/ 10 July 2024

GNU negotiations: Baby steps towards a brighter future

Anc 106th Birthday Celebrations In East London, South Africa
President Cyril Ramaphosa. (Photo by Masi Losi/Sowetan/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

South Africa’s June negotiations to form a government of national unity (GNU) were a rollercoaster. Still, they show what is possible when people with vast political differences get around the same table and talk about our shared future. 

Monitoring the news about the negotiations was a heart-in-the-mouth exercise. One day, I’d be euphoric about the progress parties were making, only to have my hopes crushed the next day as scathing letters were exchanged between party leaders. 

In the end, though, we have achieved what many political analysts would have deemed impossible just a couple of months ago — a government involving 11 parties that shows signs of stability.

My database of 253 top online news stories in June from TimesLive, News24 and IOL leaves no doubt about the chief protagonists in these negotiations: the ANC was mentioned 1 054 times in the database and the Democratic Alliance (DA) 738 times. 

The uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) party and Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), which both chose to sit out of negotiations before wanting in at the last possible moment before the ANC and DA cut a deal, were mentioned only 270 and 221 times, respectively.

Both the ANC and DA’s lead negotiators also dominated the news coverage. Helen Zille’s name showed the strongest statistical association with the DA while, with the ANC, Fikile Mbalula’s name showed the second-strongest association after that of spokesperson Mahlengi Bhengu-Motsiri. 

Despite this, Bhengu-Motsiri only appeared in the news on 4 to 6 June before the ANC announced that it would pursue a GNU instead of a coalition with one or two parties. 

In her last appearance, she “gave the strongest indication yet that the ANC was leaning towards a coalition permutation that includes the EFF”, a prospect which obviously did not materialise.

Sharp exchanges between Mbalula and President Cyril Ramaphosa, on the one hand, and Zille and DA leader John Steenhuisen, on the other, characterised most of the coverage of the negotiations. 

Mbalula wrote to Steenhuisen on 22 June, offering the DA six positions as minister and seven deputy minister slots. Zille wrote back the next day asking for 12 minister posts

This triggered a spat over the word “demands”, which was strongly associated with the DA in June’s news. In a thinly veiled reference to the DA, Mbalula wrote on 24 June that “some parties have been making outlandish and outrageous demands for specific cabinet positions in the media”. 

Six days later, after the ANC and DA had eventually agreed to a deal, Zille commented that the ANC “misrepresented the list of portfolios in which the DA expressed an interest as ‘demands’”. 

Perhaps Zille’s sensitivity about the word “demands” is understandable when one considers that the word “wants” was closely associated with the DA in the news media even before the election, so the idea of the DA being demanding is entrenched as a stereotype.

Zille and Mbalula also had to ensure they kept the rest of their parties on board with the decisions made in the negotiations. Zille brought proposals made in talks back to the DA’s federal council, which she chairs, and its federal executive, which gave the final stamp of approval to the GNU cabinet deal on Sunday 30 July. As a result, the word “federal” was strongly associated with the DA in June’s news.

Mbalula and Ramaphosa had a harder time selling a deal with the DA to their ANC comrades. The word “structures” was strongly associated with the ANC, and in most cases, these structures were portrayed as pushing back against the DA’s involvement in the unity government. 

These structures initially resisted the idea of an ANC-DA-Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) coalition, resulting in the decision to form a GNU instead. 

As negotiations about the cabinet composition took place, ANC structures also persuaded Ramaphosa to go back on his offer of the minister of trade, industry and competition post to the DA, almost resulting in the DA pulling out of the GNU.

Despite all this, miraculously, the ANC and DA were able to strike a deal on a national level, resulting in our spanking-new GNU cabinet. 

Things have gone differently in Gauteng, though, with talks between the two parties breaking down and ANC Premier Panyaza Lesufi creating a weak minority government with the IFP, Patriotic Alliance and Rise Mzansi. 

Observing the contrast between the GNU talks and negotiations in Gauteng is instructive. In the national discussions, Ramaphosa and Steenhuisen had each other on speed dial and kept talking until a deal was reached. Many of the mentions of Steenhuisen in the news describe rapid direct communications with Ramaphosa, including phone calls and meetings in which the final cabinet compromise was forged

By contrast, what stands out in coverage of the Gauteng talks is the unwillingness of both sides to make concessions in the interests of establishing a stable government. Mbalula alleged that the DA had earlier agreed to take three MEC positions out of 10 and then backtracked, asking for four. 

Meanwhile, the Gauteng ANC seems not to be walking in step with the party’s National Executive Committee. Lesufi’s refusal to distribute ministerial positions proportionally suggests a lack of humility in acknowledging the ANC’s poor results in the Gauteng polls. 

On the national level, the GNU cabinet negotiations have been taking faltering, stop-start baby steps towards a brighter future for South Africa. Now, the real work begins. 

Politicians from every party represented in the unity government will need to capitalise on the goodwill that has been created and keep talking to each other to make good collective decisions despite their differences on policy matters. 

If they can do this well, there will be checks and balances on the extremes of each party’s positions, and we’ll emerge with a better government than a dominant-party system could create. 

The GNU negotiations suggest that South Africans with vast differences can work together to make better decisions for our country — now, we must get going and make it happen.

Ian Siebörger is a senior lecturer in the department of linguistics and applied language studies in the faculty of humanities at Rhodes University.