GNU: ANC’s attempt at political genius

And as far back into history as minority governments go, they are doomed from the onset. Everyone knows this. The ANC knows this.

The curtain came down on South Africa’s election and the ANC lost its mandate to govern alone at the national level. It can still do it by forming a minority government if it convinces enough MPs to vote for its President but without any formal coalition. But that’s untenable at the moment. Opposition parties are going in for the spoils.

And as far back into history as minority governments go, they are doomed from the onset. Everyone knows this. The ANC knows this.

As such, two political solutions seem to gain currency. One is a coalition government made up of a few of the political parties. The other is the touted ‘big tent’ preferred by the ANC — the Government of National Unity (GNU). While having some similar features, coalitions and unity governments are fundamentally different. In my submission this week, I analyze why a GNU is an attempt at genius by an ANC caught in an untenable Hobson’s choice.  But before I go there, let me school you for a moment, my dear reader.

Of coalitions and GNUs

To properly unpack my thesis, I must first draw the distinction between a coalition government and a government of national unity.

A coalition government is where two or more political parties who have no parliamentary majority cooperate to form a government and share executive power.

There are still some parties with parliamentary seats that may not be part of that coalition and they become the opposition. Usually those parties with closer ideological inclinations would form a coalition government.

Coalition governments have gained prominence in multi-party electoral democracies in recent decades as the hegemony of dominant political parties and two-party systems dwindle.

Coalitions have become the norm and not the exception with more than 30% of democracies currently governed by coalitions. Some of these are pre-electoral pacts while some are post-electoral pacts.

On the other hand, a GNU is an inclusive government where all political parties with parliamentary seats form a government in a power-sharing deal. It is a proverbial ‘big tent’ aimed at building national unity usually after a crisis. Zimbabwe has had a GNU after its 2008 political and economic crisis, Kenya in 2007 after widespread political violence which claimed lives of thousands, and South Africa had one in 1994 at the end of apartheid.

In such a scenario, ideological inclinations do not matter. All differences are set aside or rather papered over. All that matters are economic and political considerations in post-crisis nation-building.

Class is dismissed.

The ANC’s political problem

For the ANC to angle for a GNU when South Africa is not in a post-crisis state is not political madness. I would aver to say if it is political madness then there is a method to it.

You see dear reader; the primary motivation of governing elites is self-preservation. They are concerned with the acquisition and retention of power.

Whatever political move they make is aimed at acquiring power, consolidating power, retaining power or, survival in power. The ANC is pushed by the same political logic.

At the moment, the ANC faces a political problem in that whatever coalition arrangement they end up with will inflict significant political loss in the near future.

A coalition with the DA and IFP will result in it watering down its left-leaning policies and losing significant political and electoral support to the EFF and MK. It will also brew serious internal discord with its tripartite alliance partners, COSATU and SACP. These two have already fired warning shots and declared their preference for EFF and MK. If it goes into a coalition with EFF and MK it will lose the support of its moderates and white capital backers to the DA, PA, and IFP. Significant implications also lie in wait on the international relations front for either coalition arrangement. I discussed this in my previous installment.

2026 looms large

The risk of losing further electoral support at the back of coalition politics is very real for the ANC as the shadow of the 2026 local government elections looms large. Whatever coalition arrangement it takes will inflict mortal wounds on the party.

These will have serious electoral consequences in the local government elections.

It is caught in a classical Hobson’s choice scenario in which whatever choice it makes results in a political loss. The ANC has to choose between two evils. Whatever party it goes into marriage with will give it a kiss of death. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t!

But what if the ANC doesn’t have to make that choice? At least for now. This is where its attempt at political genius comes in.

Attempt at political genius?

The ANC has, at least in public, expressed its inclination towards a GNU with all political parties in a power-sharing government similar to Mandela’s 1994 cabinet.

One might wonder why a GNU and not a coalition. South Africa is not emerging from a political, economic, or natural crisis of any sort which makes it necessary to constitute a GNU. If anything, it is the ANC itself that is in a political crisis and on the verge of losing power.

Well, a GNU means the ANC doesn’t have to choose a coalition partner.

It doesn’t have to make a potentially fatal commitment for now, allowing it to buy time at least until the 2026 local government elections.

In other words, it freezes the status quo into a GNU while it tries to recuperate from the clobbering it suffered in the recent elections.

Lessons from Zimbabwe

In Zimbabwe, ZANU PF used a GNU for the same purpose in 2008 when it had tittered on the verge of obliteration. It emerged more formidable in 2013 and regained its political dominance.

President Thabo Mbeki brokered Zimbabwe’s GNU, hence the political benefits of such an arrangement are not lost on the ANC.

The GNU creates a ‘big tent’ in which the ANC would not have any liability for anything going wrong. If it were to be indicted for government’s failure, it would simply deflect the blame to one of the many convenient scapegoats in the GNU.

The big tent also means that there will have no opposition in South Africa for the duration of the GNU effectively taming abrasive and disruptive parties like the EFF.

As former US President Lyndon B. Johnson’s apt tent analogy goes: “Better to have your enemies inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in.”

The effect of a GNU is not that it solves its myriad political problems. It just ‘kicks the can down the road’ while it searches for solutions. If this works, then the ANC would have earned an extra political life.

The crowning jewel for a GNU is that it presents the ANC as a selfless party that puts the nation first. This political posturing gives it bragging rights of rising above parochial party interests in service to the national interest!

Marriage of inconvenience

Whether this trick would work or not is not the subject of my analysis here. I am more interested in whether a GNU can deliver for the ordinary citizen whose life is increasingly desperate. I am a Zimbabwean; we've been there before.

GNUs are usually characterized as marriages of convenience, with their value evident in building unity and stabilizing the economic and political situation.

However, they are also characterized by discord, bickering, and mutually assured sabotage by the different parties. Zimbabwe’s GNU leaders characterized it as a ‘marriage of inconvenience’ and ‘a marriage under duress.’ This captures the reality of most GNUs.

The sober view

The bane of a GNU is that anything hardly ever gets done amid endless consultations, negotiations, and political bickering.

Each political party is not working to deliver today but rather to gain political mileage and position itself for better electoral outcomes in the next election.

Political party cooperation is therefore governed by two considerations, does it hurt their party interests, and does it give a mileage to another party? It is about political expedience.

This means for parties to cooperate well they will have to steer clear of controversial policy propositions.

A GNU is a recipe for ideological spaghetti such that every policy issue is potentially controversial. So, very little gets done. Important things don’t get done.

The ANC’s political posturing as a party that puts the nation first and rises above narrow partisan interests is in actual, fact self-serving. Whether this attempt at political genius will work or the superstructure of the GNU will cave in is yet to be seen.

This is my sober view; I take no prisoners.

  • Dumani is an independent political analyst. He writes in his personal capacity.  — X @NtandoDumani


Related Topics