South Africa: last-minute negotiations as Ramaphosa faces deadline for presidency deal

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South African president Cyril Ramaphosa looks set to form a government of national unity (GNU) with four other allied parties when South Africa’s parliament meets tomorrow for the first time after the recent election.

Decisions about which parties will join a governing coalition were still up in the air hours before parliament was due to sit. Under the constitution a new government must be formed within 14 days of the election, and the chief justice has ruled that the president must also be elected on this day.

The ANC had to do a deal with at least one of the other significant parties, after it won less than 50% of the vote in the recent election (40.18%). Last-minute meetings were being held around the country as the ANC scrambled to firm up its alliance.
However, reports are emerging that the ANC is likely to have the votes that will help Ramaphosa secure the presidency.

In a proportional representation (PR) system, it is very rare for a single party to win an outright majority, but the ANC did just that in the previous six elections. To some extent, therefore, the move from more adversarial politics, with a strong single majority party, to one of consensus building is a natural progression for this relatively young democracy. However, unlike other countries which use PR and allow considerable time for coalition talks, South Africa politicians are under intense time pressure to do a deal.

Ramaphosa has to win around 400 votes in parliament to be elected president, and only has 159 votes from his own party. He needed to do a deal with at least one of the next three biggest parties – the Democratic Alliance (DA) which won 21.81% of the vote, uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) on 14.58%, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) on 9.52% – and then there are several smaller parties such as the Inkatha Freedom party (IFP) or Patriotic Alliance (PA), which won 3.85% and 2.06% respectively.

Just 24 hours before parliament was due to sit, it appeared the current president was on course to achieve an ANC coalition with the IFP, DA, the PA and Rise Mzansi, which would add up to 68.4% of the vote. The IFP made a statement on Wednesday confirming its plan to join a coalition.

“South Africa needs a steady centre which is not a centrist, but a social democrat centre, to expand energy, logistics, crime and corruption reforms, to rebuild the economy and get employment going,” said journalist Ferial Haffajee in the Daily Maverick news site, commenting on the expected five-way alliance.

What Ramaphosa wants

On June 6, Ramaphosa announced that the ANC would attempt to build a GNU. The ANC was part of a GNU immediately after the end of apartheid in 1994, when it governed with the IFP and National Party.

On the face of it, declaring he would form a government like this was a shrewd move by Ramaphosa and potentially represents the best path to retain his presidency. A minority government, which has been used successfully in other countries that use PR, could have slowed down the amount of legislation passed, and also have been highly unstable.

One party that is not joining the GNU is the MK party, set up by disgraced former president Jacob Zuma. It has said it will not do a deal with the ANC as long as Ramaphosa is leader.

It’s unlikely that the ANC will capitulate to this, or other MK demands which include an official pardon for Zuma and the watering down or even scrapping of South Africa’s constitution.

Zuma was sentenced to a 15-month prison term in 2021 after he was found guilty of contempt of court for refusing to testify before a judicial commission. He was released after three months as part of a presidential remission programme. South Africa’s highest court ruled that Zuma could not stand for parliament until five years after the completion of a sentence. The ANC will also be keenly aware that the markets could react badly to the return to government of individuals most associated with the cronyism and economic mismanagement of the 2009-2018 Zuma presidency.

Read more: South Africa election: ANC’s lost majority ushers in a new era of coalition politics

MK and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), have refused to be part of a GNU involving the Democratic Alliancce (DA) or the far-right Freedom Front Plus.

Who is likely to be involved?

A deal with the DA is likely to get a good reception from the markets, which could be an important part of any South African economic recovery plan. There is also a perception that the DA would help provide good governance due to its claims of exemplary provincial rule in the Western Cape.

However, a suggested deal with the DA has prompted accusations that the ANC was selling out to a white-dominated party with right-wing values. Many of the DA’s key leadership positions are filled by white South Africans and it has voted against the strengthening of workers’ rights and has been critical of the current minimum wage.

The GNU places an onus on party leaders to compromise, but is still fraught with challenges. MK has even attempted to block the first meeting of parliament, citing vote rigging in the election. Leaders of smaller parties have also raised concerns that the ANC is trying to set the agenda in these talks rather than finding compromises which all parties could agree upon.

There have also been claims that the GNU would be a smokescreen for an ANC-DA coalition in all but name.. Indeed, some leading ANC members have said that there was only so far they were willing to go to make a deal with the DA, and if pushed too far even those close to Ramaphosa would consider removing him from office.

The most pressing concern is that whatever coalition is agreed it must be united enough to work together to deal with the many economic challenges facing the country, from high unemployment to an unreliable electricity system.

Regardless of the outcome, it is clear that this could be a significant moment in the history of South African democracy, and certainly will be a shift for the ANC, and its style of government.

The Conversation


Dan Feather received funding from the British International Studies Association and the British Academy/Leverhulme Trust in 2023 which funded research trips to South Africa.