Op-Ed

The time may have come for a trans-partisan government of national unity

By Lwando Xaso 7 May 2019

President Cyril Ramaphosa and the DA leader Mmusi Maimane during President Ramaphosa’s question and answer session at the National Assembly on March 07, 2019 in Cape Town, South Africa. It was Ramaphosa’s last question and answer session with MPs before the elections in May this year. (Photo by Gallo Images / Jeffrey Abrahams)

President Nelson Mandela had the right idea in 1994 when he put together a Government of National Unity to pull South Africa back from the brink after decades of conflict. Perhaps this is an idea whose time has come, again, in 2019?

As we reflect on what 25 years of our democracy means, I have been doing research on the first national election, especially seeing that the sentiment of these elections is vastly different, understandably, from the first.

My research took a detour when my attention was caught by a topic that has not been discussed extensively (well at least not in my education and circles) the 1994 Government of National Unity (GNU) which was established and headed by Nelson Mandela as president, with Thabo Mbeki and FW de Klerk as his deputy presidents. Quite significantly Mandela’s Cabinet included ministers not only from the ANC, but also from the National Party (NP) and Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP).

The idea of power-sharing among these political parties under the leadership of the ANC fascinated me no end and made me wonder because with the animosity between the top political parties today it is hard to imagine – the phrase power-sharing sounds like a dismissable oxymoron. Who shares power? Well, it once happened in our very recent history.

What if the presumptuous favourite for president, Cyril Ramaphosa, reached back to the 1994 playbook and brought forth the 2019 version of the government of unity in his Cabinet? Is unity ever a bad idea in governance, especially after the cataclysmic past 10 years this country has had and the state of emergency in which we find ourselves today as a result?

There are times of opposition and there are times of participation, and because of what we have been through these last 10 years this is a time like 1994, a time to band together and to rebuild. Our politicians have to reach across the divide for the sake of our country. Strong opposition to the Zuma presidency was apt and perhaps saved us from total annihilation. However, it is now time to change strategies. Constant opposition and gridlock will only be to our detriment

From 27 April 1994 to 3 February 1997, South Africa was governed by the GNU under the leadership of the ANC. The interim constitution stipulated that the Cabinet’s functions should reflect “the consensus-seeking spirit underlying the concept of a government of national unity”. The Interim Constitution based the GNU’s structure on the number of seats each party would win in the 400-member National Assembly.

The Interim Constitution stated that any political party that won at least 80 seats in the National Assembly was entitled to appoint one deputy president and that any party that won more than 20 seats in the National Assembly could appoint at least one minister to serve in the Cabinet. The ANC, the NP, and the IFP all qualified to participate in the GNU Cabinet.

Dr Leon Schreiber, who has done extensive research on this topic, writes that the idea of the GNU came from the ANC as one of the instruments to ensure inclusivity during the transition period from apartheid to democracy. For the GNU Cabinet to live up to expectations, political leaders had to find ways to build trust between former enemies with divergent interests who now had to serve as Cabinet colleagues.

The main responsibility of the GNU was to oversee a new South African Constitution, as well as to radically improve the quality of life of all people and to contribute to the spirit of reconciliation. Aside from the mission to oversee the new Constitution, the objectives of the GNU, in my opinion, are still very relevant today – inclusivity in governance and the reconciliation of a fragmented society are always virtuous goals for any government.

Dr Schreiber’s research reveals that the principle of co-responsibility required collective responsibility and that once the Cabinet made a decision, all parties had to support its implementation. Although a nominal provision stipulated that the Cabinet had to gain the approval of two-thirds of the ministers on certain issues of fundamental importance, decisions were based on general agreement.

The interim constitution empowered Mandela to appoint ministers after consultation with the executive deputy presidents and the leaders of the participating parties. Because the ANC, NP, and IFP had had divergent campaign platforms during the election, reconciling their conflicting interests presented a potential stumbling block. Mandela had to be creative and shrewd to overcome these challenges.

For example, the security portfolios were contentious. Although the NP wanted to have one minister in what it considered the four main areas of government – security, economy, social, and administrative – Mandela appointed ANC ministers to both defence and safety and security, but made De Klerk the chairman of the Cabinet committee on security and intelligence affairs, which would give him an inside role with regard to the security portfolio, and thereby eased his concerns of being shut out.

The NP and ANC on certain matters such as social welfare did not have deep-rooted policy differences. Even by today’s terms, we know there are areas of policy where the ruling party and the opposition parties agree on, and in those Cabinet posts the top political parties can work together akin to the GNU model.

Importantly Mandela and De Klerk agreed to designate the finance ministry as a non-partisan position and to appoint a politically unaffiliated businessman as Minister of Finance, and also made arrangements to second experienced project managers from the private sector to help government departments. The idea of non-partisan and private sector secondments are options that I hope the Ramaphosa government will explore quite broadly.

Dr Schreiber writes that Roelf Meyer likened the early days of conceiving a new South Africa as “reconciling the impossible” – it was the effort of converting former enemies into friends. Establishing the GNU was vital to overcoming the lingering distrust between the ANC, IFP and NP. By today’s terms that would be the deep distrust and animosity between the ANC, DA and EFF – although not locked in a violent conflict like the ANC, IFP and NP in the early 1990s, they are nonetheless locked in conflict, as we have witnessed from the heckling and physical brawls in Parliament.

The GNU attempted to resolve disputes by setting up a multiparty, issue-specific negotiating committee. Such ad hoc Cabinet committees represented the GNU’s preferred approach. If the ad hoc committee failed to foster an agreement, Cabinet also exercised the option to refer the dispute to another government branch, much like it did when it could not decide on the constitutionality of the death penalty – that hot potato was tossed to the Constitutional Court.

Unfortunately, politics prevailed over country, and by early 1995 cracks in the GNU were starting to show. Schreiber writes that the disagreements over the contents of the final constitution, which was scheduled for completion in May 1996, as well as tensions regarding the NP’s role in the GNU and the need for the party to position itself in anticipation of the 1999 national election, contributed to the disunity. However, the IFP remained in the Cabinet until 2004.

According to Roelf Meyer, certain members of the NP were more confrontational and didn’t like the continual compromises. The ANC acknowledged the legitimacy of the NP’s decision as it reflected a young democracy coming of age and would need vigorous opposition unfettered by its participation in the executive. Similarly, in the Zuma years, we needed unfettered opposition, but today’s situation calls for a new strategy – a sense of a united commitment to placing country above politics.

The fact that the GNU fell apart does not take away from what it was able to achieve. Meyer’s conclusion is that “the GNU functioned fairly well. Most people focused on finding solutions instead of looking for a confrontation”. Prof Jakes Gerwel, the late adviser to Nelson Mandela said, “one would not be aware that it is a multiparty government if you were sitting in on the debates… You would not realise that people come from different parties”.

By Dr Schreiber’s assessment, ultimately the GNU did succeed in bringing together contentious and distrustful political factions to work toward a shared goal of democratic government. Even when serious policy disagreements on matters like abortion or capital punishment arose, experts say those issues were not as strictly partisan as we would think. That’s what happens when we thoughtfully listen to each other and work together – we realise there is more that binds us than not. Following nine years of recession and stagnation, the country’s economic growth rate, thanks to the GNU, quickly rebounded to 3.2% in 1994, 3.1% in 1995, and 4.3% in 1996.

The creation of our democracy and its proper operation depends on the difficult but worthwhile quality of “compromise”. Democracies only work if enough people in the government can come together and figure out commonly-acceptable and sometimes innovative solutions to national problems. We cannot let party politics shut down voices with good ideas. A great way for the ANC to lead in this climate and importantly a great way for the opposition to be taken seriously, not just as perpetual opposition but as a future governing party, is through a similar model to that of the GNU.

More importantly, our country needs us today to be trans-partisan. DM

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