OPINION: How about GNU 2.0?

Norman McFarlane

It is Thursday May 9 and South Africans awaken to a new political dawn.

Despite predictions to the contrary, the voter turnout on polling day is disappointingly low and the final tally for each of the major parties reveals some surprising shifts in voter sentiment.

The ANC’s 52% majority means it retains control of the National Assembly by a hair’s breadth, reminiscent of the December 2017 elective conference, where President Cyril Ramaphosa beat his rival, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, into second place with a similarly slim margin.

Despite his canny campaigning – Mr Ramaphosa carefully sang the song on the stump that each audience wanted to hear – he was unable to convince the ANC’s traditional support base to “give the ANC one more chance”, with the overwhelming mandate he needs to gain control of the national executive committee (NEC) to progress his reform agenda.

The DA polls 23% and the EFF a surprising 12%, and Mr Ramaphosa is faced with a conundrum: how does he pursue his reform agenda while still placating the populist element in the ANC that wants to push the expropriation without compensation agenda (EWC)?

Partnering with the EFF will not give him the majority he needs in the National Assembly to change Clause 25, so he will have to draw in one or more of the smaller EWC-oriented parties, but at a price.

He is also painfully aware of the message partnering with the EFF will send to the international investment community, who he knows he desperately needs to progress his economic agenda.

Poll data shows overwhelmingly that job creation is number one on the electorate’s agenda, while the land issue languishes way down the list – it is a lightning rod for populism among the likes of the EFF and Black First Land First (BLF), which polled just 1%.

Partnering with the DA on the other hand, will come with its own set of problems. It will enrage the populist radical economic transformation faction in the ANC, a not inconsiderable influence bloc in the NEC, while playing into the hands of the EFF and BLF, handing them a populist rod with which to beat Mr Ramaphosa and the ANC at every turn.

It will also stymie ANC plans to change Clause 25, something the DA staunchly opposes.

Mr Ramaphosa is well aware of how deeply divided South Africa is as a nation. Inequality is at an all time high, and racial divisions have deepened and widened, fostered by increasing levels of inflammatory rhetoric in the lead-up to the election.

If Moody’s, the last of the international ratings agencies that has South Africa’s sovereign debt at investment grade, follows suit with Fitch and Standard & Poor’s with a downgrade to junk status, the impact on capital flows, and subsequently economic growth, would be catastrophic, and the fiscal cliff – government running out of money – would move rapidly closer.

In April, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) downgraded its 2020 economic growth forecast for South Africa, from 1.7% to 1.5%, hot on the heels of the South African Reserve Bank, which cut its forecast to 1.8% from 2%.

Mr Ramaphosa knows that at some point, he will have to go to the IMF for a bailout. He will want to negotiate the most favourable terms possible, and he knows that the shape of our political landscape at that time, will have a major impact on the IMF’s risk assessment, and consequently, the terms of the loan.

Mr Ramaphosa realises that the country’s future hangs in the balance, and that he must find a way to counter the deepening divisions that plague our society.

In a marathon all-night meeting with the ANC NEC, Mr Ramaphosa manages to get buy-in to the formation of a government of national unity (GNU).

He persuades the DA, the EFF and the IFP (which surprisingly polled 5%), to become part of GNU 2.0.

After much posturing and horse-trading, each party’s conflicting demands for positions and power are reconciled, and the new GNU rolls up its metaphorical sleeves and gets to work.

For the first time in over a decade, the country breathes easier, as the prospect of multi-partisan solutions to the multitude of problems facing the country becomes a tantalising possibility.

A pipe dream? Perhaps, but the role that the 1994 to 1997 GNU played in fostering a spirit of reconciliation at a time when the country was on a knife edge, is undeniable.

It also pursued a punishing legislative agenda that saw the writing of our new constitution, to this day, one of the most admired in the world.

And all because a group of apparently warring parties – some sworn enemies – with seemingly irreconcilable differences, were forced to work together toward a common goal: the salvation and healing of our fractured society.

It is perhaps the one mechanism that has the potential to arrest our gradual slide into oblivion.

It would take humility, compromise, pragmatism, empathy, generosity, determination, sacrifice, magnanimity, inclusivity, in short, a superhuman effort to make a GNU work again, but the prospects are undeniable.

But, does our body-politic have what it takes?