Understanding the path to a Government of National Unity

Recently, the African National Congress (ANC) decided to form a Government of National Unity (GNU) in South Africa. Graphic: IOL

Recently, the African National Congress (ANC) decided to form a Government of National Unity (GNU) in South Africa. Graphic: IOL

Published Jun 10, 2024


Recently, the African National Congress (ANC) decided to form a Government of National Unity (GNU) in South Africa.

This decision comes after a complex election where no single party achieves a clear majority.

When political parties unite to govern a nation, particularly in times of crisis or post-election when no single party holds the majority, a Government of National Unity is established.

All significant political parties will be involved in decision-making in this coalition's efforts to stabilise the nation and advance peace.

In the most recent South African elections, the Democratic Alliance (DA) secured 21.81% of the vote, the ANC secured 40.18%, and the newly established uMkhonto weSizwe (MKP) party, led by former president Jacob Zuma, secured 14.58%. Parties had to form coalitions to govern because no party was able to secure a majority.

The main ways that a government of unity is different from other kinds of coalitions are that it is more inclusive, stable, and crisis-focused.

A GNU includes a wide range of political factions to ensure wide representation and inclusivity, in contrast to grand coalitions, which usually only include the largest parties. This is crucial in times of major political unrest or national crisis.

Political analyst Dr. Ongama Mtimka said that the benefit of a National Unity is that it helps the ANC to take a path out of choosing a coalition that is a lot more sustainable and much more stable for the party, rather than choosing a left or centre-right coalition where they can be perceived or persuaded on both sides.

“A coalition or national unity is non zero-sum, it draws from a major opposition party in parliament and therefore creates a more cooperative government between the executive and parliament while at the same time made of different political parties.’’

Those parties themselves would serve as an internal mechanism of accountability.

Mtimka said he hopes that the political parties themselves will come up with parameters of how the GNU will work, which it needs to do to strengthen relationships between the executive and parliament between the government of national unity and the political parties that constitute it. As well as among the leaders.

“All of these would have to be developed simultaneously,’’ said Mtimka.

“I think that they can be able within the first six months of the year to come up with all the parameters necessary to craft the working relations between the GNU and its constitutive political parties, political leader, and relationship with the national assembly.’’

Mtimka noted that it would be difficult to cobble a GNU due to where South Africa is in terms of time and moment because it requires significant maturity, and not the absence of disagreement but the willingness to work through those disagreements, to produce an outcome that is greater than the constitutive elements of it.

“We have the 1994 election to look back to as an example of national unity. How it turned out is an example of how not to do a government of national unity’’, he said.

Mtimka concluded by saying the issue is not history, it is about the strategy and design. It is about how parties can learn to craft a more workable solution and that how we can learn from a local government election environment.

“I believe that there have been some documented lessons from those and the government itself has done work in terms of the conference that Paul Mashatile led to look at how we can improve coalitions, work done by Salga and the Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) and United Nations development programs. All of these present valuable lessons for us,’’ Mtimka said.

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