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PoliticsSouth Africa

South Africa unity government: A new political era dawns

Martina Schwikowski
June 14, 2024

Analysts see the new unity government comprising the African National Congress and the opposition Democratic Alliance as a chance to stabilize the country.

President Cyril Ramaphosa, wearing a black suit, raises his hand to be sworn into the National Assembly.
President Cyril Ramaphosa was able retain his position as president in the new unity governmentImage: Nic Bothma/REUTERS

South Africa's newly elected parliament convened in Cape Town after two weeks of intensive behind-the-scenes talks with other parties regarding a government of national unity.

The ANC announced a day before the sitting of the National Assembly that it had reached a coalition agreement with the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA), which is popular with white voters and several other smaller parties. 

DA leader John Steenhuisen confirmed that the basis of the agreed document is the constitution and the Bill of Rights, which recognizes South Africa in all its diversity.

President Cyril Ramaphosa's African National Congress party has been weakened after losing its long-held majority in last month's election, leaving him to seek the support of other parties.

South Africa's leader of the Democratic Alliance (DA) party, John Steenhuisen (middle), attends the first sitting of the National Assembly following elections.
The DA will be in government for the first time in post-apartheid South AfricaImage: Nic Bothma/REUTERS

A new dawn beckons

When Ramaphosa held his first state of the nation address almost five years ago in Cape Town's parliament, he promised disappointed South Africans a "new dawn" that would usher in economic transformation and job creation.

Five years on, his promised dawn never came. But now there is a second chance to reboot South Africa, Daniel Silke, an independent political analyst in Cape Town, told DW. 

Another political analyst, Asanda Ngoasheng, called it a very interesting arrangement. "In terms of South Africa being able to move forward, it is not a bad idea," she said. 

A business-friendly government

Ngoasheng added that the new formation would please the markets and make sense from an economic perspective. Both parties share rather pro-liberal policies, with the ANC leaning more toward a socialist point of view.

The South African rand strengthened slightly against the dollar after the news of the unity government was announced.

The president had stressed the need for a national dialogue and opted for the government of national unity with three other parties, including its largest rival, the pro-business Democratic Alliance, instead of a coalition government. 

The socially conservative Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and the right-wing Patriotic Alliance are also on board. The DA will get the post of deputy speaker of the National Assembly.

For Fredson Guilengue, an analyst at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in Johannesburg, the main reason the ANC proposed the unity government is stability.

"What the ANC had in mind by inviting the DA and the IFP to be part of this agreement was the need for stability for the government, which would mean stability for the country itself," said Guilengue. As part of the agreement, the DA said it would back Ramaphosa's bid for reelection. 

Left-wing populist parties left out

The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), which came fourth in the election, sought to convince especially Black voters to back left-wing populism, and the newly formed MK Party (uMkhonto weSizwe) led by former President Jacob Zuma, who was thrown out of office by the ANC in 2018, had refused to co-govern with the ANC under Ramaphosa.

Former South African President Jacob Zuma addresses supporters.
Former President Jacob Zuma's MK party ruled out working with RamaphosaImage: AP/picture alliance

"If they had gone into a coalition with EFF and MK, it would not have worked," said Guilengue. "EFF is regarded as a disruptive political party and they could not provide trust that the ANC would need to run its government."      

For the first time in South African politics, there will be a "Black bloc" of opposition parties, while the ANC will share government mainly with a "white" party, the DA,  said Ngoasheng. 

The ANC, the party of Nelson Mandela which has been in power since the 1994 elections that marked the end of apartheid, lost its majority after securing 40% of the vote. The DA came second with 22%, followed by the (MK) slightly above 14% and EFF with around 9%

Unity government without all major parties?

"It does look as if it is more of a multiparty government than a government of national unity since the two major parties, the MK and EFF, are not looking as if they are not going to be part of the broader new arrangement," said Silke.

Regarding the balance of parties that are likely to participate in the new government, Silke sees the ANC's decision as a window of opportunity for South Africa to exclude certain more extremist elements and build a more centrist coalition of forces that can kick-start economic reforms and boost growth and social well-being. 

"But the question marks really hang over how disruptive those who are going to be excluded from this new government arrangement are going to be," added Silke.

South Africa's ANC loses majority: What's behind it?

Forming a government of national unity requires substantial buy-in from the participating parties and compromises on what have been very divisive ideological issues, particularly for the ANC and the DA. 

Can the ANC survive?

Analysts argue the government of national unity will provide a platform to move beyond race and focus instead on shared goals around service delivery and infrastructure development. 

Corruption has long plagued South African politics, hampering growth, inflating costs and eroding trust. A diverse government offers a chance to implement robust anti-corruption measures, since there will be increased scrutiny and cross-party checks.

Whether or not the ANC itself will be able to remain cohesive, as it battles internal issues relating to whether the DA is a good partner for the ANC, remains to be seen, said Silke.

"It is an uncertain period but a period where there are prospects for a dramatic change in South Africa.It is a new context for South Africa. It depends on the power balance within this formation if it is going to work," he said.

It may seem like a success for the ANC, said Guilenge, with Ramaphosa allowed to remain in office. "But he might not serve his second term until the end," he added

Edited by: Chrispin Mwakideu