A milestone in South Africa for a humiliated ANC

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South Africa has a national unity government again, 30 years after a similar deal helped stabilize the transition to full democracy from a country divided by the racist system of apartheid.

This time, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) was forced to negotiate an agreement after losing its controlling majority in the elections.

It marks a milestone for the country, confirming that the white-led Democratic Alliance is among the ANC’s new partners – a combination once considered unimaginable by many in South Africa.

The main opposition DA party was formed from a union of groups that included what was left of the ruling apartheid-era National Party, and is a proponent of a free market economy that runs counter to the ANC’s left-wing traditions.

Many details still need to be completed on Friday afternoon. And it is still possible that breakaway parties from the ANC that have not joined the unity government could try to influence events from outside.

But the deal has shaped South Africa’s political future as the new parliament convened on Friday for the first time since last month’s historic elections.

“Today, June 14, 2024, will go down in the annals of history as the beginning of a new chapter for our beloved country,” DA leader John Steenhuisen said in a statement in Cape Town, where parliament was meeting.

More details, including the distribution of Cabinet posts, are expected to emerge in the coming days. But this is not an alliance for national unity like the one negotiated by Nelson Mandela in 1994.

At the time, the ANC reached across the divide from a position of strength. Now she does this from a position of political necessity.

The composition is similar. Thirty years ago, the ANC joined forces with the National Party that ruled during apartheid and the Zulu nationalist Inkhata Freedom Party (IFP).

The IFP has already confirmed it will be back on board, alongside the smaller Patriotic Alliance, meaning Cyril Ramaphosa will enjoy another term as president.

But “this is not a government of national unity,” says TK Pooe of the Wits University School of Governance in Johannesburg.

“It’s just a bit of camouflage so that people don’t have to recognize that it’s a big coalition.”

That’s because the parties that came third and fourth in the elections are not included: former president Jacob Zuma’s uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) party and the radical Economic Freedom Fighters, which is popular among black youth in the city.

Few doubt that negotiations have been difficult since the May 29 elections.

Many in South Africa are now asking themselves one simple question: will it work?

Fikilie Mbalula, the ANC secretary-general, has emphasized that “an emphasis on the centre” was the best response to a message from voters who wanted parties to work together to bring stability to South Africa.

But the political differences between the two main parties of the new coalition are sometimes great.

Perhaps the biggest and most controversial issues are the DA’s opposition to the ANC’s national healthcare policy and its black economic empowerment program.

A black woman at a rally with the DA logo stamped on her face.A black woman at a rally with the DA logo stamped on her face.

The Democratic Alliance (DA) is struggling to broaden its appeal to black voters (Getty Images)

The DA accuses the positive discrimination measures of being inefficient, not rewarding meritocracy and enriching ANC cronies.

Derek Hanekom, ANC member of South Africa’s original national unity government, believes the differences are sometimes overemphasized.

“If they say they really don’t like the legislation,” he told the BBC, “it doesn’t mean they don’t recognize the need for some form of positive discrimination or some form of redress – they do.”

“The parties are willing to compromise and be flexible and ultimately reach consensus in decision-making.”

However difficult a compromise may prove, the announcement of a coalition will bring a sense of relief to many investors and those in the private sector who may be hoping for a period of stability.

They were concerned about the radical left policies of the ANC’s more natural allies, the EFF and MK.

Both advocate the nationalization of land and property – with the aim of redistributing wealth to correct the racial inequality that remains entrenched despite the ANC’s initial success in lifting millions of black people out of poverty.

The EFF rejected the idea of ​​a national unity government to which the DA also belonged, and the MK rejected the constitution, so it did not meet the criteria for membership. Not to mention the personal animosity between Mr Zuma and the man who ousted him as president, Mr Ramaphosa.

EFF leader Julius Malema said the party plans to remain on the opposition benches and would like to take on a key role in the oversight committees.

It is possible that one or both parties will make efforts to disrupt the proceedings in the coming weeks and months.

MK has made claims of election fraud, despite failing to provide evidence, in an attempt to block Friday’s parliamentary meeting in a legal attempt rejected by the Constitutional Court.

For ANC supporters, another question is whether the party of liberation will be forced to soften its ideology to align with its new partners.

Speaking to journalists on Thursday evening, Mbalula repeatedly stressed that a coalition did not mean the ANC had changed. “No party is dying,” he said, “the ANC is not going anywhere.”

But some believe power sharing threatens the party – and could embolden its opponents outside the deal.

“If this grand coalition does not work and discontent grows, it will only contribute to the EFF and the MK,” says Pooe of Wits University. “But perhaps the most important question is whether we are seeing a new ANC.”

Mr Hanekom agrees that South Africa’s seventh parliament could be crucial for his party. “It all depends on what happens in the next few years,” he says.

“This could be the party people have been waiting for, the kind of leadership people have been waiting for.

Despite his optimism, the stakes are high for the ANC veteran. “This is a second chance,” he says, “and we don’t dare to fail. Otherwise it will mean the end of the ANC. And for the sake of our country, it must not fail.”

“This could be a reset, or a slow road where South Africa becomes a sad story,” Pooe told the BBC.

“Their performance will show what it is. If it’s a good performance, it’s a good reset. If it doesn’t really do anything, it’s just us bumbling towards a well-established, struggling developing country.”

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