Stay in the fight: The ANC, DA and SA’s GNU – Katzenellenbogen - Biznews

After a week of euphoria over the prospects of the formation of the Government of National Unity (GNU), a new reality has dawned. The new reality is that keeping this coalition together will involve endless negotiation and brinkmanship. That does not mean that it cannot hold together, but it will be difficult.

The initial excitement over the Government of National Unity (GNU) has given way to a challenging reality of ongoing negotiation and tension. Despite the difficulties, the coalition may hold, but keeping it together will be tough. Cabinet appointments have sparked policy-based tensions, especially between the ANC and the DA. Both parties need to manage their differences carefully to maintain stability and avoid political paralysis, while pushing their respective agendas within the coalition.

Jonathan Katzenellenbogen

After a week of euphoria over the prospects of the formation of the Government of National Unity (GNU), a new reality has dawned. The new reality is that keeping this coalition together will involve endless negotiation and brinkmanship. That does not mean that it cannot hold together, but it will be difficult.

The appointment of a cabinet will mean that tensions between coalition members will be mainly over policies rather than over positions.

Since the election of Cyril Ramaphosa as President by the National Assembly earlier this month, the ANC and the Democratic Alliance (DA) have been at loggerheads over cabinet appointments. There is a strongly-held view in the DA that all the ANC wanted were its votes to elect the President.

The DA has said it wants a Deputy President position and cabinet posts that include energy, mining, public works, transport, and international affairs. It is also insisting that it must be able to appoint Directors General in the departments it runs, to ensure merit-based appointments. ANC cadres must not be able to block its policies.

The party cannot be expected to take fewer cabinet posts than its share of the total vote received by coalition parties. Yet pulling out of the coalition in protest might force the ANC to rely on the more radical comrade parties: uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) 

If it does not get what it wants, the DA will have to explain this to its supporters and say that it does not have the tools it needs to do its job, but it is best to remain in the coalition. 

Before any party threatens to quit in a huff, it had best give some very hard thought to the consequences of carrying out the threat. Power comes more from the threat of quitting than from actually doing so. After a party has quit, it will be on the opposition benches in Parliament and will have a lot less influence than it would have in the cabinet. And quitting can only be done once. That could give the GNU an inherent stability.

With ten parties now in the coalition government, the total number of National Assembly seats that the GNU can command is 287 out of 400. That is a comfortable majority for any government. Should the DA decide to walk out of the coalition, it would withdraw its 87 MPs from supporting the President. If one of the smaller parties were to pull out of the coalition, it would have little effect.

A DA pull-out could force a vote of confidence in the National Assembly on the future of the GNU. If just one MP from a now reduced GNU voted with the DA, MK and the EFF, the President could find himself out of office.

But the DA would then be playing the equivalent of Russian roulette, as the ANC might then turn to its second-best solution and bring its radical fellow comrade parties into government. That would be a nightmare for the ANC, as it knows that these parties would be very demanding and extremely difficult as partners. But this is an option it might be prepared to take, in order to remain in government.

The ANC knows that if the DA quits the GNU, the wrath of the markets would see the Rand exchange rate against major currencies test new lows and the yields on government bonds sharply rise. The two parties are, to an extent, bound to each other in this coalition. Both the ANC and DA know that they are in the best position if they stay with each other. That still does not mean they will not push each other to test the limits.

Overall, the best course of action will be for the DA, in spite of endless frustration, to stay in the Cabinet and keep up the fight. And when it disagrees strongly with the ANC it should make this public. That is the only way it can still distance itself from policies with which it disagrees.

That is bound to occur often. Never before has the ANC been forced to really share power at national level. In the GNU in the 1990s, the ANC had an overwhelming majority and could get its way.

For a movement that regards itself as the natural party of government, the loss of its majority will have to involve a substantial and difficult mind shift. The ANC’s Marxist-Leninist foundations mean many in the party hierarchy still view their party as a “vanguard” party that can lead the people to its nirvana of a “National Democratic Revolution.”

But the coalition and the courts will be part of the unravelling of the ANC project. The party which has ruled for 30 years might also see its projects to build a National Health Insurance scheme and for expropriation blocked by the courts. And a coalition will increasingly show that the once dominant party is now in a very different position as a result of 29 May.

Much is unclear about how the Cabinet and the Presidency will work in this new arrangement. There is already a considerable centralisation of power in the office of the President. That makes the Cabinet, rather than Parliament alone, a good place from which to mount an opposition. 

It will be in the Cabinet where the major battles will be fought out. There will be coalitions within the coalition. One will be around the DA and the other around the ANC. The DA-anchored coalition in cabinet is likely to draw in the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and the Freedom Front Plus (FF+), both of which were members of the now abandoned Multi-party Charter arrangement. And the ANC could draw in some of the smaller parties.

Under the “sufficient consensus” clause in the “Statement of Intent” to which all GNU members have agreed, support of at least 60 percent is required for passage of Cabinet decisions. The ANC makes up a little more than 55 percent of MPs from the ten parties that are part of the GNU. That means the ANC will have to rely on some of the micro-parties that have joined the coalition to make up the more than 60 percent it requires to meet the sufficient consensus rule.

The DA has a little more than 30 percent of the combined total of GNU MPs. A DA coalition with the FF+ and IFP would amount to about 43 percent, enough to block the “sufficient consensus” in favour of the ANC bloc. 

This means that coalition politics could amount to political paralysis. But it is still worth the fight to stay in the Cabinet and push against the ANC agenda.

Jonathan Katzenellenbogen is a Johannesburg-based freelance journalist

This article was first published on the Daily Friend.