GNU confronts the politics of compromise


GNU confronts the politics of compromise

The government of national unity's statement of intent makes it clear that policy and cabinet decisions will be the result of combative discussions, which is a breath of fresh air, writes PIET CROUCAMP.


WE are left holding the baby of what was unthinkable since FW de Klerk left Nelson Mandela's government of national unity (GNU) on June 30, 1996. We are again trying to negotiate and establish a GNU. The question is whether this agreement — born out of necessity between the liberal democrats of the DA and the IFP and the social democrats of the ANC — can work. Can Cyril Ramaphosa, Velenkosini Hlabisa and John Steenhuisen do what Mandela and De Klerk found too difficult?

The world looks very different from 1996. The National Party is deceased and the Western Cape is white South Africans' “down under". Taxi bosses police political violence and crime in KwaZulu-Natal and the National Assembly now houses, among others, a bunch of criminals. A fed-up Naspers has abandoned die taal and the ANC has lost an election.

On June 2, I sat on the floor of the Electoral Commission of SA results centre at Gallagher Convention Centre and listened to the ANC president, Cyril Ramaphosa, humbly admitting that his party had lost the election. A few chairs away sat ANC secretary-general Fikile Mbalula with all the dignity of a court jester. Most cabinet ministers appeared to be absent.

The ANC, the liberation party of Albert Luthuli, Oliver Tambo and Mandela, no longer had a sole mandate to govern. Ramaphosa pleaded with his political opponents to be reasonable. His speech during the results announcement was not only an admission that his party had lost the election; it was also an acknowledgment that the constitution and our democracy had survived the corruption of the 1996 social contract.

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Minefield of uncertainties

But alarmingly, right behind Ramaphosa the scoreboard showed a growing extremism in South African politics. Until the May 29 elections, it was only the EFF that threatened the constitution and political stability. Now there is the EFF with 9.52% support and the uMkhonto weSizwe Party with 14.58%, together providing almost one in four members of the National Assembly. Those who want to nullify the constitution and use the likelihood of violence as a negotiating mechanism are now larger and better organised than ever. Besides the ANC's 39.86% of the national vote, the MKP's rise in KZN in particular is the important motivation to negotiate a GNU.

While the GNU clearly represents a pragmatic move towards the political or even ideological middle ground, such a political agreement is also exposed to a minefield of uncertainties in terms of sustainability. JP Landman makes the valid argument that by emphasising the meaningfulness of common values ​​— especially the constitution and the rule of law — in the run-up to the negotiations, Ramaphosa and the ANC ruled out the EFF and MKP as partners in the GNU. Even in KZN, where the MKP received 45% of the votes cast, a GNU agreement was negotiated between the DA and the IFP.

But the DA will have to accept social democratic policies and the ANC will have to yield to liberal assumptions for the GNU to come to fruition. In the absence of consensus, what policies will require the parties of the GNU to make ideological compromises? In other words, what will the DA and the ANC cross swords about? The agreement between the GNU parties mentions 10 fundamental principles. These include social justice, the rectification of historical inequalities, the progressive realisation of socioeconomic rights and the alleviation of poverty. All of them are pragmatic and reasonable aspirations.

But it is when these principles and aspirations are counted among the justifications for transformation that the problem arises. The DA and the ANC have almost no consensus on what “transformation" means in practice, not to mention how it should be made possible in reality. There is a bloody no-man's land between the DA's belief in good government and the ANC's transformation agenda.

There can be no doubt that under the guise of transformation the ANC has either terminally defeated or even destroyed almost everything the cadres could lay their hands on. Over six administrations, the ANC has emptied state coffers, run state enterprises into the ground and impoverished millions of families to such an extent that it regards state grants as a solution rather than a problem. The South Africa of the ANC is an unsafe place for millions of people.

Even morally justifiable policies such as black empowerment, a minimum wage and national health care have been transformed into a crime scene rather than the intervention of a caring state or government. The good of the past 30 years is dwarfed by what might have been if the country had been managed according to its potential.

Competitive discussions

Since the removal of Thabo Mbeki as president in September 2008, an essential part of our institutional political culture has disappeared. Mbeki's first cabinet included strong personalities such as Trevor Manuel, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Kader Asmal, Alec Erwin, Dullah Omar, Valli Moosa, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Thoko Didiza and Ronnie Kasrils. Moreover, it was Mbeki's style to encourage competitive discussions within the executive.

Unlike Jacob Zuma and Ramaphosa, Mbeki did not hesitate to take the lead when consensus proved elusive. Manuel has said that the big and good question during cabinet meetings was: “What would the chief say?" Ministers were held responsible. The fact that the economy grew significantly stronger during Mbeki's presidency has a lot to do with the fact that Manuel was able to count on Mbeki's unconditional support after a battle of ideas within the cabinet. Competitive discussions were seen as necessary and essential for good governance.

When it came to implementation, Mbeki appointed the directors-general (DGs) after a selection process and in consultation with a committee and his ministers. The effectiveness of bureaucrats reporting to ministers was tested in cabinet meetings. Competing ideas are  meaningful only when a culture of review and evaluation is honoured. This was before Zuma and Ramaphosa's cadre deployment did a root canal on the public service.

It has become clear in the past week that the DA and the ANC have found the role, function and appointment of DGs to be a point of contention. Like Zuma, Ramaphosa made no secret of the fact that the DGs of government departments must be deployed cadres. Many ANC ministers were extremely aggrieved because they could not appoint their own DGs. They had to come to terms with the transformation agenda of the cadre deployment committee led by the party deputy president in Luthuli House.

This dubious arrangement, which Chief Justice Raymond Zondo referred to as probably unconstitutional, eliminates the possibility of professional bureaucrats but also bypasses the statutory powers and judgment of committees, ministers and the president as head of the executive. It stifles the likelihood and constructive effects of political competition within the cabinet and the process of effective governance. Here, the DA is quite rightly tackling an issue which is causing the country enormous damage.

It is this arrangement that must be reversed by the GNU and which important power bases within the ANC want to protect. The GNU declaration of intent is a breath of fresh air in this respect and makes it clear that policy and cabinet decisions will be the result of competitive discussions. All parties that signed the declaration agreed to a decision-making process that requires sufficient consensus, ensuring that major policy and legislative changes must seek and find broad support across the political spectrum.

The declaration provides for joint committees that include members of the ANC and former opposition parties to negotiate critical areas such as economic reform, health care, education and infrastructure development. The principle of sufficient consensus not only protects the DA and the smaller parties in the GNU against the relative majority of the ANC, it also forces ministers to justify their decisions within a  cabinet of compromise rather than simply replicating Luthuli House's decisions. 

This is an important step in the right direction and to a large extent prevents ministers, in the absence of political guidance from the president, making personal mistakes without oversight of their portfolios. A further advantage is that ministers from minority parties also influence policies in the departments of ANC ministers, and vice versa. The GNU agreement also provides for regular consultations between the leadership of the respective parties to assess progress, reflect on challenges and adjust strategies to ensure the effective implementation of agreed policies.

A commitment to transparency and accountability, including regular public reports on the progress and outcomes of the collaborative governance framework, also brings public opinion into the competitive conversation. The first clear signs of that public opinion were the election results. The GNU is now obliged to find a better balance between competitive government and social transformation.

♦ VWB ♦

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