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Opinionista

South Africa’s political impasse threatens progress and unity as parties look to form GNU

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Professor Dr Omphemetse S Sibanda is a Professor of Law and the Executive Dean of the Faculty of Management and Law at the University of Limpopo. He holds a Doctor of Laws (in International Economic Law) from North West University, a Master of Laws from Georgetown University Law Centre, US; and an LLB (Hon) and B Juris from the then Vista University, Soweto Campus.

South Africa stands at a crossroads. While forming a government of national unity or coalition government may seem like a solution, the potential for inefficiency and internal conflict cannot be ignored. The focus must remain on service delivery, national unity and addressing the needs of the populace.

South Africa is at a critical juncture, with the shadows of consensus democracy hovering over the “rainbow” nation. The inability of any political party to secure enough votes to form the seventh administration has plunged the nation into a precarious state of political uncertainty.

This stalemate has sparked discussions about consensus democracy through a government of national unity (GNU) or a coalition government, each with implications and potential consequences for the country’s future.

A GNU, first experienced in South Africa in 1994, is typically formed in times of national crisis, where multiple political parties come together to form a single administration. This arrangement is designed theoretically to ensure stability and continuity during periods of severe political deadlock or national emergencies. Such governments are often seen as temporary solutions aimed at fostering cooperation and unity to navigate through crises by consensus.

Details on what form of GNU the ANC is contemplating are still not public. What is clear though is that other parties look forward to a consensus government that operates on principles of broad agreement and cooperation among the participating political parties.

Read more in Daily Maverick: As ANC opens door to GNU talks, KZN on tenterhooks after Zuma’s MK party sweeps polls

The key objective is to foster a more inclusive decision-making process, ensuring that policies and actions are agreed upon collectively rather than being dictated by a single dominant party.

This type of government seeks to balance power more equitably among different political factions. Switzerland operates a consensus government system, often referred to as a “magic formula” coalition and symbol of collective leadership. This arrangement, which ensures representation of major political parties in the Federal Council, has been credited with maintaining political stability and inclusive governance.

On the other hand, a coalition government is a more formal arrangement where multiple political parties agree to cooperate, often leading to a power-sharing agreement where Cabinet positions and other key roles are divided among the coalition partners.

This type of government is common where no single party secures a majority, necessitating alliances to form a functioning government. Germany frequently has coalition governments, such as the “grand coalition” between the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Social Democratic Party (SPD). These coalitions have provided stable governance, although they often involve significant negotiation and compromise on policy matters.

Limitations and conflicts

In theory, a GNU or coalition government could lead to more inclusive and balanced policy-making. However, the reality often falls short of the ideal. For instance, coalition governments are prone to internal conflicts and power struggles, which can lead to inefficiency and policy paralysis.

The need for constant negotiation and compromise can slow down decision-making processes, hindering the implementation of crucial services to the public.

Several conditions can be placed on these types of government forms. That the ANC is engaging in discussions with the DA – with figures such as Helen Zille, who in 2017 controversially tweeted that colonialism had positive effects, leading negotiations for the party – is already being seen as an affront to the spirit of national unity.

Such alliances, it is argued, not only undermine the ANC’s credibility but also alienate large segments of the population who view colonialism as a period of oppression and exploitation. This move is thus seen as counterproductive to the very essence of unity and reconciliation that South Africa desperately needs.

The EFF has made it clear that it will not go the Mandela way and become part of the GNU, as the party prefers a coalition government.

The ANC-DA partnership has also been rejected by trade union federation Cosatu – an alliance partner of the ANC. It has also been rejected by prominent ANC politicians, including Lindiwe Sisulu who considers working with the DA a betrayal of ANC voters, but she was slammed by the ANC in the Northern Cape.

Dissensus

A chapter by Hendriks Frank, titled “4 Consensus Democracy: Pacification and Accommodation”, in the book Vital Democracy: A Theory of Democracy in Action (2010), argues that contrary to common belief, consensus government is built on dissensus rather than consensus, on differences in conviction and outlook on life, which need to be carefully integrated.

It is a system about accommodation and pacification of the different role players. Frank says that “in terms of (dis)advantages, consensus democracy is the reverse of pendulum democracy: its core quality is not swift decisiveness but controlled integration, its pitfall not so much over‐commitment as viscosity”.

South Africa stands at a crossroads. The path it chooses will have a significant impact on its future trajectory. While forming a government of national unity or coalition government may seem like a solution, the potential for inefficiency and internal conflict cannot be ignored.

The focus must remain on service delivery, national unity and addressing the needs of the populace.

Citizens first

What would voters like to see as conditions for a GNU or coalition government other than a concern that the ANC should not negotiate with parties such as the DA?

In my view, whatever form of government is agreed on, it must be rejected if it does not favour public interest and put the mandate from citizens first.

Perhaps those beating the drum for a GNU or coalition government must be reminded of the following realities, and be informed that their success can only be confirmed by dealing with the following malaise, as the mandate of the public who did not find any of the political parties worthy enough of the votes to single-handedly form a government:

  • First, and admittedly so, South Africa has made significant strides in promoting women’s empowerment and gender equality. The country has a robust legal framework that supports women’s rights, including the Constitution, which guarantees gender equality and specific laws such as the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act and the Domestic Violence Act.

However, the reality for many women remains starkly different. Despite these legal protections, gender disparities persist in various areas, including employment, pay and political participation. Women are still underrepresented in senior management roles and face higher unemployment rates compared to men. Moreover, cultural and societal norms continue to hinder true gender equality, with many women facing discrimination and limited access to opportunities.

  • Gender-based violence (GBV) is a pervasive issue in South Africa, with disturbingly high rates of domestic violence, sexual assault and femicide. The criminal justice system’s response to GBV is often inadequate, with survivors facing numerous barriers to reporting abuse and securing justice.

Police and court systems frequently fail to provide the necessary support and protection for victims, leading to low conviction rates and a lack of accountability for perpetrators. In fact this was recently confirmed by the Public Protector in a report on the investigations into administrative deficiencies relating to the processing of GBV-related matters within the South African criminal justice system.

  • Youth unemployment in South Africa is a critical issue, with the unemployment rate among young people being one of the highest globally. Structural factors such as a lack of job opportunities, inadequate education and skills training and economic stagnation contribute to this crisis. The government’s efforts have had limited impact on reversing these trends.

The high rate of youth unemployment has significant social and economic repercussions, contributing to increased poverty, social instability and a sense of disillusionment among young people. Without substantial and effective intervention, this issue threatens the country’s long-term growth and stability.

  • The South African education system remains deeply unequal, reflecting the legacy of apartheid. Schools in affluent areas are well-resourced and deliver high-quality education, while many schools in poorer, predominantly black areas suffer from inadequate facilities, poorly trained teachers and a lack of basic resources.

This disparity contributes to a significant achievement gap between students from different socioeconomic backgrounds. Despite policies aimed at improving educational equity, progress has been slow. The quality of education in many public schools remains substandard, hindering the academic and professional prospects of millions of children.

  • A perennial issue is that many rural South African schools face severe infrastructure and sanitation challenges. Inadequate facilities, such as crumbling buildings, insufficient classrooms and lack of access to clean water and proper sanitation, are common in disadvantaged areas. These conditions have a negative impact on students’ health, safety and ability to learn effectively.

The government’s efforts to address these issues through initiatives such as the Accelerated Schools Infrastructure Delivery Initiative have been hampered by budget constraints, mismanagement and corruption, resulting in slow and uneven progress.

  • Access to safe and clean water remains a significant issue, particularly in rural and informal settlements. While urban areas generally have better access to clean water, many communities still face intermittent supply and contamination issues. Rural areas often lack adequate infrastructure, leading to reliance on unsafe water sources. Hammanskraal residents in the City of Tshwane are living testament to a lack of access to safe drinking water, an issue that was widely publicised.
  • Electricity provision in South Africa is plagued by challenges, with frequent power cuts and load shedding becoming a norm owing to issues within Eskom, the state-owned power utility. While the majority of urban households have access to electricity, many rural and informal settlements remain without reliable power supply.

Efforts to expand access and improve the reliability of electricity are often undermined by infrastructural decay, financial mismanagement and corruption within Eskom. Interestingly, the City of Johannesburg’s electricity supply utility, City Power, has already warned it will impose “load reduction” on residents to “protect the grid from total collapse”.

  • Corruption remains a pervasive issue in South Africa, impacting on all levels of government and various sectors. Anti-corruption efforts, such as the work of the Zondo Commission, have highlighted the scale of the problem, but translating findings into action and accountability remains a challenge.

Corruption undermines service delivery, economic development and social equity, making it a critical issue that needs urgent and sustained intervention. Will we see a GNU or coalition government brave enough to decisively deal with corrupt practices, including corruption within its ranks?

A renewed focus on transparency, accountability and inclusive development is essential for the country to achieve its potential and improve the lives of its citizens.

Focusing on personal ambition and power consolidation rather than the public interest will undermine the very purpose of the said GNU or coalition government. Such an approach is destined to lead to the erosion of public trust because politicians appear more concerned with personal gain than the needs of the populace.

Leaders driven by personal or party agendas may prioritise short-term gains over long-term, sustainable policies that benefit the public. Leadership driven by self-interest rather than a commitment to public service raises serious ethical concerns, in particular where corruption flourishes, as leaders use their positions for personal enrichment; and where instead of setting ethical standards, leaders focus on personal roles over public interest, thus compromising the moral authority needed to lead effectively. DM

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