GNU or coalition?: Therein lies the rub

PHAKAMISA MAYABA / The first thing that crept into this writer’s mind following the resurrection of the notion of a ‘government of national unity’ (GNU) was the televised images of Rooivalk helicopters hovering eerily over Lesotho on the orders of the late Mangosuthu Buthelezi. Older people will remember those dramatic scenes with a sense of dread.

Shenge, serving in Nelson Mandela’s GNU cabinet, was standing in as acting president for the old man, and when post-election violence erupted in the Mountain Kingdom, he wasted no time in deploying SANDF troops to quell the uprising. At the time, both Mandela and deputy president Thabo Mbeki were outside the country. Although they’d reportedly been briefed on the intervention, it’s anybody’s guess whether either would have resorted to the same militancy.

That is not to say the move was necessarily a cock-up on the part of Buthelezi. But it demonstrated a simple lesson: GNU is little more than a romanticized acronym. In practice, these marriages are not just polygamous unions, and cannot be divorced from ‘individual’ characters with their own mores and proclivities. As such, those with toxic kinks to iron out could pose a threat to everyone else. Ditto those with big egos.

Following the violent 2002 elections in Zimbabwe, Mbeki found himself in a similar predicament. But rather than take the hard line with the late former Zanu-PF leader Robert Mugabe, Mbeki’s delegation sought ‘quiet diplomacy,’ even going to great lengths to cover up the damning Khampepe report which had exposed that election as a sham. Mandela – at least the one who walked out of Victor Verster Prison in 1990 – had gone from a bellicose revolutionary calling for armed resistance against apartheid to a wholesale pacifist.

Rightly or wrongly, those figures prioritised order and national cohesion, ostensibly for the greater good, even if this came at the expense of their personal reputations and credentials. And irrespective of the shortcomings of these interventions, the crux of the message persists; Country before Party, gents, please! Although Mbeki chose to appease rather than challenge Mugabe, he is still widely blamed for Zimbabwe’s horrendous economic situation,  and by default our own growing immigrant problem. But nobody has yet accused him of having blood on his hands, not in respect of Zimbabwe anyhow.

* * *

Going through the governance options that lie before the ANC, one is confronted by similar concerns around violence, attacks on the constitution, as well as the subliminal ‘what-ifs’ which – riddled with uncertainties – give cause to even greater consternation. The ANC’s historic electoral decline has put us in limbo. Even the papers that usually keep us up to speed are mostly left to speculate as the key players talk – or try to talk – behind closed doors. Some of that speculation is, indeed, cause for concern.

A Tim Cohen asks in Daily Maverick, what happens if the MKP makes good on its threats to boycott the first sitting of the National Assembly (set for Friday, 14 June), when new members are due to be sworn in, and the Speaker, Deputy Speaker and President elected? Or its members refuse to be sworn in?

‘The Constitution,’ writes Cohen, ‘does not say what happens if an MP decides not to take the oath, it just says they must swear the oath. Presumably, they would be excluded from Parliament if they didn’t, but once again, the drafters of the Constitution couldn’t really imagine that any party would want to scrap the Constitution. But here we are.’

He notes that the Constitution does stipulate that the National Assembly consists of between 350 and 400 elected members. In a bid to delay things, what happens if the MKP then challenges Parliament for pressing on (in the event that they do) in its s absence? Apart from an acute aversion to both the nation’s founding document as well as our incumbent president, MKP (specifically Jacob Zuma) aren’t taking the nation into their confidence.

Zuma seems to be the person whom all the important people want to talk to, but he’s stealing his time, and making it clear that as long as Ramaphosa remains a ‘no-go’, the ANC can’t be serious about wanting to negotiate. By all indications, the self-styled political strategist has everybody on tenterhooks, pondering what he’s playing at. And, in light of the 2021 July riots, about whether — if he doesn’t get his way about a recount — his supporters would turn to violence.

It doesn’t help that his daughter Duduzile Zuma-Sambudla was fingered as a key figure in those riots, and that the MKP has come to be seen as a Zuma fiefdom. Heaping further panic on to an already tense situation are the hundreds of riot police being deployed to KZN. Certainly not a good omen in such precarious times.

While the power games seem to take priority over national interests, the more cunning minority parties are looking to take advantage of things in order to worm themselves into crucial roles they would not otherwise enjoy. In such unprecedented circumstances, everybody is in on capitalising on the ANC’s vulnerability.

In stating that Zuma is earnestly praying for an ANC-DA coalition, the Patriotic Alliance’s Gayton McKenzie has set the wolf among the pigeons. Why? Well, according to McKenzie, this would result in a mutiny, with some 71 councillors in the metros dumping the ANC for the MKP. Invariably, this will have dire consequences, and the metros will ‘collapse’. Not exactly the kind of language that brings comfort amidst the chaos. Unsurprising, therefore, McKenzie has not made it a secret that his sights are firmly set on the home affairs department. He is sticking to his guns on the #Abahambe campaign – to get rid of all illegal migrants.

It is, however, the EFF which has thrown us a curve ball, albeit a somewhat refreshing one. At a post-election presser, Julius Malema conceded that ‘negotiations of this nature need you to be ready to compromise on certain things’. But he was quick to point out that the issue of land was simply not one of those. Coming form someone who has called Ramaphosa a criminal’, one was equally floored by his next gem. ‘We want to work with the ANC. If there is any party that we can work with and work properly, it’s the ANC, because when compromised it is not arrogant,’ he said.

In the same breath, he expressed a willingness to work with the MKP as well as the DA, which he casually referred to as ‘those racists’, but was doubtful whether they’d manage to ‘find each other’ in such talks. He confirmed the desire for his deputy Floyd Shivambu to take up the finance ministry, but said he had no wish to call for Ramaphosa’s resignation, even though he regards him as a sellout. Although there were ‘discrepancies’ in the election process, he resoundingly welcomed the results as well as his party’s defeat.

It was all getting too sentimental to be true, and it was only a matter of time before a vintage Malema would unravel on the issue of a GNU. ‘We are not the likes of Mandela,’ he sneered, ‘we don’t do government of national unity. We don’t want it … we want [a] coalition.’ This is Malema’s ambitious demeanour kicking in: he seeks eminent status in governance, and finding himself surrounded by a host of ‘small boys’ in a GNU will simply not do.

His being the fourth biggest party, and the MKP unwilling to find common ground with the ANC, could put him amongst the big three in Parliament, alongside the ANC and the DA. It could be that the reason he’s keeping communication channels open with MKP is to gain a foothold in the provinces of Gauteng, KZN and Mpumalanga, where that party enjoys substantial support.

Herman Mashaba’s ActionSA, which looked like it would do well in the polls, has also opted not to jump onto the GNU bandwagon, preferring instead to operate as a ‘constructive opposition’ that will not be ‘corrupted by the trappings of power’.

* * *

Then of course there’s the second biggest party, the DA. In leftist circles, a marriage with this party will be construed as pandering to the masters and madams at ‘Stellenbosch.’ It will be akin to handing the country back to the former oppressors, and old-guard purists will sooner resign than commit such a treasonous act. However, the devil is in both Ramaphosa and Mbalula’s phrasing. Perhaps calling the potential arrangement a ‘GNU’ was Ramaphosa’s way of allaying such fears as best he could. To say, Comrades, it wouldn’t be the first time we’ve had to sleep with the enemy; we did it in 1994. Mbalula’s echoing of ‘like a CODESA’ is probably aimed at achieving a similar end.

Whether the crimson amongst the NDR will accept this is uncertain. But in the event of a majority buy-in, will the DA manage to reconfigure itself to adjust to this new reality? What will it make of its promise to scrap race-based redress laws? Will Helen Zille crook the knee and accept that in this new environment, colonialism was bad, and that’s it? Can those who swear by cadre deployment work side by side with meritocrats? Can it conscientiously share the same gallery with those ANC cadres whom it has been trying to nail? Many of its supporters have threatened to leave if the party ever entered into such a coalition.

But for party leader John Steenhuisen, doubtless with the backing of its top brass, this would be precisely the sort of result they have sought to achieve –the chance to show their mettle in strategic areas of governance, and to replicate the kinds of successes they’ve achieved in the Western Cape in other parts of the country. With this in mind, they may well compromise on the aforementioned areas of disagreement, in exchange for an opportunity to prove themselves to the electorate. Depending on how they play their cards, this could become a watershed in South Africa’s post-1994 history. But will they be able to shed the ‘old boys club’ tendencies and ‘baaskap‘ attitude they often find themselves accused of?

Only time will tell. If you ignore a disgruntled Ace Magashule in the Free State, and an angrier Jacob Zuma in Nkandla, most parties seem ready to meet the future with open minds. Despite political differences, the general attitudes suggest that they understand that they have election promises to fulfill, a country to run, and economic interests to protect. Violence would not be good for anybody. Certainly on that score, the nation feels pretty much the same way.

FEATURED IMAGE: F.W. de Klerk and Nelson Mandela, who buried the hatchet — for a while — and worked together in a GNU.

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared on Phakamisa Mayaba’s website, eParkeni. Used with permission.

Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap