South Africa

ANALYSIS

Speaker first of key choices in any national unity government — cooperation talks continue

Speaker first of key choices in any national unity government — cooperation talks continue
Houses of Parliament in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo: Leila Dougan)

When the National Assembly elects the Speaker at its first sitting on Friday, South Africans will have their first insight into how far negotiations for a government of national unity have come. Or not.

The National Assembly Speaker is a key post – it’s effectively the head of the legislative sphere of state. As such, the Speaker sets the tone, direction and work ethic of the National Assembly, and Parliament overall. 

It is a post the ANC – despite its 40% tally at the polls – will be reluctant to give up. In its political worldview of controlling the levers of state power, the Speaker is to the legislative sphere of the state what the president is to the executive sphere.

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If the Speaker’s post goes to a political party other than the ANC, it shows the 40% party is on the back foot. Expect, also, trade-offs further down the line in, say, a key ministry like education – or an economic portfolio, except finance, which the ANC is set to keep.

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On the floor of the IEC’s national results centre – when the results emerged with no clear winner – the talk was of a confidence-and-supply agreement on specific issues and priorities. 

The ANC would retain executive posts and the DA and IFP, Parliament. But that prospect was overtaken when ANC alliance partners Cosatu and the South African Communist Party came out to oppose cooperation with the DA, citing its anti-transformation character.

In a fudgy compromise, the ANC National Executive Committee on 6 June decided a national unity government would be the best option

What has emerged since is that the ANC is intent on retaining the security cluster ministries – police, defence, state security and home affairs – perhaps in the belief that control of those portfolios ensured the party’s security in government office. 

Also up for retention by the ANC are related parliamentary committees, including the Joint Standing Committee on Intelligence.

Historically, the ANC was vexed that the now-late IFP leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi held Home Affairs for a decade. To counter this, the ANC appointed a series of directors-general with intelligence backgrounds to that portfolio.

That tactic may yet again surface in ministerial portfolios ceded to other political parties in the proposed national unity government.

But exactly what would be available to other political parties? 

The ANC previously accommodated opposition parties in Tourism – current minister Patricia de Lille is from Good – while Science and Technology in 2001 was held by Azapo boss Mosibudi Mangena.

If the current thinking follows those lines, political parties other than the ANC may also be eligible for Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment, Small Business Development as well as Sport, Arts and Culture. 

Perennial stepchild, Public Works – also once held by De Lille – may be another option for a minister not from the ANC, given the headaches of a portfolio responsible for thousands of state buildings, from offices and courts to hospitals.

A pickle would be Parliament’s public spending watchdog, the Standing Committee on Public Accounts. Traditionally held by an opposition MP, would it go to the EFF if it decided to remain on the opposition benches while the DA and IFP were part of the national unity government?

Less complicated is the National Council of Provinces. Given that the ANC has secured at least six provinces – and possibly even seven or eight, depending on cooperation deals in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng – the chairperson and deputy are likely to come from the ANC. 

Wish lists and red lines

The 2024 national unity government talks kicked off with various red lines and demands from political parties.

In its opening move, the EFF claimed the finance ministry, although that’s unlikely to happen as National Treasury holds South Africa’s purse strings. 

By Tuesday it seemed talks between the ANC and EFF had stalled; EFF leader Julius Malema is on record saying his party is not desperate for positions.

The Patriotic Alliance has claimed Home Affairs in a move to give life to its border-closing stance that many have criticised as xenophobic. Again, unlikely, given the ANC’s focus on holding on to security cluster ministries, even though the incumbents at police and defence, Bheki Cele and Thandi Modise, failed to make it back to Parliament.

Action SA said on Tuesday that it was sending a team headed by Athol Trollip, the ex-DA MP and Eastern Cape chairperson, to Parliament to fight for South Africa, “considering proposals for a grand coalition co-opting much of the opposition”. 

Read between the lines of this statement, and Action SA is saying it will not be part of a national unity government. 

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The IFP wasn’t specific on ministries, but has been keen on a deputy president’s post from the start. It’s unlikely the ANC would ditch its current deputy president, Paul Mashatile, if for no other reason than this would reignite slumbering factional divisions. 

While the Constitution talks of the deputy president in the singular, the supreme law also states that the president appoints the Cabinet and assigns functions. This leaves open the door for a second deputy president, but also a potential national KwaZulu-Natal deal.

On Tuesday, the DA Federal Council said it “unanimously” endorsed its negotiation team to continue “with the process towards the formation of governments at national and provincial levels with hung legislatures in order to safeguard the Constitution, ensure stability and generate economic growth”.

That’s a yes to more talks, even if it seemed those discussions with the ANC had not yet reached the stage of ministries, posts and parliamentary positions. 

From the ANC’s side, not much emerged detail-wise or on the modalities it said would be urgently finalised. 

It seemed ANC Secretary-General Fikile Mbalula, who leads the national unity government talks, and ANC national chairperson Gwede Mantashe were busy persuading Eastern Cape secretary Lulama Ngcukayitobi to withdraw his resignation, reportedly in protest over potential ANC-DA cooperation, according to TimesLive.

Common ground

But at least some principles that could underpin a national unity government have emerged. It’s on public record that the DA and ANC – and the IFP – share the principles of respect for the Constitution and the rule of law, as well as the need for economic growth.

The ANC and DA also agree on Operation Vulindlela, the joint initiative between the Presidency and Treasury to push structural reforms such as port rehabilitation, Eskom’s unbundling, a national water infrastructure agency and more, in an effort to boost economic growth.

The DA and ANC part ways over economic and social justice measures like black economic empowerment and affirmative action, with the DA’s market fundamentalism being the bogeyman for ANC alliance partners Cosatu and the SACP. 

The ANC’s economic reconstruction and development programme stands in contrast to the EFF’s policy pillars of nationalising banks, mines and land.

The MK party’s rejection of the Constitution, push for rule by traditional leadership and such, stand in contrast to just about everyone.

This policy hurdle is important. 

Even if a national unity government were to resolve who from which party gets which post and where, ongoing conversations are needed over the five-year term to ensure stable governance in keeping with voters’ 2024 election choices. DM

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