"Trapped in a gilded cage": Lessons from the previous GNU

Dave Steward on how things went wrong for FW de Klerk and the NP post-1994

The current frantic efforts to nail together a post election coalition to rule South Africa have inevitably focused attention South Africa’s last attempt at multiparty rule in the Government of National Unity that was inaugurated on 10 May 1994.

Some observers still regard the GNU as a lost golden opportunity – a squandered chance to set up an inclusive government based on a spirt of pragmatism, reconciliation and power-sharing. They blame FW de Klerk for torpedoing the experiment by withdrawing the National Party precipitately from the GNU at the end of June, 1996.

Well, how did the GNU work? Firstly, it was not by the ANC’s generosity that the National Party was entitled to an Executive Deputy President (FW de Klerk)  and six cabinet ministers.  It was a requirement of the 1993 constitution that any party that had 80 MPs would be entitled to nominate an EDP and 6 ministers in the 27-member cabinet. 

The IFP, which won more than 40 seats, was entitled to three ministers.   The President decided which portfolios would be allocated to the coalition parties, but the party leaders could choose which of their MPs would be appointed to their portfolios.

 Perhaps the GNU’s most important contribution to assuring continuity and international confidence was President Mandela’s decision to assign the Finance Ministry to the National Party.  This meant that the luminously competent Minister of Finance, Derek Keyes, would continue to manage the country’s finances.  When he retired, after too short a period in office, he was replaced by a leading banker, Chris Liebenberg.  Mandela and De Klerk agreed that the finance ministry – although allocated to the NP – would not be under the NP’s control.

The GNU functioned reasonably well for the first year of its existence.  Thabo Mbeki and FW de Klerk chaired alternate cabinet meetings.  The ANC – completely inexperienced in the processes of government – found it useful to inherit a fully functioning cabinet system – and, on occasion, even sought the NP’s advice.

However, by the middle of 1995 the great flaw on which the GNU had been constructed had become increasingly evident.   It was not a genuine coalition because the withdrawal of the minority parties would not automatically result in the government’s collapse.  It was a Potemkin coalition, with all the trappings of a genuine coalition, but without any of the substance. The ministries allocated to the NP and the IFP remained effectively under the control of the ANC.   The constitutional formula that cabinet decisions would be taken “in the spirt of consensus underlying the Government of National Unity” meant, in practice, that the ANC majority decided everything.    

The NP caucus and support-base were confronted by policy after policy with which they did not agree – but with which they were inextricably associated because of their membership of the GNU. The problem was that the GNU – unlike all genuine coalitions – was not based on a properly negotiated agreement covering all the main policies that would be promoted by the government.  

After the ANC repeatedly refused requests from NP for the conclusion of a proper coalition agreement,  De Klerk made it clear that, in his capacity as leader of the NP, he would criticize any GNU decisions with which he disagreed.   This led to several bitter attacks on him by President Mandela – inside and outside the cabinet – supposedly for failing to support GNU decisions.  The clashes might also have been caused by the very difficult relationship that inevitably arises when a new company chairman serves on the same board as his predecessor.

Thus, for De Klerk, the GNU had become a gilded cage in which the NP enjoyed no real power but which was causing alarm in its own support base and dissension in its caucus. Human nature and power politics being what they are, De Klerk sometimes found himself the only defender of NP policy in cabinet discussions.

The final blow came with the adoption of the 1996 constitution on 8 May 1996 when the ANC refused to include even the most modest proposals for power sharing in the final constitution.   De Klerk had promised his supporters that he would do everything he could to include a power-sharing provision and warned President Mandela that  failure to accommodate this core NP goal would lead to the NP’s withdrawal from the GNU.

His decision was supported by the NP caucus and membership – but not initially by most of the NP’s six ministers and three deputy ministers - who felt that their party should soldier on until the GNU came to its designated end in 1999.

The  search for a coalition government in 2024 is thus a very different proposition from the factors that gave rise to the GNU in 1994.  Now the requirement is for a real coalition based on the electoral support that parties received on 29 May. A coalition government now will have to be based on tough negotiations and agreements on virtually all aspects of policy. Parties will fight tooth and nail over portfolios and perquisites. 

In Europe, such agreements often take several weeks – if not months – to nail down. The question is whether South Africa’s principal parties will have sufficient time and common interest to negotiate such important agreements in the very little time that is made available by the constitution.

Whatever happens, the coalition that emerges from the present process will, for better or for worse, have to involve real power-sharing – unlike the Potemkin GNU in 1994.