charge of, but not be in a position to do anything about it. In the DA’s letter to the ANC of 22nd June Helen Zille thus stated that agreement was necessary upfront that DA ministers (and not ANC ones) should serve on the selection panels for the appointment of Directors-General in departments under DA ministers.

She also wrote that the current contracts of serving DGs in these departments “would also need to be reconsidered in light of our concern that incumbents may not be amenable to direction from Democratic Alliance ministers, especially given the ANC's Cadre Deployment policy.” Zille also stated that recently awarded tenders in these department would need to be reviewed, and the ANC would need to agree to the principle that it could not unilaterally determine policy, but would need to reach consensus with the DA.

These particular proposals by Zille set off fireworks of outrage on the ANC side. In a post on X (formerly Twitter) Febe Potgieter of the ANC Secretary General’s Office described Zille’s letter as “outlandish and ridiculous” and she sneeringly suggested that the President “should use his prerogative to create a super Minister of Separate Development for DA. They'll have their own Minister, DM, DG, other DA cadres to their hearts' desire and let GNU gets on with meeting the needs of all South Africans.”

According to various pro-ANC commentators in the media it was the worst form of “hypocrisy” for the DA, having opposed ANC cadre deployment for the past 26 years, to not to want their departments in any GNU headed up by ANC cadres. One person leading this charge was Mbhazima Shilowa, the former ANC Premier of Gauteng, and a founding member of the ANC’s NDC. In an article for News24 Shilowa warned that for the ANC to cede to the DA the ability to appoint the senior civil servants in DA run departments would be “a recipe for disaster that may also see the heads of departments brought in solely because they're loyal to a party [the DA] which could result in them being shunned or isolated by their colleagues.”

In his letter in response to Zille and Steenhuisen Cyril Ramaphosa described the DA’s request for the right to review the contracts of existing DGs, and tender awards, as “legally incompetent”. He alleged that the DA desire to control the policy direction of their ministerial portfolios was intended to “set up a parallel government” that “would operate outside the framework and parameters of the constitution-based method and protocols of running the government of the Republic of South Africa.”

So, as of the time of writing, the ANC of Ramaphosa has yet to concede the right of DA ministers to appoint non-partisan professionals to head their departments, to be able to make sure procurement is done honestly and cost-efficiently, or to have the main say over policy in their own ministries. Indeed, ANC “moderates” (and their proxies in the media) have expressed violent opposition to all these ideas.

Yet while the DA can compromise on which ministries it accepts, and their number, it would be political suicide for it to enter into a coalition government on the current basis. The DA (and the white minority more generally) will be immediately blamed and scapegoated for the accumulated failures of government the moment the DA takes office in the GNU. Its ministers need to be able to move extraordinarily quickly to show that the DA is making a positive difference in government, and to the lives of the majority.

Yet absent these concessions from the ANC, the DA would be in no position to effect any kind of useful change at all. DA ministers would find themselves trapped and compromised, in office but not in power, and any leverage they might have would rapidly drain away as popular disillusionment with them set in.