This isn’t 1994: South Africa heading into the unknown with GNU 2024

 ·11 Jun 2024

While the ANC has touted a Government of National Unity (GNU) as the best option for South Africa—arguing that it has done this before in 1994—experts say that things are very different this time around, and more work will need to be done to make this type of government a success.

Following the announcement of the final results of the seventh democratic elections, the ANC, which received the largest proportion (around 40%) of the national vote, opted to approach South Africa’s various represented political parties to try to form part of a Government of National Unity.

This involves attempting to bring together politically opposed parties, including free-marketeers and Marxists, to form the seventh administration – although this broad working arrangement may not entirely materialise.

However, unlike South Africa’s previous stint with a GNU, Professor Jannie Rossouw of the Wits Business School predicts that a GNU formed in 2024 will involve significantly more extensive multi-party negotiations and concessions, as no single party commands an outright majority.

What is a Government of National Unity?

Very broadly, a GNU seeks to include a wide range of political parties represented in the legislature within a type of joint government.

The parties involved may negotiate a cooperative governance agreement outlining the distribution of key cabinet and oversight positions.

This is not a new phenomenon in South African politics. ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa said that establishing a GNU would be “building on a very rich history of cooperation across divides of politics and ideologies… drawing on experiences when the country was experiencing great difficulties.”

After the 1994 elections, a GNU was formed, with the ANC, National Party (NP), and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) as the main participating parties.

Rossouw said that the short-lived GNU in the first democratic administration fell apart as parties within the agreement “overestimated their roles,” not realising that the ANC technically ‘did not need them’ to govern at the time given their outright majority.

2024’s GNU is different to 1994

“However, a GNU in 2024 is going to be very different to 1994,” said Rossouw.

This is because unlike in 1994, the ANC does not have an outright parliamentary majority and is reliant on the other parties to ultimately govern.

Seventh administration Parliament seat allocation (201 needed for a majority) Graphic: Seth Thorne
PartyTotal National Assembly Seats
VF Plus6
Al Jama2

Because of the lack of an outright majority, unlike the previous GNU and other administrations, the seventh South African parliament is going to need to see far greater consensus-building to get things passed.

Rossouw said the GNU is “different this time round because the ANC are going to have to negotiate and find middle ground with other parties,” given that they cannot pass any of their positions with a majority vote on their own”.

This could prove more popular than a coalition agreement, as bringing in wide-ranging ideologies is seen as more ‘inclusive’.

Rossouw explained that a GNU “gives the impression of acting in the best interest of the country as a whole,” given the broad spectrum of representation seen in cabinet, as opposed to coalitions, which are often marked by “lobbying for positions.”

What is needed for a GNU to work

Rossouw emphasised that for a GNU to be successful, the participating parties must share key ideals and priorities, such as safeguarding the Constitution and enhancing economic growth, which would ultimately lead to a reduction in unemployment.

This is seen as crucial to stability, even though the parties hold different ideologies and represent different constituencies.

Ramaphosa echoed This, saying that parties should commit to “shared values, nation building, and cohesion.”

These values include “respect of the Constitution and the rule of law, social justice and equity, human dignity, non-racialism, non-sexism, stability, transparency, integrity , community participation, and good governance.”

Do all parties need to form part of the GNU?

Some parties have already drawn lines in the sand about working in a cabinet that includes certain other parties, whilst others have ruled out forming part of the GNU in its entirety.

However, Rossouw said that parties opting to sit these talks out does not mean that there would not be a GNU.

“If we look at 1994, the Democratic Party (which later became the Democratic Alliance) chose not to be part of the GNU… that did not stop the formation of a GNU,” said Rossouw.

The expert said that these parties that chose not to participate in a possible 2024 GNU (if it takes shape) would then be part of the opposition benches in Parliament.

Read: ANC pins hopes on Government of National Unity

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