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Second Codesa — a seemingly attractive idea that does not translate well into the real world

Second Codesa — a seemingly attractive idea that does not translate well into the real world
Illustrative image | Former president Thabo Mbeki | ANC banner (Photos: Leila Dougan | Felix Dlangamandla)

Once again the idea of a ‘national dialogue’ outside of elections is gaining currency in SA. There have been repeated calls for such a process for many years, with a suggestion that South Africa’s multipronged crisis is so bad that only a ‘second Codesa’ can fix it. Unfortunately, such an event is unlikely to happen — and even if it does, it is difficult to believe it would change anything.

At the weekend, former president Thabo Mbeki again repeated his call for a national dialogue after the elections, with BusinessLIVE quoting him as saying, “The idea that there are some political parties, even the ANC, that have answers to all [SA’s] problems is … wrong. The people of SA must participate in a process of determining the future of this country.”

He, and many others, have made this call in the past.

They have often been supported. In these pages, Omry Makgoale wrote that it was an “excellent” suggestion.

Many others might agree. They will point to the problems we faced in the 1990s, and how they were overcome through a long process of negotiation.

However, there are many obstacles facing such a process now.

Perhaps the most obvious is, who would do the negotiating? And who would they represent?

In 1990, it was fairly clear the apartheid government had to negotiate with the ANC. To this day, some believe the ANC was given too much power during this time, and that other groups which fought against apartheid were left out.

Of course, other parties were involved, including the IFP and others that still exist.

But, in the end, the Codesa talks used a concept sometimes referred to as “sufficient consensus”. In practice, it appeared to mean that “sufficient consensus” was when the ANC and the National Party agreed.

The situation would be very different now.

There would be no agreement on who should be represented. Not one group represents all black people or all white people. Or any other racial or ethnic group. It would be strange to try to use such a basis for negotiation anyway.

Also, probably the single group (if it can be called that) which needs the loudest voice in the room is the unemployed, who have no opportunity to earn a sustainable income. This group is so large that if all of the people in this category voted for one party that party would probably have a two-thirds majority in Parliament.

But there is no large formal group which can claim to represent them. So how would their voice be heard?

There is another, possibly fatal, problem with the suggestion of a “national dialogue”, which is: what would this process be trying to achieve?

Political analyst Professor Steven Friedman has suggested that while the original Codesa was trying to negotiate a political solution, what is needed now is an economic negotiation.

The elephant in the room

He told SAfm on Monday that for this you “need a negotiation rather than a dialogue” and that “race is still the elephant in the room”.

As he pointed out, while most people might think such a dialogue would occur over several days in a boardroom, in real life it requires sustained work over a long period.

But even if the conversation was confined (probably unwisely) to just the economy, recent history shows how difficult it is to reach any kind of agreement.

In 2017, Cyril Ramaphosa was elected leader of the ANC after promising a social pact between business, labour and government.

When he was elected President of South Africa in 2019, he again promised this would happen.

The complete failure of himself, his government and the National Economic Development and Labour Council to bring this about over the last six years shows how nigh impossible it is.

There is another huge problem, which Mbeki did not appear to address in his public comments: once such a process of a “national dialogue” is under way, would there be any undertaking that the government of the day would not simply veto the result?

While this threat also hung over the Codesa negotiations, the fact is that the moral weight of the ANC was simply too great for the apartheid government to bear. It had to give way.

Moral legitimacy

The same would not necessarily be the case now. Any government wishing to veto the result of such a process could simply claim that it had the moral legitimacy to do so because it won the majority of votes in an election.

It could even argue that an election result would be more legitimate than any process of negotiation involving just a small group of people.

This factor is one of the reasons such “national dialogues” are very rare around the world. They tend to happen only once every several generations.

In most cases, they come after a period of conflict, such as war, or a war for liberation from a colonial power, or after the collapse of an authoritarian government.

The US for example, has arguably not had such a meeting since 1789.

(One could arguably peg that date to 31 January 1865, when the US Congress passed the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery. — Ed)

Perhaps the biggest reason for this is that democratic countries tend to contain within themselves the ability to manage change, and thus for reform. In other words, the very system of democracy allows voters to ensure their country changes direction when it has to.

(Of course, that is just the idea. In practice, it does not mean voters do not make irrational decisions that are against their longer-term self-interest.)

What is clear is that South Africa faces crises that are so deep that many people believe our current system and our current politics are not able to resolve them.

When a former President from the party currently in power makes a call for a national dialogue, it is a demonstration that they believe the system is failing.

This call has its dangers.

Many people might put time and energy into calling for this “national dialogue” that will not be ultimately productive. They could rather be putting that time and energy into trying to resolve our problems.

Instead of pushing for an event that will never happen, it would be better to focus on using the tools we have, through our democracy, to ensure that real, positive change occurs. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Agreed, it wouldn’t workout this time.
    Besides, Mbeki never conceded to the idea when he was president when Holomisa constantly called for the economic Codesa

  • Willem Boshoff says:

    The system didn’t fail; the ANC did and it’s high time for the likes of Mbeki to acknowledge the ANC’s disastrous rule. Our US$ GDP growth between 2009 and 2023 was 14% in total; India achieved 173% over this period. If the DA came into power in 2009 we would easily have grown 2 to 3 times more in dollar terms, unemployment would have been less than half of current numbers and we would be well on our way to eradicating poverty in SA. No amount of talk can fix incompetence and corruption.

    • Ian Gwilt says:

      You are right, back in the 90,s you knew things had to change and for the Nats it was getting the best exit deal.
      Today, the incompetents, the corrupt and the cadres do not have to give up anything. Stalingrad tactics will prevail.
      The situation should be solved by reversing corruption, employing competent people and abandoning jargon based policies that have failed.
      Sadly this is not going to happen anytime soon , I also see the ANC getting very close to the majority they need, handing out shinney gifts before the election, NHI, fixing Eskom etc

  • Trevor Gray says:

    If you break something as a result of negligence and or carelessness, you are allowed to be involved in the replacement of this without consequences? The ANC has brought the country to her knees with a succession of fools , traitors and jelly fish. They have zero say in the repair!

    • Geoff Coles says:

      Exactly, this is why Ramaphosa is Mr Inactive in handling his corrupt brothers and sisters galore… fact total constipation

      • osita okafor says:

        Honestly, South Africans are so skeptical about their future. So sad. Please be positive for God’s sake. Africa is looking up to you and here you are so negative. The future is bright, be hopeful. Osita Okafor from Nigeria.

        • ANTHONY MCGUINNESS says:

          Bright for who Osita????? Why don’t you try telling the starving masses that struggle to eke out a living each day, that their future looks bright? The Bright future in this country is reserved for the corrupt and the criminals only.

  • John Stephens says:

    CODESA was a negotiation between parties. It was never an inclusive negotiation with the people. It is not difficult to suggest a better alternative. Not a second CODESA, a first National Convention. Where elected delegates from all communities in South Africa meet to discuss and negotiate a new democratic South Africa. It must not consist of political parties and all sorts of other interests. Many advisors will be required and welcomed, but the agreement must be between directly elected representatives of the peole.

  • Colin Braude says:

    There is a process of determining the future of this country in which every South African citizen over the age of 18 (but not permanent resident foreigners) can participate, and its happening on 29 May.

    Sadly, the media has not enforce “dialogue” about the economic issues which need to be negotiated preferring to focus on rallies and walkabout photo ops. The fundamental economic issue determining our future is whether we have a centralising statist/Marxist command economy (the East German/North Korea offering of the ANC/EFF/MK) or a more decentralised open opportunity social market economy (the West German/South Korea offering of the DA/MPC.

    While the surveys and polls indicate that the ANC will emerge victorious but below 50%, voters should ask why the statist countries need to lock their denizens inside their borders while migrants are risking their lives to enter “market” countries.

  • Alan Watkins says:

    “When a former President from the party currently in power makes a call for a national dialogue, it is a demonstration that they believe the system is failing.”

    No its because that person wants a second bite at the cherry if his party fails to deliver the promised two thirds majority. Maybe someone explained the difference between two thirds majority and eleventy six.

  • Pieter van de Venter says:

    Then we all agree to something like gentleman after lots, and lots of good food, whiskey and lavish treatment, just for the ANC to walk away from every undertaking and go back to AA and BEE and only look after their own aand those that can fill their pockets.

  • Rae Earl says:

    If the Government of National Unity could have remained in force for much longer than it did, the ANC could have learned a lot more about the do’s and don’ts of running a country. They learned from the start that bribery and corruption (ie the arms deal and Zuma), are juicy side hustles which became entrenched in the ANC because there was no policing by opposing colleagues in the same government. The ANC will never stamp out corruption in its own ranks for two reasons; the comrades have become far too reliant on the positive cash-flow available in ‘deals’ at all levels. The second is that from Ramaphosa down, there is no evidence of any King-and-Country loyalty and cohesion. National pride and integrity is foreign to the ANC.

  • Mahomed Sader says:

    The primary problem is the failure to implement the agreement of Codesa that there would be proportional representation for one term only. We need to change the system that has made political parties all powerful with no individual accountability. Time for a ward based electoral system.

  • Steve Davidson says:

    “race is still the elephant in the room”.

    For sure. BBEEE has been a total and utter failure, but noone in the ANC will admit it.

    • Dion Martin says:

      BBEEE I support. The poor, disastrous, hugely inflated pricing and ineffective implementation not so much. All brought to you by the cANCer.

  • Lucifer's Consiglieri says:

    Unfortunately, the patient will never take the medication that is the only way to cure its illness. It will continue on its path of terminal decline. Very sad. There was once so much promise.

  • Justin Hall says:

    Codesa and the negotiations around political transformation were initiated by the NP admitting that their hold on power was unsustainable, and that significant change was needed. Has the (current) ANC leadership done this?

    No. So why is Thabo talking to us about this? I’m sure he’s got Cyril on speed dial.

  • Indeed Jhb says:

    Before 1994 the ANC had all the answers for the woes of the country and on how to run SA. But theory and practice…. we are living the dismal reality
    ”National dialogue” Eish! Four or five parties in coalition cannot run one municipality successfully how on earth can a country be run with more?
    Agree, the national dialogue is on 29 May sharpen your mind and vote – make it no vote no complain

  • Grumpy Old Man says:

    You hear comments, quite frequently, from folk blaming (or at least disappointed with) our Constitution. They will say things such as the ‘constitution has failed to deliver’
    Edwin Cameron (on 702) responded to this by pointing out (in as many words) that the Constitution is not the problem, but our failure to deliver.
    We are good at talking in this country – but really, really, really bad at getting things done and working.
    A second Codesa is like any plan or idea. It’s only ever going to be as good as your ability to deliver on it

  • Errol Price says:

    There is one immutable feature of reality which has always shaped the destiny of South Africa and will continue to do so. It is called demographics.
    The Nats never understood it. At the end, the minority had lost any moral legitimacy so Codesa was simply a dressed -up capitulation. Western style democracy was always a mirage.
    The D.A. will continue to shrink. People can decide whether or not they want to live in a country wedded to an Africanist , anti=colonialist model while each of the “revolutionary” parties jostles for a place at the trough.

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