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South Africa’s “Grand Coalition”: Opportunities, challenges, and foreign policy

By Dr. Samuel Igba

In June 2024, South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC) formed what has been described as a “grand coalition” after failing to obtain a parliamentary majority in the May 2024 polls – the first time since 1994. The ruling party agreed to work together with the Democratic Alliance (DA), described by observers as a liberal West-leaning party, and two smaller parties: the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), often labelled as a Zulu nationalist party, and the Patriotic Alliance (PA) which has its support base in South Africa’s coloured communities. The proposal for a national unity government reflects the ANC's insistence on managing South Africa’s diversity by accommodating its plurality of people and ideas. Post-apartheid, the “rainbow nation’s” foreign policy under the ANC has also reflected this balancing idea.

This comes at a time when the country faces significant challenges that many citizens often link to the ANC's approach to governance. Chief among these issues is: youth unemployment at 45.5 percent among young people between the ages of 15 and 34 years, in contrast to the national average of 32.9 per cent in the first quarter of 2024; economic inequality with a Gini coefficient of 0.67, making the country the most income-unequal in the world according to a World Bank 2022 report; corruption with a score of 41 in 2024, from 43 in the previous year, ranking South Africa 83 out of 180 countries across the world; crime and public safety as the country ranked third in Africa with a “criminality score” of 7.18, a rise of 0.56 percentage points since 2021 according to the Global Organised Crimes Index. The ANC believes a government of national unity would tackle these pressing issues as the president, Cyril Ramaphosa, noted after meeting the party’s National Executive Committee (NEC) in Johannesburg in June 2024. Analysts suggested that a coalition would have likely involved the parties with the most votes including the ruling ANC, with 40.2 per cent of the votes, the DA in second place with 21.8 per cent, former president, Jacob Zuma’s new party, uMkhonto weSizwe (MK), with 14.6 per cent, and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) with 9.5 per cent. Analysts have described the new arrangement as a “grand coalition” rather than a government of national unity due to its composition and formation process.

Government of National Unity versus Grand Coalition

A government of national unity would have typically had several political parties in the legislature including hardline oppositions. In South Africa’s case, this will mean different parties will be in charge of various ministries. This kind of arrangement traditionally differs from a coalition government in that the ruling party does not choose specific parties to govern with but rather extends a hand to all parties with percentage votes above a certain threshold – 10 per cent in the 1994 Nelson Mandela version. The parties must be willing to work together to be included in the government. In this regard, among members of the new government, only the DA had a significant number of votes with 21.8 per cent. The IFP had 3.8 per cent, while the PA had 2 per cent. In contrast, a coalition government would typically include any number of parties willing to come together, to make up the 50 plus one percent required to run the government – which is what had happened between the ANC, DA, IFP, and PA.

Three observable features of South Africa’s new grand coalition government present potential opportunities and challenges for governance in the country. First, the union of the rival parties symbolises greater trust and legitimacy in South Africa’s political system. There is, however, uncertainty over how long it will last since various parties have polarised approaches to addressing the country’s challenges. Analysts have argued that such a coalition mirrors patterns seen in municipalities across some parts of the country such as Tshwane – with DA mayor, Stevens Mokgalapa, being voted out through a motion of no confidence by the ANC and supported by the EFF in December 2019; Johannesburg also experienced a similar situation in January 2023, when mayor, Mpho Phalatse, was removed by the ANC, again supported by the EFF. Coalition governments have also been unstable in Nelson Mandela Bay, Metsimaholo in the Free State, Rustenburg in the North West, and Bitou in the Western Cape. Moreover, the National Party (NP) left the 1994 government of national unity in 1996 due to disagreement over policy directions. Second, the arrangement seeks to unify parties with polarised political views for national reconciliation, however, it risks delaying decision-making due to longer negotiation periods. For example, economic policies such as the DA’s liberal market proposals are aimed at growth but are viewed as economic fundamentalism by EFF and MK party members and might clash with the ANC’s state intervention policies such as the 2003 Black Economic Empowerment (BEE). Third, linked to the second, the proposed arrangement increases investor confidence due to the DA’s promises of a pro-free market economy, anti-corruption, and focus on infrastructure – it can also cause political uncertainties from possibly delayed decision-making processes and infighting which can affect financial markets and investor confidence.

Foreign Policy and International Relations

South Africa’s current foreign policy and international relations appear balanced, reflecting the internal political dynamics of the country’s ruling party. The ANC mirrors national unity with members from all interest groups in the “rainbow nation” and its foreign policy has reflected this over the years. Established as a coming together of South Africa’s black and coloured populations in January 1912, the party was a reaction to the creation of the Union of South Africa by white politicians who excluded the black majority from the right to vote or participate on equal terms with white people. During the defiance campaign from June 1952, the ANC orchestrated the first multiracial political mobilisation against the apartheid regime. The party worked with the South African Indian Congress, the Coloured People’s Congress, and the (largely white) Congress of Democrats. In 1994, the ANC allied with the South African Communist Party, thus symbolising the genuine representation of “the people” due to its diversity. The ANC has since viewed itself as a party representing the nation – this is reflected in its international trade and policies.

In terms of international trade, South Africa has a healthy trade volume with global partners. Trade in imports and exports reached $55 billion with China, $21 billion with the US, $58 billion with the European Union (EU), and $45 billion with African states in 2022. In this regard, Pretoria remains Beijing’s largest African trading partner, the only African country with a strategic agreement with Brussels, maintains a healthy trade with Washington, and is one of the leading drivers of intra-African trade through the Africa Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). In the new coalition government, despite the DA’s apprehension about BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), Pretoria’s relations with the grouping are likely to continue for tangible economic and strategic benefits such as trade diversification and collective lobbying.

Further signs of a balanced foreign policy approach are South Africa’s contrasting reactions to the war in Gaza and the Russia-Ukraine conflict. This reflects the country’s effort to position itself strategically within global polarised geo-political groups. Speaking before lawmakers during his annual State of the Nation address at the Cape Town City Hall in February 2024, the president, Cyril Ramaphosa, reaffirmed the country’s support for the Palestinian people and intention to use all diplomatic and legal methods to continue the fight and bring a ceasefire and a two-state solution to that region. This came after Pretoria charged Israel to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for genocide in December 2023. In contrast, in March 2022, South Africa’s stance on non-alignment in the Russia-Ukraine conflict saw the country abstain from voting to condemn Russia at the United Nations (UN). The country’s contrasting reaction to both conflicts highlights a dilemma of balancing its international relations while practising non-alignment and non-intervention, together with historical solidarity policies in an increasingly complex global landscape.

While the DA also openly supports a two-state solution to the war in Gaza, it has acted in ways perceived by analysts as pro-Israel such as demoting a member of parliament (MP), Ghaleb Cachalia, from its shadow cabinet for expressing a pro-Palestine stance in November 2023. The DA has also avoided condemning directly Israel or Palestine, however, when asked about the conduct of Israeli soldiers, party leader, John Steenhuisen, stated that “One man’s genocide is another man’s freedom” signalling a pro-Israel stance.

Despite strong ideological differences on trade and foreign policy between the parties in the new government, the fundamental relationships with its global partners aimed at strengthening ties with each, are likely to continue, however, specific emphasis on priorities might change.

Dr. Samuel Igba is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Pretoria’s Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship.


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