Government’s Fragile Unity Stretched

As MPs get ready to reconvene parliament next week, Ian Clayton analyses the tensions in the Government of National Unity

THE fragile political unity in the Government of National Unity — with the ANC, the National Party and the Inkatha Freedom Party as unlikely bedfellows — is coming under strain as MPs and party members become increasingly restless about the compromises necessary to make the deal work.

In the immediate post-election and post-inauguration phase, party leaders were able to preserve the image of common purpose in the interests of the broad goals of promoting democracy and reconstruction.

But that is beginning to come unstuck — and will come under increasing pressure in the next four months as parliament gets down to the serious business of dismantling the bureaucratic apartheid empire and replacing it with democratic structures. And, as reports this week reflected, the NP could be the first to break ranks, although it will almost certainly not quit the GNU at this stage.

NP MPs are envious that the tiny and much-scorned Democratic Party has emerged as the parliamentary opposition to the government, and the ANC in particular.

Indeed, so jealous are they of the role played by DP acting leader Tony Leon in exposing the police and the ANC over the Shell House shootings in which eight IFP supporters were killed, that the NP’s chief whip, Hennie Smit, says the party wants to play a dual role as both an opposition party and as “responsible co-governors”.

The NP’s real problem, though, is more fundamental: it has lost its purpose. The party that tried to force apartheid on South Africa with missionary zeal became the party of the gravy train. It handed out jobs and high income positions to loyalists, people who served the government machine as long as they were paid. And that has all but gone.

Its one common ideological strain was an all-embracing anti- communism, but now it sits in the GNU with communists. After February 2 1990, and with the election of FW de Klerk as its leader — remember how he just managed to defeat Barend du Plessis — the NP did, briefly, become a party of reform, but that ended with the April election.

With its historical baggage, the NP does not have much to contribute to the building of democracy and redressing its own wrong-doing. As it stumbles around, a process aided by De Klerk’s holiday in Europe — which has left the party rudderless for many weeks — it’s an open secret that many of its old guard, particularly former ministers and deputy ministers, are considering taking their pensions and getting out while the going is good. A number of NP MPs are expected to quit before the end of the year.

As De Klerk re-enters active politics, he may be able to use his stature and charm to stamp his authority on the NP’s troubled caucus.

This week, the salt was rubbed into the NP’s wound by Justice Minister Dullah Omar’s statements of solidarity with Cuba. Nothing could be further from the NP’s ideological soul and yet it is part of the same government as Omar.

The ANC caucus, too, has similar problems. Many ordinary MPs simply cannot handle being on the same side — or at least being seen to be on the same side — as the NP and particularly the IFP. And the compromises in the GNU are often painful.

The South African Communist Party’s attack on President Nelson Mandela’s statements about the wave of strikes must be seen in the context of the problems being faced internally by the ANC alliance about its role in government.

As parliament reconvenes next week to debate the welter of legislation facing it and the first 100 days of Mandela’s government, these tensions are bound to become more obvious. But for the time being at least, the GNU is expected to survive.

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