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South Africa’s ANC and opposition announce a unity government, in a big power shift

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa raises his hand as he is sworn is as a member of Parliament ahead of an expected vote by lawmakers to decide if he is reelected as leader of the country in Cape Town, South Africa, Friday. At right is Pemmy Majodina, a lawmaker with his African National Congress party.
Jerome Delay
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AP
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa raises his hand as he is sworn is as a member of Parliament ahead of an expected vote by lawmakers to decide if he is reelected as leader of the country in Cape Town, South Africa, Friday. At right is Pemmy Majodina, a lawmaker with his African National Congress party.

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — The African National Congress party has signed a deal to form a coalition government with the main opposition, party officials announced Friday after weeks of fevered negotiations.

Dubbed the government of national unity, this marks a seismic shift in South African politics, which has been dominated by the ANC since the end of apartheid 30 years ago. It aligns the party of the late legendary leader Nelson Mandela with its rival, the white-led, pro-business Democratic Alliance (DA) party. The coalition also includes the smaller Inkatha Freedom Party.

Will it be “good gnus or bad gnus?” has been a joke making the rounds in South Africa the past two weeks — playing on the initials of government of national unity — as political parties engaged in lengthy backroom talks to form a GNU or coalition of some sort, a necessity after the ANC lost its outright majority in May elections.

The ANC got 40% of the national vote, a wakeup call from citizens expressing their frustration with a struggling economy, high unemployment, service delivery failure and corruption.

The announcement came during the first sitting for parliament in Cape Town, where lawmakers were sworn in. Incumbent President Cyril Ramaphosa, leader of the ANC, was easily reelected by Parliament to a second term over candidate Julius Malema of the far-left Economic Freedom Fighters.

South African markets have reacted favorably to the news, as investors see the centrist DA as a business-friendly party generally known for clean governance.

There had been concern in some quarters that the ANC could do a deal with Malema's EFF party. The ANC invited the EFF into the unity government but the radical leftist party refused to join, with Malema labeling the Democratic Alliance a “racist” party.

The DA had likewise said entering any government that included the EFF — which wants nationalization of the mines and banks — was a deal-breaker.

The DA won almost 22% of the vote. But in a country where less than 10% of the population is white, the party led by white politician John Steenhuisen has struggled with its image. Some members of the ANC vehemently opposed forming a government with the DA.

John Steenhuisen speaks to media during the first sitting of the new South African Parliament in Cape Town on Friday.
Wikus de Wet / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
John Steenhuisen speaks to media during the first sitting of the new South African Parliament in Cape Town on Friday.

Steenhuisen addressed the press Friday calling the deal “a new chapter in our history” and noting that while the road ahead may be difficult, “the people have also told us that a time for a new politics of collaboration and problem solving has arrived."

The “Red Berets,” as the EFF are sometimes called due to their trademark garb, arrived late for the opening of Parliament but did not disrupt proceedings as they are known to do. They are currently the fourth largest party in Parliament.

The uMkhonto weSizwe party, or MK, was noticeably absent from proceedings, leaving a raft of empty seats. The newly formed populist party led by former President Jacob Zuma, once an ANC stalwart, said they were boycotting proceedings alleging — without providing proof — that the May 29 elections were rigged.

The MK actually did surprisingly well in the polls, getting over 14.5% of the vote and eating into the ANC's support. It was Zuma’s ultimate revenge on the party that forced him to resign as president in disgrace amid multiple corruption scandals in 2018. He was replaced by Ramaphosa, who vowed to clean up the ANC.

Zuma, 82, is still popular in his home province of Kwa Zulu Natal, despite having a criminal conviction for contempt of court and facing trial next year over alleged corruption relating to an arms deal. There had been fear his supporters could react with violence to Friday’s proceedings, with extra security deployed in the province.

Newly elected Speaker of Parliament Thoko Didiza receives applause from African National Congress lawmakers during the first sitting of the National Assembly following elections, at the Cape Town International Convention Center, in Cape Town, South Africa, Friday.
Nic Bothma/REUTERS / REUTERS
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REUTERS
Newly elected Speaker of Parliament Thoko Didiza receives applause from African National Congress lawmakers during the first sitting of the National Assembly following elections, at the Cape Town International Convention Center, in Cape Town, South Africa, Friday.

Instead, South African democracy was on full display, with the ANC having humbly accepted its bashing at the polls and acknowledging the need to form a unity government — which some analysts have noted is a rare move for a former liberation party.

Local press and numerous South Africans on social media have also noted how maturely and calmly the ANC has handled their poor election results and subsequent negotiations — despite Zuma’s attempts to sow discord — making comparisons to the aftermath of the last U.S. elections and attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

There was much pomp and ceremony as Parliament met, with a choir singing and attendants ululating. Some legislators were dressed in traditional outfits, as well as sequined dresses and an array of fancy hats.

The events took place in the Convention Center in Cape Town, which sits in the shadow of Table Mountain and close to the harbor where tourists can take a short ferry ride to Robben Island, where Mandela was imprisoned. However, the ceremony lacked some of the ambience of the old historic parliament building, which is still under renovation after being gutted by a fire in 2022.

South Africa has had a government of national unity once before. The first democratic government in 1994 was part of a power-sharing agreement between Mandela and the country's last apartheid president, F.W. de Klerk, portraying itself as a symbol of reconciliation.

The Inkatha Freedom Party, a conservative party with a strong Zulu base, has brushed off concerns about joining forces with the white-led DA. When asked about this, IFP negotiator iNkosi Mzamo Buthelezi told NPR, South Africa is known as the Rainbow Nation for a reason.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Kate Bartlett
[Copyright 2024 NPR]