/ 4 July 2024

GNU: Will we work together this time?

Graphic Tl Williams Unity Page 0001
(Graphic: John McCann/M&G)

When the ANC and others were unbanned in 1990 by National Party leader FW de Klerk, one recalls Zach de Beer, the leader of the Democratic Party, saying something to the effect that we have an opportunity to create a better future, but it will depend on whether we are greedy or not. We are faced with similar choices today. 

As we know, no single political party received a decisive majority in the 29 May 2024 elections. Similar to 1990, when the end of apartheid was being negotiated and the economy was imploding, we are once again asked to put aside perceptions and prejudices and work together in the interest of our country. 

I am not confident that we will. 

History shows that we acted as if we were going to, but in reality we did not. From at least 1990 to 2008 the magnanimity of the ANC was not reciprocated by either the National Party or Democratic Party’s successor, the Democratic Alliance (DA), under Tony Leon and Helen Zille. Today we may be witnessing history repeating itself as a government of national unity is once again being negotiated in the hope of establishing a single shared vision for South Africa.

In the 1990s, the ANC went out of its way to allay white people’s fears of democracy and freedom and proposed the so-called sunset clauses that guaranteed jobs for white people in the government and the parastatals for at least five years, as well as discarding any plans to nationalise and expropriate property that was amassed during apartheid.

The ANC leadership stood against its own members and supporters who regarded the compromises as too much. Even when Chris Hani, the ANC and South African Communist Party leader, was assassinated by Polish immigrant Janusz Walus and Clive Derby-Lewis, the founder of the Conservative Party, it was the ANC leadership who stepped up and ensured that the people did not seek retribution.

None of the ANC’s behaviour was reciprocated by the National Party and business leaders in the country.

When the ANC took over the government in 1994, it found that in the last period of apartheid De Klerk and his cronies had stripped as much as they could carry. It was not that De Klerk and his wife removed the last teaspoon from the presidential residence, but that they sold themselves and their cronies as many of the state assets as they could muster. The ANC leadership still thought that this was just based on fear, and instead of arguing and exposing this duplicity, they were the bigger people, believing that this is what the country required. 

The ANC government did not attempt to seek any retribution, passed business-friendly legislation and developed equally friendly policy, and first appointed Gencor chairperson Derek Keys as the finance minister from 1992 to 1994, who was then replaced by former Nedbank chief executive Chris Liebenberg from 1994 to 1996. 

The false cooperation from De Klerk and other white leaders was short-lived and they pulled out of the government of national unity, and many in the white community embraced the abrasive and destructive opposition style of politics of Leon and later Zille.

We seem to be reliving that period.

The ANC may not have received a decisive majority in this year’s elections, but it received the most votes — nearly double that of its nearest rival. Instead of rushing to form a coalition with a number of smaller parties to make up for the 10% it needs, the ANC opted for a government of national unity and issued an open invitation to other parties.

The DA was the first to jump at the opportunity and publicly expressed its support for the unity government. But, just like De Klerk in the negotiations period, its positive energy did not last long. 

The party pushed arrogantly and rudely for a power-sharing arrangement, ignoring the other political parties that also were joining the government of national unity and that the ANC had nearly twice the number of votes the DA received. 

At the same time, just as in 1990 and after 1994 with the adoption of the business-friendly Growth, Employment and Redistribution (Gear) macroeconomic policy, for which the ANC faced a backlash from its supporters and allies, today it is being hauled over the coals for seemingly getting into bed with the neo-conservative, anti-transformation DA rather than the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and the uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) party. 

South Africans who thought of themselves as left-leaning or progressive and regardless of whether they supported the ANC are criticising it for forming a unity government that includes the DA. As in the 1990s, the accusation was that the ANC leaders had sold out to business and white people.

The election results have shown that the ANC is facing an existential crisis. With the local government elections to take place in 2026, it has less than two years to reverse its march into ignominy. 

The ANC had no choice but to advocate for a government of national unity. A grand coalition, or even a minority government, would have been interpreted by all that they were more interested in securing the perks and benefits of government for themselves rather than listening to the people. 

So what are the people saying? 

Too often we think of matters in black and white terms. In the various social media platforms the ANC has been taking a beating for joining with what is regarded as a white party, as if it is a crime to be white in South Africa. Indeed, the leaders of the EFF in particular have berated the ANC for allowing the DA to join the unity government — neatly forgetting its support for the DA in various councils and legislatures since the party was established in 2013. 

But the results of the 2024 elections show that the people of South Africa do not think in black and white terms. There has been noticeable and growing support for the DA in areas of the country where there are very few white people (if any) such as in Diepsloot, Hammanskraal, Daveyton and parts of Soweto. 

We must understand that quite a few poor black people, not just the middle class, decided to put their cross next to John Steenhuizen’s face, not that of the ANC’s Cyril Ramaphosa or the EFF’s Julius Malema or even the MK party’s Jacob Zuma. For many in the townships, they are tired. They do not care about the National Democratic Revolution, the Freedom Charter or any other progressive platitude. They just want their lives to improve dramatically. 

The ANC’s Tintswalo story of free schools, scholar transport, university education and so forth is appreciated but the other side of the story is that persistent under-employment, arrogant government bureaucrats, rapidly deteriorating government institutions and deepening poverty remains in a deep-rooted perception of rampant corruption. 

To them the future, like the present, seems bleak.

The ANC recognised that any union with the DA, even in a government of national unity, would run the risk of the DA attempting to consume the ANC; any success of that unity government may be attributed to the DA’s presence; or, in racist terms, the black leaders’ hands must be held by the white baas.

If the ANC joined the EFF and the MK party, it also ran the risk of making it seem like business as usual — the dysfunctionality of state institutions and corruption by the government would continue. It would have seemed that the ANC had ignored the plight of the poor in the townships and rural areas. It would also bring to a grinding halt the party’s renewal programme.

So either decision would not be in the interest of the ANC. Given the circumstances the ANC has found itself in, it has taken the best decision it could — a unity government in which everyone recognises that the ANC is in charge. It has also managed to varying degrees to put the DA in its place. How long will that continue is anyone’s guess.

I wonder if the ANC knew that its election slogan, “Working together, we can do more”, would be so apt.

Let us hope that our leaders in the GNU, especially those who lead white people and black people who regard themselves as radicals, do not spurn the magnanimity of the ANC leaders as they did in the 1990s. 

Donovan E Williams is a social commentator. Follow him on X @TheSherpaZA.