South Africa’s GNU: New Era Or Ever More Difficult Slog?

South Africa has formed a governing majority; whether they can successfully govern remains to be seen. 

South Africa’s new Government of National Unity (GNU) has generated real optimism—certainly from the markets, which signaled enthusiasm by bolstering the currency and the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, and from commentators relieved that the humbling of the African National Congress (ANC) occurred in an atmosphere of electoral integrity and respect for democratic norms.  

But the country’s deep-seated problems—soaring unemployment, stark inequality, and an underperforming public sector—remain to be addressed. It was difficult for President Ramaphosa to take decisive action in his first term, in large part because the fractious ANC was often at odds with itself about preferred policy directions and priorities. Now the Democratic Alliance, Inkatha Freedom Party, and a smattering of smaller entities have been added to the ANC’s cacophony of political philosophies, making Ramaphosa the ringmaster of an even larger tent. Whether the GNU will have actual unity of purpose is, at best, an open question.  Imagining that this patchwork of a new political dispensation is sure to enable reforms and the “programme of fundamental and lasting change” that the President promised in his inaugural address seems awfully optimistic.  

Meanwhile, the political opposition—namely former President Jacob Zuma’s uMkhonto we Sizwe party and the Economic Freedom Fighters—will easily find common ground. Both prize populism, hold disdain for the country’s constitution, and prefer radical postures with real appeal to profoundly frustrated citizens, even if the resulting policy prescriptions would only make the country’s dysfunction worse. It is always easier to criticize government than it is to govern, and these political movements will have no qualms about stoking poplar impatience and anger. The GNU—something of a misnomer given the exclusion of these two consequential political forces—will be under pressure from day one. 

All of this matters a great deal—and not just for the future of South Africa. Across the continent, the losses suffered by the ANC have provoked political conversation, with some taking heart to see that even the most storied entities can be held accountable by voters, and others expressing dismay that such a genuine democratic exercise is far out of reach in their own countries. But for both the encouraged and the envious, if the GNU is unable to deliver on its promises, South Africa’s “new era” will become one more data point for the forces arguing that democracy just doesn’t work.   

Originally sourced from: Council on Foreign Relations

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