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PoliticsSouth Africa

South Africa: Pros and cons of a national unity government

June 11, 2024

South Africa's ANC has proposed a national unity government after losing the majority in the 2024 elections. What does that mean? Experts discuss the benefits and challenges of this proposal.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa sits in front of a giant image of himself smiling.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa hopes to form a government of national unityImage: Jerome Delay/AP/picture alliance

Some of South Africa's major opposition parties have said they are considering a proposal by the African National Congress (ANC) to form a national unity government. The ANC won most of the seats in the country's recent election.

When announcing the proposal last week, ANC leader and current President Cyril Ramaphosa said banding together with a broad group of parties was the "best option" to move South Africa forward for the next five-year term.

The ANC remains the biggest party in the National Assembly after winning 40% of the vote and gaining 159 of 400 seats in the National Assembly. However, after failing to win a majority for the first time since the country's democratic elections in 1994, it now needs the backing of other parties to govern.

The main opposition parties include the pro-business Democratic Alliance (DA) with 87 seats, the populist uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) backed by former President Jacob Zuma with 58 seats and the radical-left Economic Freedom Fighters, which gained 39 seats.

Ramaphosa said the ANC had already held constructive discussions with the DA and EFF, as well as with the smaller Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), the National Freedom Party and the anti-immigrant Patriotic Alliance.

The ANC is under pressure to reach an agreement as the new parliament needs to elect the speaker, deputy speaker and president when it sits for the first time on Friday.

Women with children walk past election posters in South Africa
South Africa's political parties need to find common ground if they are to govern togetherImage: Themba Hadebe/AP Photo/picture alliance

What is a national unity government?

A national unity government is a type of broad, multiparty coalition. It may include all the parties represented in parliament, or at least the major parties, giving them a share in governing the country.

Unity governments can come in different forms. South Africa's only previous government of national unity, which followed the country's first multiracial elections in 1994 and saw Nelson Mandela become president, was regulated by the country's interim constitution. It prescribed, among other things, how cabinet positions were to be allocated according to the number of seats a party gained in the post-apartheid National Assembly.

But South Africa today doesn't have any legislative or constitutional framework regulating how the proposed unity government should be set up, said Ebrahim Fakir, an analyst at the South African-based Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa. 

He said that a unity government in today's South Africa would essentially be an agreement between the different political parties about how they want to share power.

"So, in one way, it is a subset of a type of coalition that tries to be as inclusive as it possibly can," Fakir told DW. But, he added, a unity government is "subtly different" from a coalition in that "some degree of policy proximity between the parties is not necessarily a precondition."

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What are the advantages of a unity government?

"It requires, or in some way urges or forces, the political parties who have won in the election to work together," political analyst Asanda Ngoasheng told DW. "What it also does is that it allows for political parties that didn't outright win the election, or even win the majority, to be able to present their policies in the negotiations towards a government of national unity."

"This can build social cohesion because everyone's voices are to an extent represented and all different sectors of the population are represented, and this is something that's important in South Africa," Ngoasheng said.

South Africa, which has 11 official languages, suffers from historical ethnic and racial divides that were starkly exposed in the May 29 election.

National unity governments are often called at times of crisis, such as an impending war or economic instability, because they enjoy a large parliamentary majority and broad public legitimacy.

South Africa isn't facing a crisis in the sense of a significant insecurity threat, pointed out Ntsikelelo Breakfast, who leads the Center for Security, Peace and Conflict Resolution at South Africa's Nelson Mandela University. But he sees inequality, poverty and unemployment, and the collapsing water and power supplies as a danger to the country.

A national unity government in South Africa could help deepen democracy, he believes, because it means no one political party can "impose its agenda on all and sundry."

"You have to get a buy in from different players, which is good. And you have to listen to each because in the past, the ANC has been very arrogant," Breakfast said.

What are the disadvantages?

According to experts, one main disadvantage is the potential for political instability. Having many parties with conflicting and contradictory positions on several policy issues can become unwieldy.

"You will have deadlocks, in particular on issues which are contentious, like passing a budget," warned Breakfast. "I expect we might have a problem on that score. And what is going to happen when there are disagreements? Are these political parties going to go [their] separate ways? What will be the impact of that on the economy?"

The 1994 government of national unity didn't last, with the white-led National Party quitting after just over two years.

Analyst Ebrahim Fakir sees the "divergent interests" of the various parties as posing "serious danger."

He warns that even though many in South Africa are optimistic about the prospect of a unity government, the politicians from opposing parties will "want to undermine each other even though they have this agreement."

On top of this, with the ANC winning a majority in the last five elections, South Africa doesn't have a long-standing tradition of forming and governing with coalition partners.

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How have other parties responded?

During the election campaign, the DA had called any potential ANC tie-up with the EFF or MK a "doomsday coalition" that would tank the economy. Both smaller parties advocate nationalizing mines and seizing land without compensation.

The EFF said it would not be part of a government involving the DA, which has a liberal, free-market agenda. "We are not desperate for positions in government," its deputy leader, Floyd Shivambu, told a press conference.

The IFP said it was not opposed to a national unity government. "However, the devil is in the details, which will become clearer in the coming days," it said in a statement.

As for the MK, although the party has confirmed it has begun talks with the ANC, it has also raised objections about the election results, citing alleged voting irregularities. Consequently, the MK has filed an application with the Constitutional Court, seeking to stop the swearing-in of the new lawmakers.

Edited by: Chrispin Mwakideu


Kate Hairsine Australian-born journalist and senior editor who mainly focuses on Africa.