Anyone thinking that making the multi-party government work would be simple, would have been disabused by the events of the past few weeks. Leaked correspondence, mutual recriminations, and media reports indicating that the whole arrangement was on the brink of collapse all indicate just how difficult this has been – and that is only a matter of setting things up, a process that at this writing has not been completed, and the impasse in Gauteng demonstrates. Making it work, if indeed it can be made to work, is likely to be orders of magnitude more challenging.

A coalition involving the ANC and DA was not something I would have advised. As I’ve noted here and elsewhere, the ideological gulfs between the participants make these arrangements fraught in the extreme.

The constitution of the national cabinet was bedevilled by contestation over positions, with the ANC wanting to limit the DA’s influence, and the DA wanting to maximize it. The ANC can’t bring itself to use the language of coalitions, and hence the term Government of National Unity (which is not national in that it excludes around a third of the voting outcome and has yet to demonstrate much unity).

Nevertheless, this is where we are. A weakened ANC has chosen to cooperate with the DA, and they have jointly committed themselves to constitutionalism, economic growth and a professional civil service. It could have been very different. No one should be so naïve as to think that this is a fulsome guarantee of anything, since the ANC’s attitude to these things has been flexible to say the least, and that of a party like the PAC has been hostile. But, when confronted with a choice between making this commitment and opting instead to cast all restraint aside in the name of the revolution, the ANC made the wiser choice.

I hold out little hope that it will produce miracles, but some cautious optimism that if it can service its adolescence, it will provide a foundation for the necessary and more thorough-going action that the country needs.

Make no mistake, the odds are not great.


Not unexpectedly, the situation in Gauteng demonstrates a recalcitrant worldview of held by some in the ANC.  At a press briefing last Monday, the ANC’s provincial leadership insisted on describing its proposals as a Government of Provincial Unity led by the ANC. In other words, while the involvement of the DA was to be understood as an optional feature, merely one part of a complex system being constructed for “the good of the people”, while the ANC would be the essential component, generously inviting others in, and leading the process as a matter of right.  This is an astounding claim for a party that received just more than a third of the provincial votes, a mere six percentage points ahead of the DA (actually, even an ANC-EFF combination wouldn’t have taken the ANC over the 50% line).

Much of the ANC is deeply resistant to the idea of cooperating with the DA, whether or not this is couched in the language of “national unity”. Expect this to be a serious issue going forward.

The ANC also sits at the centre of network of influence, within which there is a great deal to lose. For the ideologues, there is the danger of the ANC straying from its (admittedly erratic) march towards a “national democratic society”. Fears that the ANC might compromise with the DA on cadre deployment, labour regulation, empowerment and so on are frightening to the true believers. (Though I believe that these issues will remain largely untouched for some time.)

To this must be added the concerns of the pragmatically opportunist. The ANC has done particularly well for a class of tender-dependent businesspeople. It has also worked assiduously to foster a narrative that its policies have been the driving force behind the careers of civil servants, successful entrepreneurs and professionals. And there are also those for whom the ANC has opened the door – wittingly or otherwise – for criminal exploitation of the state.

Interest groups

Each of these interest groups has a stake (or a perceived stake) in the failure of the GNU; at the very least, to the extent that the DA is excluded. When former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela stated that two thirds of the electorate had chosen “transformation” (in other words, had voted for the ANC, EFF, MK and Patriotic Alliance, though I wonder if the last one fits with the others) and this was the path to follow, she was expressing this reasoning.

The most obvious line of attack will be an appeal to racial nationalism. This has been the tiger the ANC has been riding since the 1990s, using it aggressively as a means of consolidating its own position and rejecting criticism from without, and never more so than when confronting the DA. In this, it has been eagerly assisted by a heterogenous group of activists, journalists and intellectuals. Race, so this argument goes, is at the heart of South Africa’s politics.

Racial messaging and urging racial solidarity place the ANC in a difficult position. Does it hold onto an agreement with a party that in its own analysis has (until now?) been “racist”, “white” and about “protecting white privilege”? If not, then would a more natural home not be with other “black” parties, pursuing an aggressive “transformation” agenda?

Hence understand the interesting timing of the reappearance of an old video by Renaldo Gouws. Deeply offensive certainly – even if it has been presented so as to distort the context – and guaranteed to encourage animosity. Once in the public domain, it could be taken up by all manner of commentators. The tenor of individual comments is unimportant, but each feeds the broad narrative of racism in the DA. Even Business Day, hardly a shill for the ANC, ran an editorial entitled ‘Renaldo Gouws saga is the DA’s antiracism test’. It’s correct that the DA’s vetting process failed it, but it acted swiftly and decisively as the details emerged – yet none of that really counts in a narrative sense, where the DA is always a “white party” having to pass “antiracist tests” and engage in continual “introspection”.

That the DA is actually South Africa’s only really multi-racial or non-racial party (whichever nomenclature appeals here) is irrelevant. Nor is the inconsistency of editorialising about Gouws but not the return of Andile Mngxitama to Parliament, his own checkered career notwithstanding. Nor even highlighting the rank hypocrisy that often accompanies such invective, Narrative organises and promotes particular assumptions and beliefs whether or not they are empirically true.

Push this hard enough, frame events and disagreements in suitably racialised terms, and enough bad feeling could plausibly be generated to collapse the GNU.  

Team up

A discredited relationship between the ANC and DA would open the way for a team up between the ANC and its offshoot parties – the “transformation” option, as Madonsela would describe it. From that point onward, the prospects for economic resuscitation and the endurance of constitutional governance would become very slim indeed. (Madonsela, incidentally and ironically, warned about Zuma having “sold the country to the Guptas” before the election.)

None of this is meant as an appeal to give a pass to the incoming government. Democracy means nothing at all if incumbents are to be excused their failings regardless (surely a lesson of the past few decades). It is, however, a warning about the stakes on the table. In particular, it is to say that there is a dire need to be vigilant about the tenor of debate. Societies under stress are vulnerable to the lure of emotional appeals, and in a country with South Africa’s past and makeup, this risk is heightened.

A better and more cautious approach to our society’s pathologies, informed by evidence and not emotion, and by understanding rather than narrative, would be very much to our advantage. The media and the country’s civil society bodies would do us all a great service by talking this to heart. Beware especially of the weaponisation potential of social media by malign actors, of whom there are no shortage.

This would not only lower the temperature in public debate – one might say, making debate possible – but might make it possible to deal constructively with instances of racist or otherwise reprehensible behaviour. Get this right and down the line, we might be able to talk in terms of unity, not as a straightjacketed conformity, but as a respectful acknowledgement of one another with all the messy differences that make up our country.

Conduct to be learned, and learning is a hard process. The future of a country in peril, however, demands nothing less.

If you like what you have just read, support the Daily Friend.

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.