Forming a Government of National Unity has been hailed as a significant achievement, a herald of the “better angels” of our nature. 

The travails around constituting a government have caused some nervous reassessment of this. But forming a government will prove to have been the easy part – should it endure, the hard work will be in building trust on very unstable foundations, agreeing on a policy programme, and even defining what the interests of “the people” are – and even who they are. 

The GNU would not exist if South Africa was not at a point of profound crisis. Its implicit promise is that the cumulative capacities of South Africa’s political leadership will come up with the innovative thinking needed to extricate the country from this crisis. Much the same idea was floated before the polls.

The idea of a national dialogue has been circulating for some time. It’s a vague concept, with its roots in proposals made intermittently for years for an “economic Codesa” – a reference to the negotiating forum that produced the political transition. As far back as 2008, former president FW de Klerk mooted this. Subsequently others, such as UDM leader Bantu Holomisa and analyst Clem Sunter, advanced the idea.

At this time the issue was about economic exclusion, business frustration and the need to expand opportunities and find workable compromises amid competing demands.

In its most recent iteration, the remit of the proposal seems to have grown. Former president Thabo Mbeki mounted the stage during the ANC’s election campaign to deliver a justification of his time in office, a dark warning of the counter-revolution that had undermined the ANC’s successes (and his own), and to call for a national dialogue.

In his words: “I suggest that to respond to the enormous challenges created by the counter-revolution, our people should convene in a new and truly inclusive National Dialogue to answer the question – what is to be done?”

Whole-of-society matter

The “challenges” to which Mr Mbeki referred were a whole-of-society matter; this is perhaps why he used the term “our people” as a signifier of South Africa as a whole, and not in the usual exclusionary sense, denoting a race group or the ANC’s supporters.

In fact, he went further on another occasion saying: “The idea that there are some political parties, even the ANC, that have answers to all [the country’s] problems is … wrong. The people of SA must participate in a process of determining the future of this country.”

There are certainly many in the country, not least among its business community, who would support this. Intimately linked to the various socio-economic problems is a long-running crisis of governance, a matter even the government acknowledges. Drawing on expertise and resources from all concerned would intuitively maximise the prospects of dealing with it.

Behind this, there is a distinct piece of South African mythology, a belief that this is a country with a unique ability to negotiate and find common ground. After all, wasn’t this what the transition was about?

Well, not entirely. By the late 1980s, South Africa was facing an uprising, and an economic squeeze from which there was no obvious escape. The liberation movements may have had support and international sympathy, but no prospect of overthrowing the still formidable power of the state. It had become what is accurately described as a “mutually hurting stalemate”.

South Africa was in desperate straits, confronting bankruptcy and a low-key civil war. The protagonists realised they needed one another if they hoped to avoid a cataclysm. Things were not going to improve on the existing trajectory.

Neither should the negotiations that followed be romanticised. It was a deeply fraught time, marked by constant violence, and in which the maturity to engage with opponents was frequently countered by the willingness to engage in political brinkmanship. The ANC was always clear that it saw negotiation merely as a “new terrain of struggle”.

Tempestuous relationship

The Inkatha Freedom Party, at that point representing around one South African in ten, had a tempestuous relationship with the whole negotiating process, and refused to participate in writing the Constitution – even while it held a number of cabinet ministries.

Nor has South Africa’s record on dialogue been much better in the democratic era, even if this is supposedly part of the national brand. Particularly during President Mandela’s tenure, an effort was made at cooperation and reaching across the aisle. But as time wore on, the ANC became more assertive in voicing its entitlement to exercise power as it saw fit, without much regard for anyone else.

Since Mbeki has proposed this dialogue, it’s worth noting that his presidency placed very little emphasis on engagement with those holding conflicting views, and not on compromising with them. Perhaps the tone for this was set by Mbeki himself and the SA Human Rights Commission in 2001, in a conference on racism headed – appropriately and ironically enough – “A Nation in Dialogue”.

It was no such thing. Mbeki had already proclaimed the country to be composed of two racially defined nations (there was, in this view, no nation to hold a dialogue at all). The conference itself fell very much within this line of thinking, and made it clear that actual dialogue (national dialogue?) was unnecessary. Mbeki skilfully set the tone, indicating that racism was pervasive and embedded throughout society – “structural” or “institutional” racism – rather than expressed in particular acts and prejudices. To argue for the latter, he helpfully added, would be to approach it from the perspective of a perpetrator. 

Speaker after speaker, and the conference documentation itself, repeated this. A request by opposition leader Tony Leon to address the event – and to offer a dissenting position – was turned down. “Rabidly one-sided”, as journalist Rian Malan said at the time. 


This was emblematic of much of what was to characterise Mbeki’s presidency as regards his opponents. Prior to taking office, he had expressly turned down the idea that the President and the leader of the opposition should have regular engagements. As president, he maintained this approach, in other words, declining the possibility of the sort of dialogue he now advocates. (As it happens, a lack of receptiveness to the entreaties of Mbeki’s allies in the SA Communist Party and the Congress of SA Trade Unions alienated them to the point where they were enthusiastic partisans of Zuma’s bid for the presidency – a role they prefer to forget, and which they should not be allowed to forget.)  This was a time in which Mbeki had little regard for “the idea that there are some political parties” who had anything to contribute at all.

This isn’t just about the sensitivities of a president. South Africa’s view of itself as a country given to dialogue is also found in many of its governance structures and processes. Hence the requirements for “consultation” around legislation and the existence of bodies like the National Economic Development and Labour Council, which seeks to bring together the ill-named “social partners” for the greater good.

None of this has proven especially effective. The ANC could typically get what it wanted through its parliamentary majority, so consultation was often a pro-forma business, sometimes to the extent that it provided legal ground to challenge legislation. At other times, such as during the push for an EWC constitutional amendment, it was effectively stage-managed – and the government’s position to push ahead with it was announced by President Ramaphosa before the hearings had even been concluded.

Mixed record

NEDLAC and the various economic join-ups (industry plans, sectoral bargaining councils, job summits, investment summits and the rest) have a decidedly mixed record. They mandated a “partnership” among groups with very different agendas – no shame in that in a free society – that may have had some utility for those directly participating (typically large business and labour interests). They were often very damaging to smaller operators, as research by the Small Business Project (SBP) showed, and largely ignored the plight of those who were excluded by unemployment. And given the country’s often ruinously conflictual industrial relations, it is debatable just how effective it was for those who participated directly.

President Ramaphosa, meanwhile, held out the hope that his legendary negotiating skills – themselves in large part an element of South Africa’s founding mythology – would bring stability and order and cooperation to South Africa’s fractious interests. No such thing here either. As the ANC’s negotiator in the 1990s, Ramaphosa was in a position of enormous power and confidence, with great momentum on the “new terrain of struggle”. As President, he was presiding over a country in despair, with violated institutions, and a discredited ruling party. Indeed, the weight of his attention was on maintaining the tenuous unity of the ANC, not on the wellbeing of the country.

Hence his predilection for government-by-commission, kicking problems down the road and enjoining everyone to “work together”. The failure to conclude a comprehensive social compact, as announced in his State of the Nation Address in February 2022, demonstrated the limits of this, both because the “partners” had very different (perhaps irreconcilable) views on what needed to be done, and because the government itself lacked credibility in this process. What, after all, did it propose bringing to the table aside from bromides that it would do things “better”? 

Valuable tool

Dialogue is a valuable tool of statecraft. South Africa has had some successes, but no special or unique skill at it, and it does itself a disservice in mistaking its mythology for genuine capacity. In reality, dialogue has frequently been conspicuous by its absence.

Clem Sunter cautioned some years ago that an economic Codesa needed to be founded on a clear definition of what the actual problems were that required attention. Just so. South Africa is not even at that point now, and there is little indication that much thought has been given to this in relation to a proposed National Dialogue. Rather, one gets the impression that all things are to be open for all comers. That may be cathartic and informative, but it offers no prospects for solutions.

If indeed this is to go ahead, we at the Institute of Race Relations would propose that the “dialogue” should focus squarely and unsentimentally on driving economic growth and protecting constitutional governance. 

South Africa’s afflictions have deep roots in its past. They have been cultivated further by numerous choices made since the transition – and of course, also by a refusal to take uncomfortable decisions. This never was a viable long-term approach, and the country is now at a point where it cannot do this anymore if it hopes to correct course.

Dialogue, a skill that will need in large part to be learned, will be necessary. So will the pain of difficult choices and unpalatable compromises. Both the GNU and any National Dialogue process need to be based on a clear understanding of this.

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Terence Corrigan is the Project Manager at the Institute, where he specialises in work on property rights, as well as land and mining policy. A native of KwaZulu-Natal, he is a graduate of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (Pietermaritzburg). He has held various positions at the IRR, South African Institute of International Affairs, SBP (formerly the Small Business Project) and the Gauteng Legislature – as well as having taught English in Taiwan. He is a regular commentator in the South African media and his interests include African governance, land and agrarian issues, political culture and political thought, corporate governance, enterprise and business policy.