Ill-fitting coalition: Why South Africa's unity government is good for Africa

Thursday June 20 2024
Cyril Ramaphosa

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa. REUTERS

By Abdisaid M. Ali

South Africa’s elections, last month, showed us new things. The African National Congress (ANC) failed to get a clear majority for the first time since 1994. It was then compelled into the formation of an unprecedented coalition government.

President Cyril Ramaphosa, who won his second term, invited parties, including the Democratic Alliance (DA) and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), to form a national unity government.

The general sense appears to be that the ANC’s failure to get a majority is evidence of growing democracy and stronger ownership of political processes by citizens who are making their votes count.

Yet there are many who have warned against the coalition, arguing that it would undo all the good achievements of the ANC and make critical issues around land, migration, foreign policy and others difficult to tackle. This is because ANC and the DA have always been at odds on these issues, historically.

There is something good in this ‘convenient marriage’, however.  Some observers have rightly considered it a success story for South Africa, and maybe Africa as a whole. The ANC and DA are two parties that have primarily seen each other as enemies. Now it sounds like a great milestone that they are able to hold dialogue with each other, find common ground, and see a future where they work together for South Africa. It could be the best direction for South Africa to take.

In Africa, such Governments of National Unity (GNU) have often arisen out of conflicts as a compromise power-sharing arrangement to end war or solve a disputed election. We have seen it in South Sudan after the signing of the revitalised peace agreement in 2018. We also saw it in Kenya after the 2008 post-election violence. Zimbabwe too had some form of government of national unity.


The ANC, however, reached out to partners even when the election result was not in dispute. It did so to turn its internal crisis into a national crisis. That may not be fair to South Africans. From a conflict prevention perspective, however, going the coalition/GNU route was a better option.

That it went for an arch-enemy was also telling. But perhaps it was because choices were limited.

On the other hand, the uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) party of Jacob Zuma, which started shortly before the election and received competitive votes, made it the third largest party in the country that could roil the ANC further. Some argue that the MK is simply another faction of the ANC, in essence, and that its success represents the deep-rooted divisions and discontent that were problematic within the ANC.

The votes that the MK party received may have mostly come from the ANC voters tired of the Mandela party. The MK party apparently also told voters they were still the ANC, just not the ANC of President Ramaphosa. They would work with the ANC if Ramaphosa was ousted. So that means the growth of the MK primarily is the loss of the ANC.

From this perspective, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF)’s loss, as some claim (it still maintained its position), we have just witnessed a split of the ANC. The ANC, hence avoided reuniting with those it split with in the first place.

But why is ANC avoiding the devils (EFF, MK) they know? In fact, it got into union with another devil they knew. The coalition with DA was unimaginable given the huge differences in the origins and policies of both parties. The DA to some degree represented the legacy of apartheid, given its white majority orientation. It also pursued free market liberalism and a desire to westernise South Africa. The ANC, on the other hand, represented the legacy of the liberation struggle from apartheid and a continuous fight for justice and transformation with reference to South Africa’s history.

The good bit is that the administrative efficiency of the DA, as shown in its reign in the Western Cape, however, stands out against the corruption and failures of the ANC. The ANC, though, always remained a more secure option for the majority of South Africans. These opposing values could create something good for the coalition, making a self-accountable administration from within its ranks.

On the other hand, the GNU could force diverse opposition parties to rally together to check the GNU’s excesses. So far, the MK party is seeking its own coalitions to form a strong opposition against the current government. One possibility is that we might just see an emerging EFF-like opposition to the coalition, but with less friendly goals and policies than the EFF.

Now that parliamentarians have been sworn in and a president elected, they have the authority to govern but need to also critically engage questions around how the coalition agreements are finalised. The events of the past weeks continue to, in my view, position South Africa uniquely within the African continent as exemplifying peaceful, free and fair electoral processes, adherence to the constitution and rule of law, and a growing democracy that is resilient and adapts to difficult situations and change.

While President Ramaphosa may have some weaknesses, his handling of the post-election situation and going the dialogue and collaboration route is true to his character. Through this action, South Africa sets an example of peaceful transitions, inclusivity, bridging divides and conflict prevention. The call for GNU is pragmatic and prevents conflicts.

It pursues collaboration over tensions and creates an environment for stability for the economy to remain stable and thrive. It also gives South Africa to approach critical bipartisan issues more collaboratively.

Abdisaid M. Ali is the chairperson of Lomé Peace and Security Forum, Former Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation and Former National Security Advisor, Somalia.