Not a GNU, but a neo-liberal elite pact

by Jun 20, 2024Election, Feature

This article is co-published with Elitsha News.

The first sitting of the 7th Parliament was held at the Cape Town International Convention Centre last week. Photo by Chris Gilili

It is important to name and characterise things for what they exactly are. To mischaracterise phenomena can lead to bad strategy and tactics. Based on this approach, we argue that following the outcomes of the May 29 general elections, South Africa is not about to have a government of national unity (GNU). Instead, we have an elite pact between an ANC that has a reduced share of the vote such that it cannot rule on its own and a DA that could not wait to reduce the ANC majority as a basis for it to enter government office nationally. This ANC-DA grand coalition is being joined by a number of other political parties represented in the National Assembly. They are joining it on the basis of agreeing with the policy agenda set out in the ANC-DA’s Statement of Intent.

Our critique is not in bad faith. As implied above, good strategy requires the foundation of correct analysis. Further, the ANC-DA elite pact is founded on shaky grounds, which will fall short of achieving the social cohesion and stability that can approximate some measure of national unity. Also important is the undeniable fact that this ‘GNU’ animal is an imposition from above and not born of a democratic, people-led process – at the very least, the voters could have been consulted on modern platforms for input to test the legitimacy or otherwise of the proposed form of government. Not surprisingly, the imposed GNU is not universally accepted and embraced by society as a whole.

The ANC-DA grand coalition is produced by the deep-seated social and political crises that led to the precipitous electoral fall of the ANC. High levels of unemployment, massive poverty, acute inequality, underdevelopment, extra-slow land reform, poor service delivery, a protracted energy crisis, and unmitigated climate shocks are the primary reasons why the South African population is really fed up with the ANC’s track record. These dire circumstances are a direct outcome of the sustained neo-liberal project that the ANC has opted for since the days of the Transitional Executive Council, even before the 1994 democratic elections. This neo-liberal trajectory has been worsened by widespread corruption within the state.

Voters kicked the ANC out of power without voting into power a successor. Worse still, they voted for the rogue MK Party that is an empty shell of a political party, with no strategic capacity at all. All this is a mark of a political crisis where the whole governing political elite is discredited and is now actively manufacturing legitimacy to extend its neo-liberal rule.

Insufficient conditions for a GNU

In historical terms, a GNU is generally a transitional government brought about by unique and significant historical circumstances. For example, recent history has given us GNUs in three historical circumstances:

  1. co-governing following the peaceful resolution of a war;
  2. a GNU as an outcome of a negotiated end of a system of oppression such as apartheid and
  3. a negotiated settlement when the main protagonists have failed to democratically resolve the transfer of power as we saw between the Movement for Democratic Change and Zanu-PF following the 2008 general elections in Zimbabwe: there, the MDC could not enforce its proven victory over an intransigent Zanu-PF entrenched in military and political power.

A police officer shoves Robert Mugabe’s portrait into a bin. Archive Photo by Chris Mahove

In these cases, there are clear and valid historical circumstances that justified a GNU. A crucial dynamic of these historic conditions often pivots around a strategic stalemate where major protagonists contending for power balance each other out instead of one side achieving a decisive victory and the other suffering an unquestionable defeat. This is a historical condition which Gramsci referred to as a “a situation in which the forces in conflict balance each other in a catastrophic manner; that is to say they balance each other in a way that a continuation of the conflict can only end in their mutual destruction.” Such a condition forces the contenders to find a political resolution that enables a resetting of the historical stage.

The 1994 GNU in South Africa had nothing to do with the votes received by the ANC (62.6%) but was a transitional mechanism concerned with reconciliation and managing the transition from apartheid to democratic rule. The 1993 interim constitution provided that the new president must appoint into the cabinet any party that had 20 seats (equivalent to 5% of votes) in the National Assembly and appoint a deputy president from any party that got 80 seats (an equivalent of 20%).

Also crucial to underline in the GNU is its transitional role governed by an interim constitutional framework or a time-bound transitional mechanism. Often, this role is about sustaining and cementing what is often a historically fragile and sensitive transition from an old epoch to an entirely new and fundamentally different political dispensation. Often, the transitional role and post-transition features would still be subject to ongoing negotiation and managed contestation in the transitional period. In South Africa’s case, this was through the drafting, negotiating and adoption of a final constitution by the first National Assembly after 1994, which also doubled up as a constituent assembly. As if to mark the end of the transitional role of Nelson Mandela’s GNU, on 8 May 1996, the final constitution was adopted by the National Assembly, and one day later, the second deputy president, FW de Klerk, announced the withdrawal of his National Party from the GNU with effect from 30 June 1996.

In the case of the 2024 elections, no single party won a majority. This is the only basis for the ANC-DA coalition deal. This is not a unique or a special historical circumstance or sufficient condition to misrepresent the ANC-DA coalition deal as a GNU. And there are no transitional mechanisms required or roles that this ANC-DA coalition will be required to play. Global history shows that what is largely produced in similar circumstances are coalition governments. This is exactly what we have, and not a GNU.

DA leader John Steenhuisen, during the State of the Nation address earlier this year. Photo by Mzi Velapi

By framing it as a GNU, the discredited political elite in the ANC and the boisterous one in the DA are undertaking manoeuvres to manufacture public hegemony as a basis for extending neo-liberal rule.

The claimed ‘national unity’ is a chimera for the immediate and long-term power interests of different segments of the political elite. In a 17 June 2024 interview with Clement Manyathela on Radio 702, the DA’s Helen Zille was categorical that they will defend Ramaphosa if the Phala Phala matter is referred back to parliament by a court. She did not have the decency of saying they will consider the court’s judgement and act accordingly. This self-serving failure by Zille to be principled and consistent in dealing with malfeasance shows how this ANC-DA deal is largely driven by narrow party interests and not historic imperatives of genuine national unity.

The deal is also for continued neo-liberal rule that will fail to address the systemic and structural foundations of the very social and political crisis that gave rise to the big ANC electoral decline. Even under the false guise of a GNU, our political elite does not have the will to successfully address the deep-seated social and political crisis that characterise South African society.

A skeptic public

Further, the general public acceptance of this GNU has not been tested. Instead of engaging the general public in a genuine process of democratic consultation, we have rather seen strenuous efforts by both the ANC and the DA to manufacture consent to a GNU. This propaganda is enabled by a mainstream media failing to undertake basic critical analysis of the actions and intentions of the political elite.

Indeed, the ANC-DA coalition deal is not necessarily accepted. It was initially rejected by the ANC mass base, by many in its NEC, and the ANC’s left flank (i.e. the SACP and Cosatu). Then it was imposed and legitimised under the guise of a “Government of National Unity that would include all parties that have seats within the NA”. It is still not accepted by a large constituency even though it may not be openly rejected.

In any case, this quasi-GNU manoeuvre is driven by a political elite that has been endorsed by only 16-million voters out of a total of 40-million eligible voters. It can be argued that the total of 24-million eligible voters who did not vote do not feel included in this elite pact. This just demonstrates the extent of the crisis of credibility facing the political elite.

Why does it matter what it is

A critical understanding of the ANC-DA grand coalition will enable poor communities, workers, the unemployed and the broader public concerned with meaningful and substantive social change to work out how to relate with, act beyond and often go against the 7th government since the 1994 transition. Critical here is for poor communities, workers and the unemployed to see through what will be continued neo-liberal policies under the guise of national interests or unity.

The deal is definitely working for the ANC to continue in power, for the DA to co-govern as part of its longer-term strategy, and smaller parties to occupy a few cabinet and parliamentary positions. But it is not given that this political arrangement will necessarily work for poor communities, workers and the unemployed and even the vulnerable black middle class. It will definitely not achieve genuine and substantive national unity based on meaningful socio-economic transformation.

The authors argue that the ANC-DA coalition will not benefit the poor and the unemployed. Photo by Mzi Velapi

It is entirely possible that the ANC-DA grand coalition will not countenance sustained mobilisation and protests by poor communities, workers and the unemployed. Most likely, such protests will be portrayed by the ANC-DA coalition as rocking the boat and a disturbance to national unity. This logic will be extended to economic policy where the ANC-DA grand coalition will confine policy options away from redistributive economic measures. This would mean that resistance by the Amadiba Crisis Committee against mining in Xolobeni will be labelled as going against the national interest and unity. The same will be said by the political elite against workers demanding a living wage or poor communities fighting budget cuts on key social expenditure.

Poor communities, workers, and the unemployed have immediate needs, which include the basic income grant, permanent employment in public works and industries, and the delivery of quality free basic services such as housing, sanitation, water, electricity, roads, education, health, transport, and communication. These can be easily sacrificed by a version of national unity that will require respect for the markets and investors. Our analysis and characterisation of the ANC-DA coalition means that workers and the unemployed must develop the capacity, means and tools to sustain their vigilance against the mollifying effects of a political elite presenting itself as serving the national interests under the false cover of a GNU.

Only revolutionary measures can help to exit the neo-liberal crisis. The ANC-DA coalition cannot meet that challenge. The needed revolutionary measures include wealth redistribution, state-led industrialisation, and the overall structural transformation of the economy and its socialisation. Without these, the deal-making of the political elites will deepen the social crisis instead of building national cohesion and unity. The deep social crisis will persist and get worse if the left and popular classes don’t pose a meaningful political challenge.

Gunnett Kaaf is a board member at the Zabalaza Pathways Institute 


*This article is based on an input that benefited from two webinar discussions: one convened by Zabalaza for Socialism held on June 16 and another webinar co-hosted on June 18 by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, My Vote Counts and the Zabalaza Pathways Institute.

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