/ 13 June 2024

A new GNU: South Africa’s first democratic election and the evolution of power sharing in the ANC

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CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA - May 6, 1990: F.W. de Klerk and Nelson Mandela during negotiations between the Apartheid government and the ANC. (Photo by Gallo Images via Getty Images/ Sunday Times)

In April 1994, South Africans cast their vote in what was the first democratic election to be based on universal suffrage. 

After centuries of colonialism and decades of apartheid, the people had finally attained the freedom to choose their government; symbolically recapturing the Republic.

Now a government would be based on the will of the people. The ANC had the privilege to hold the people’s power in trust, and the mandate to derive from it the authority to govern. 

But when the ANC formed a multiparty government of national unity, the design seemed counterintuitive and contrary to democracy.

In fairness to history, we should not blame the misunderstanding of the 1994 GNU to the treachery of democratic literalism.

It was the prospect of power sharing between barely reconciled ideological and moral enemies that confounded the people. 

These apparent contradictions were fundamental. First, the ANC had incorporated its ideological and moral contraries to the ranks of its government; a government whose priority was to fix those ideological and moral problems. 

Second, the white members of Nelson Mandela’s cabinet had not yet convinced the people that they had shed the apartheid ideology or mindsets — if they even did try. But they were also part of leading national unity and non-racialism.

So why did the people not undermine the political judgment of their leaders or even revolt against them? I propose two scenarios from my recall of the political climate of that time. 

First, the political leaders and activists at all structural levels were not only visible in communities, they were irresistibly drawn to them. It was therefore easy for people to make sense of the apparent contradictions that arose when their fresh democracy was being institutionalised. The political activists who understood and could plainly explain complexity were regular conversational companions in communities, not on social media.

Second, no matter how sophisticated the oratory of political leaders in the state and government, even the least literate in the communities could identify with the translated speeches. That was because they recognised the script because they co-authored it, and were assured of explanation if deviations were unavoidable.

For example, when it became apparent that the combined domestic and international muscle of capitalism was too strong to force nationalisation at the time, Mandela  held a press briefing to explain this political situation to the people.

Fast forward to 29 May 2024, the ANC is back to the highest levels of power sharing.  Only this time, the party did not design a coalition government in spite of election outcomes; it crash landed on it because of the election outcomes. Therefore, the ANC leaders today are even more obligated to explain the apparent contradictions of a coalition government the voters did not bargain for. What implications could this extraordinarily high level coalition government have of the policies they voted for?

But this proposition does not seem to be a priority at the moment. Perhaps forcing it is inopportune given the shocking flounder of the titanic ANC. 

Meanwhile, an ANC voter in the Western Cape has asked for help to understand how a coalition government might not affect the prospects of the National Health Insurance (NHI) or black economic empowerment.  

The NHI and black economic empowerment were some of the issues he had in mind when he voted for the ANC on 29 May. 

And since he believes that the DA vehemently opposes these programmes, he cannot understand how the ANC can implement them if it is forced to partner with the DA.

An attempt to discuss the ideological implications of a coalition did not seem palatable to some of the highly irritated ANC loyalists.

But the fact is, not all people that voted for the ANC are its members. For such people, voting for the ANC was incidental to the logic that is well and cogently articulated in the Freedom Charter. 

Even the Freedom Charter, for that matter, is contingent on something more fundamental to the worldview of such voters. 

What is more fundamental is the shared space and time, and how these two dimensions fix the ontological parameters of political thought. This means it is more productive to tackle the reality of problematic white supremacy than to entertain the fantasy about chasing white people back to the sea. 

We are more realistic in thinking about land that belongs to all who live in it, than thinking about returning the stolen land as a political end. The colonial merciless principle of  “occupy and expel or kill” is still hard to forgive.  

But we are better off keeping the agricultural economy and food security intact, by coupling land redistribution with the recovery of the capability to work the land. 

The fact is, colonialism did not take only the land, it also corroded the capability of the next generations to work it. 

And with continued generational alienation from the land, the acquisition of agricultural technology and industrial sophistication was delayed for them. 

So if the logic of shared space and time fixes the ontological parameters of political thought, why would you vote for the impossibility of chasing white people back to the sea?

Besides, believing that “South Africa belongs to all who live in it [legally] excuses us from singing Kill the Boer and risk conditioning ourselves to become political murderers. 

However, philosophical import of this realism is not political determinism, where no further political ideas or imagination are possible.  At the very least, it attempts to illustrate how to ground political thought and choice on the realities of South Africa — as a point of departure.

This is why the prospect of the ANC in a coalition government is also a matter of ideological interest — at least to the person who puts ideals and principles before political parties. 

The consequent inquiry is how the ANC will prevail in the game of political realism and fantasy that might unfold in that coalition government. 

But South African politicians in general tend to put an iron curtain between a voter and a citizen; as if the citizen and the voter is not the same person. It is the same person. So, do answer the citizen. It is their votes that are being sucked into the black hole of a coalition government between clumsy mutual saboteurs — if the example of the City of Johannesburg is anything to go by.

Mzwandile Manto kaB. Wapi is a thinker and community activist.