/ 23 June 2024

The ANC in coalition is nothing new

Ramaphosa Inauguration 2053 Dv
Term two: Chief Justice Raymond Zondo (left) and President Cyril Ramaphosa (right) at the latter’s inauguration on Wednesday. The author says the next five years will be a new test for the ANC. Photo: Delwyn Verasamy

Nelson Mandela, in a 1990 interview, when referring to the identity of the ANC, stated that it was not a political party but instead a coalition. 

What he was gesturing towards was the inevitable variety of economic interests housed within the party: liberal, socialist, free market, conservative.

Now, however, this insight helps to explain the course followed by the party, not just over the past few weeks, but over the past 30 years.

The recently formed government of national unity (GNU) has been hailed in all-too-familiar terms as a “new dawn” for South African society. Perhaps unintentionally, there is an aptness to this metaphor in that dawn is a cyclical phenomenon — it happens literally every day. 

Unfortunately, expectations of radically different politics resulting from the most recent in a series of ANC pacts would be as absurd as expecting to wake up in a different world, simply because the sun has risen yet again.

This is not to say the new day has nothing interesting in store. The pact between the ANC and the Democratic Alliance (DA) is the first overt political pact mandating white and black constituencies to govern together in the country’s history. 

Should the GNU sustain for the next five years, this coalition is likely to change both the ANC and the DA in important ways. Most optimistically, greater scrutiny could aid in re-professionalising sections of the state. 

However, as much as some things could change, many more will simply remain the same. For a start, South Africa’s governance and policy landscape is likely to remain as contradictory as ever. 

Over the past 30 years of ANC governance, different ministries and policies have sought to appease the multiple interest groups within the broad church of the party. 

By performing a balancing act in responding with a patchwork of different policies to the diverse interests of corporate South Africa, international powers, the growing black middle class, the urban poor, traditional leaders, trade union federation Cosatu, etc, the ANC has been able to maintain its political hegemony at the expense of any real direction to South Africa’s economy and society. 

Economically, for example, the state under the ANC has simultaneously adopted policies resembling those of a developmental state and those of a free market. 

This avowed “mixed-economy” approach is not necessarily an incorrect choice, given its political virtues, but it must be acknowledged for what it is — contradictory.  

The negotiations necessary for the functioning of the GNU are likely to simply shift the source of the contradiction away from the factionalised ANC, in coordination with its tripartite alliance partners, to a factionalised government of national unity, where parties with disparate, and often opposing, agendas will engage in horse trading in order to arrive at an overall consensus, the substance of which has less to do with consistency than with optimising party gains. 

The source of this trend of contradiction, and the attendant compromises, is South African society itself. In a democratic context, a pluralist society of distinct cultures and extreme inequality, where no group holds dominance, will exert opposing pressures. 

Any government, in the presence or the absence of the ANC, will have to respond to this fact about South African society.

There are, I believe, multiple misinterpretations of the current political moment. One misinterpretation is that the allyship with the DA is necessarily a shift to the right for the ANC. 

Rather than dragging the ANC to the right, its coalition with the DA could well drive the ANC to represent a more left-leaning political pole within the coalition, especially given the competition from the Economic Freedom Fighters and uMkhonto weSizwe parties which, together, amassed just under 25% of the vote. 

The second and perhaps more important error exists in the claim that the recent election results are the death knell for three decades of ANC political hegemony. 

What the past few weeks have taught us is that even a declined ANC remains at the centre of South African politics, both practically and ideologically. 

The next five years will be a test of whether the ANC can adjust to its new role of coalition-maker to continue its democratic dominance. 

History suggests that the probable outcome will be in the affirmative. This is because, while having provided dysfunctional governance at every possible level, and presiding over an economy in decline over the past 15 years, the ANC’s forte lies in negotiation.

Successful negotiators derive their power from coordinating win-win outcomes, especially when, in the absence of coordination, mutual losses occur. It is through the very state of being coordinated, however, that power is implicit. 

And for as long as the ANC invites all willing collaborators to the table, as it did when it announced the GNU, and for as long as there is incentive for collaborators to cooperate with the ANC, the party will wield significant power. 

The past week has showed the ANC in its element, with secretary general Fikile Mbalula relishing his very own Codesa moment. 

Meanwhile, ANC and national president Cyril Ramaphosa added another historical moment of pact-making to his CV, alongside those from his early days at the National Union of Mineworkers, at Codesa, as a businessman and that necessary to secure his victory over Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma at Nasrec in 2017.  

While the ANC’s history of pact-making and negotiation has given it its power, it has also been its fatal flaw. Once a liberation movement, it has made deals with old and evil foes in order to secure its passage into government. 

Now its political opponents have had to make their own compromises for which they will be held accountable. Such is the poisoned chalice of power, ever present on the bedside table of politics. 

Dylan Stewart, the deputy secretary general of the Italian-South African Chamber of Commerce, takes a great interest in global and national politics and economics.