South Africa’s ANC leans toward a ‘unity’ government that evokes Mandela but divisions are there

CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) — South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and other senior officials of the African National Congress party were in a critical meeting Thursday to decide if they should formally propose a “unity” government bringing in all major parties to solve a political deadlock in Africa’s most industrialized country before a June 16 deadline.

A government of national unity, which ANC officials said is the first option on the table, evokes South Africa’s transition from apartheid’s white minority rule to a democracy in 1994.

Then, new President Nelson Mandela brought political opponents — including the last apartheid leader — into his first government to foster unity in a fractured country.

While that was a remarkable act of reconciliation by Mandela, the ANC’s hand has been forced this time after last week’s election removed its 30-year majority and ensured it has to work with others to form a government.

ANC had held a comfortable majority ever since the end of apartheid, but won just 40% of the vote in this election, although it remained the largest party.

“We want to bring everybody on board,” ANC Secretary-General Fikile Mbalula said of the unity government proposal. He said the ANC meeting, which would decide whether to back that idea over a narrower coalition with one or two parties, was likely to last all day.

An agreement of some sort needs to be in place by June 16, the deadline for South Africa’s new Parliament to sit and elect a president.

South Africans vote for parties and they get seats in Parliament according to their share of the vote. Lawmakers then elect the president and while Ramaphosa is still expected to be the candidate for president in a government involving multiple parties, it needs to be formalized. ANC would need help from others to reelect him given it has lost its parliamentary majority. Ramaphosa, 71, is seeking a second and final term.

South Africa is seeking to minimize any uncertainty through what promises to be a complex process that is likely to run well into next week. It is keeping South Africans on tenterhooks at one of the most important times in their young democracy.

The unity government now appeared a more likely scenario than a direct coalition between the ANC and the main opposition Democratic Alliance, or DA, party, which gained the second largest share of the vote with nearly 22%.

More than 50 parties contested the election with at least eight of them receiving significant shares of support. They range from the centrist DA, viewed as a business-friendly party, to the far-left Economic Freedom Fighters, or EFF, which wants to nationalize parts of the economy, including South Africa’s important gold and platinum mines and the central bank.

There is also the new MK party of former President Jacob Zuma, which has said it won’t negotiate while Ramaphosa is ANC leader, a position largely driven by Zuma’s animosity toward the man who replaced him as president.

Any unity government plan from ANC would still have to be taken to those other parties, some of whom are more opposed to each other than ANC. DA has pledged never to work with EFF or MK, for example, and there are clear divisions to overcome.

There’s a split also within ANC, which isn’t completely behind the unity government possibility. Mbalula said that he expected debate and disagreement in Thursday’s meeting and it would likely last all day. The meeting is of the ANC’s National Executive Committee, a body of more than 80 senior party members that includes Ramaphosa as ANC leader. It decides the party’s direction.

While ANC’s top leaders are seen to be open to a direct coalition with DA, grassroots party members have opposed that, sometimes with racial undertones that are often not far from the surface in a country that still wrestles with its history of brutal segregation.

Some ANC supporters and allies, like the national congress of trade unions, have cast the white-led DA as a party that prioritizes the interests of South Africa’s white minority over Black people, who make up more than 80% of the population.

DA has denied that characterization and pointed to its large numbers of Black support, reflected in the fact that it received the second-highest number of votes across the country.

Political analyst Asanda Ngoasheng said the inclusive national unity government plan was “the safest option” for ANC to shore up its own base given it was reeling from its worst election result, and also avoid the economic uncertainty that might come with a narrower coalition with the Marxist EFF party.

“I think a government of national unity with multiple parties in collaboration … is the best way and I think it is the smart decision,” she said on the Newzroom Afrika news channel.


AP Africa news:

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