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South Africa’s unity government: 5 parties that need to find common ground

FOLLOWING South Africa’s historic 2024 general election, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) has started a process to establish a government of national unity. This, after it lost its parliamentary majority.

As a political scientist, I believe that five political parties, including those with the highest shares of votes, are key to constituting a unity government. This view applies even to those parties, such as the Economic Freedom Fighters, that have already shot down the idea of a government of national unity. In my view, attempts should be made to bring in smaller but significant political parties.

The five are the ANC, the main opposition Democratic Alliance, the Economic Freedom Fighters, the Inkatha Freedom Party and the Patriotic Alliance.

These parties are critical to creating an inclusive government representative of South Africa’s voting public.

Jacob Zuma’s uMkhonto we Sizwe Party, with the third largest share of votes, has an anti-constitutional stance that rules it out as a good potential partner in a unity government. In fact, at the time of writing, the party was planning to stop the first sitting of parliament, through a court interdict. The first sitting must be within 14 days after announcement of the election results.

A government of national unity is not new in South Africa. Emerging from a brutal and extremely divisive apartheid context, political leaders sought to create political stability through a unity government after the 1994 elections. However, the 1994 unity government was a requirement of the interim constitution.

South Africans have stated, through their votes, that they are no longer happy with the single party hegemony the ANC enjoyed over the last 30 years. They are looking for cooperation to deal with the country’s major challenges. These include unemployment, a stagnant economy, a dysfunctional public sector, and persistent racialised patterns of poverty and inequality.

The question is: are South Africa’s political parties able to see beyond their ideological lenses towards the vista of compromise and collaboration?

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I believe understanding the areas on which the parties agree is crucial for assessing how they might behave in a unity government. These intersections are pivotal for ensuring political and administrative stability, most notably in creating conditions to foster much-needed economic growth and social development.

An ideological analysis of the parties’ election manifestos might provide some answers. Manifestos provide important clues about a party’s worldview and priorities.

African National Congress

The African National Congress holds a strong social welfare view with a focus on income redistribution. Its key values are non-racialism, constitutionalism, social justice and human rights. The ANC’s worldview is rooted in the principles of freedom, justice and solidarity. This was evident in its 2024 election slogan: “Let’s do more, together”.

Key to implementing its priority areas (see the graphic below) will be to balance state intervention with market dynamics to pursue economic and social development, and maintain a strong welfarist approach in policy implementation.

The Democratic Alliance

The Democratic Alliance’s manifesto has a focus on economic liberalism. It champions creating conditions for the private sector to prosper. This includes opening the energy market (including electricity) to competition, for example.

An area where the ANC and Democratic Alliance (DA) may converge is in creating a social welfare safety net. However, the DA’s manifesto points to a more liberal welfare state. Here individuals are regarded as individual market actors. The role of the state is to create conditions conducive to their success. The party proposes “overhauling restrictive regulations” in the Labour Relations Act which it says deter firms from hiring people. The two parties would need to agree on exactly how much social welfare there will be.

Individualism and the centrality of the economic market are fundamental to the party’s worldview. It is thus rational to assume that the party would not abandon these principles in negotiating its involvement in the government of national unity.

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The Economic Freedom Fighters

The Economic Freedom Fighters are ideologically on the extreme left, with a strong socialist and revolutionary policy agenda found in their Seven Cardinal Principles for Elections 2024.

With 9.52% of the votes, the party represents a substantial constituency, especially the young voting public.

The party emphasises strong state intervention in the economy. It advocates for nationalisation of land and banks, which directly contradicts the Democratic Alliance’s worldview.

The extent of state intervention and control may emerge as a point of conflict with the ANC. The party and the ANC will need to agree on exactly how much state involvement in economic life is necessary for transformation and social justice. At the time of writing, the Economic Freedom Fighters were still expressing a preference for a (narrower) coalition government with the ANC, rather than a broader unity government involving the Democratic Alliance.

The Inkatha Freedom Party

The Inkatha Freedom Party’s Thirteen Point Manifesto Plan may present an ideological compromise. The party shares with the ANC and the Democratic Alliance a commitment to constitutionalism. Its commitment to some state intervention along with economic diversification could facilitate common ground with the ANC.

Like the Democratic Alliance, Inkatha champions individualism and personal agency. It wants an audit of all land to determine land ownership, which may also resonate with the Economic Freedom Fighters. From a policy perspective, Inkatha could potentially act as a unifying force.

The Patriotic Alliance

The Patriotic Alliance is an interesting addition to the unity government. A cursory glance at its 2024 Turn Around Strategy shows a highly conservative and nationalistic worldview.

The party sits to the extreme right of a potential unity government. With a focus on returning to religion, curbing migration, reinstating the death penalty, and elevating traditional leadership, it resonates with more conservative elements in society.

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We can assume that the Patriotic Alliance would be more open to conservative economic policies. In what it calls “benefication”, the party advocates for exploiting natural resources for economic advantage and growth – without any regard for climate change and the environment.

Road to a unity government

The proposed government of national unity is poised to encounter various areas of contention. ANC policies such as black economic empowerment are likely to be a point of debate between it and the Democratic Alliance, as they balance transformation and building state capacity.

The Democratic Alliance is committed to a form of meritocracy, as seen in its manifesto.

Nationalisation of banks and land will become key contestation points for the Economic Freedom Fighters and the other potential political partners. Serious economic repercussions may arise if they cannot reach common ground.

We have seen the Economic Freedom Fighters use its political muscle in local government coalitions for expediency or positions.

The Patriotic Alliance is a wildcard here. Its economic and political demands in a unity government remain unclear and its position on land is not known.

Political parties must show ideological flexibility to foster stability and drive South Africa towards prosperity through creative policy solutions. Maturity, compromise and ideological agility are crucial for achieving a government of national unity to rebuild the nation.

JOLEEN STEYN KOTZE, Chief Research Specialist in Democracy and Citizenship at the Human Science Research Council and a Research Fellow Centre for African Studies, University of the Free State


Chief Research Specialist in Democracy and Citizenship at the Human Science Research Council and a Research Fellow Centre for African Studies, University of the Free State