GNU’s Are Usually Born Out of Crises: But Newcastle In Natal Is Not Newcastle The UK

President Cyril Ramaphosa and other ANC members during their swearing-in ceremony in Cape Town. The writer says the governments of national unity (GNU) established in 1910, the 1990s and 2024 only share a name but are vastly different in context and outcome. (Photo: National Assembly).

In public discourse, there is a tendency to incorrectly equate fundamentally dissimilar entities in nature and purpose. The governments of national unity (GNU) established in 1910, the 1990s and 2024 only share a name but are vastly different in context and outcome. Some commentators’ insistence on justifying this ‘sameness’ is intellectually dishonest and misleading. 

It is akin to comparing Newcastle in Natal with Newcastle in the UK; they share a name but are distinctly separate places. In mainstream political literature, governments of national unity are supposed to serve a critical purpose: to forge unity, peace, and stability during political or economic turmoil. 

The question that needs a response is: What crisis is facing South Africa today that was not in 1887 in terms of poverty, unemployment and other suffering in its heavily racialised economy? To begin with, the 1910 GNU was a unification that followed the trauma of the Anglo-Boer wars, designed by and for the white settler groups who sought peace and stability for themselves, not for the broader South African populace. 

The state established in 1910 entrenched internal colonialism, a process meant to oppress the native population, and it is a fallacy to connect this with subsequent GNUs aimed at broader national unity. The 1990s GNU under Nelson Mandela, while intended to mark the end of apartheid and initiate a new era of equality, was hastily assembled and ultimately ineffective.

It entrenched merely settler colonialism through constitutionalism that dodged substantial redress, reparations and atonement. The black majority continued to suffer from exclusion, poverty, inequality and other socio-economic ills. Today’s GNU continues the 1990s version, emerging from a strategic weakening of the ANC’s dominance and a coalition with the DA. One is tempted to ask again: What crisis informs the GNU today? The ANC’s loss in the polls or its thirty years at the helm of South Africa cannot be a reason to declare a form of state emergency.

DA Leader John Steenhuisen is seen here during his campaign trail before the 2024 general elections in South Africa. The writer says a grand coalition between the DA, ANC, IFP, PA and other parties – framed as the government of national unity (GNU) – is coming at the expense of the poor and landless black people. (Photo: Xinhua)

This latest GNU was not driven by a crisis affecting the oppressed black majority but by a liberal agenda to protect the interests of capital and land-owning groups. Poverty and appalling material conditions in black communities are justified as if they are normal or inevitable. This rationalisation implies that these conditions are seen as a natural state of being for these communities rather than recognising them as the result of historical, social and economic injustices that must be addressed.

In his book, The Quest for Democracy: South Africa in Transition (1992), Slabbert unveiled the liberal anxiety about the new democratic dispensation: “One of the most daunting challenges facing [a future government] is to protect the new political space created by negotiations from being used to contest the historical imbalances that precipitated negotiation in the first place…”

Slabbert echoed these sentiments in his SA Institute of International Affairs talk, emphasising that democracy should not be “burdened” with “popular aspirations.” This perspective aligns with the paternalistic attitude famously encapsulated in Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “The White Man’s Burden; (1899). Kipling’s poem advocated for Western colonial powers to take on the self-imposed duty of civilising and governing non-Western peoples, whom he portrayed as incapable of self-governance.

Similarly, Slabbert’s argument suggests a form of elitism in which the aspirations of the broader population, particularly the historically marginalised black majority, are seen as too burdensome for democracy to function. This implies that true democratic engagement and addressing the demands for social and economic justice from the black majority are seen as obstacles rather than essential components of a healthy democracy.

Just as Kipling’s poem justified colonial domination under the guise of a moral obligation, Slabbert justifies preserving existing power structures and inequalities under the guise of protecting democracy. This approach fundamentally undermines the democratic principle of governance by the people, for the people. It also perpetuates a system where the interests of a privileged minority are safeguarded at the expense of the majority’s aspirations.

Unemployed people try to make a living at a dumping site in Ivory Park near Midrand, Johannesburg. The writer says the GNU formed after the 2024 elections was not driven by a crisis affecting the oppressed black majority but by a liberal agenda to protect the interests of capital and land-owning groups. (Photo: African Times)

The language used reveals a longstanding fear among liberals of a ‘doomsday’ scenario in which historical imbalances might be addressed and the natives recognised as rightful holders of power and rights. Liberals appear to fear a situation where the black majority gains substantial power, potentially disrupting the status quo and addressing the deep-rooted inequalities that have persisted since the colonial and apartheid eras.

This fear manifests in efforts to maintain control and limit the extent of democratic and constitutional reforms, ensuring that the socio-economic structure remains largely unchanged, with the privileged minority retaining their advantages. Hence, the debates on land reform and the SARB were extinguished before they could see the light of day. This means the black majority lives in what can be described as ‘mental concentration camps’, referring to the psychological and social confinement resulting from persistent economic and social injustices.

Therefore, the premise of South Africa’s constitutional democracy has always been about protecting property rights and avoiding discussions about historical injustices. This foundational principle reflects a continuity of power that safeguards the interests of the privileged, often at the expense of addressing the deep-seated inequalities rooted in the country’s colonial and apartheid past.

Consequently, the DA, now part of the current GNU, consistently opposes any initiatives to achieve substantive equality. This opposition is not merely passive; the DA actively resists reforms that could lead to significant socio-economic changes. Such reforms include land redistribution, comprehensive economic transformation policies, and measures designed to redress past injustices and empower the historically marginalised black majority.

With the help of the media and intellectuals, the DA’s stance is often characterised by the use of derogatory language to attack those advocating for deep transformations benefiting the poor and working class. For instance, land reform or wealth redistribution proponents are frequently labelled radical, unrealistic, or dangerous. This rhetoric delegitimises efforts to address inequality and reinforces a narrative that such initiatives are impractical or harmful to the country’s stability and economic health.

Members of the opposition during their swearing-in ceremony by Chief Justice Raymond Zondo in Cape Town. The DA, IFP, PA and other smaller parties have entered into a grand coalition with the ANC to govern South Africa after the 2024 general elections. (Photo: Parliament).

Whether under a GNU or a GUN (government of national unity or gun), the black majority remains subject to systemic violence and abuse. Liberals’ involvement in ‘nation-building’ must be seen for what it is: it is about spreading false optimism and treating blacks as “barbarians at the gate.” They favour a ‘two-state’ arrangement in South Africa: one rich and progressing, the other mired in poverty and despair.

This means that liberals seek the consent of the black majority through the vote, legitimising their prosperous state and its institutions in exchange for jobs and minimal socio-economic mobility. The racialised economy places whites at the top as managers, with the black populace providing cheap labour, earning slave wages and working under exploitative conditions. The DA’s opposition to affirmative action (AA) and a national wage exemplifies this.

The ‘Friends of the Natives’, as Eddy Maloka calls them, do not have the same conceptualisation of freedom and what it should entail. This fundamental divergence ensures that racial discrimination, racialised poverty, racialised unemployment and oppression will continue in South Africa. Paulo Freire discusses in The Pedagogy of the Oppressed that the cycle of oppression persists when those in power refuse to acknowledge and address the historical and structural inequalities.

Freire argues that true liberation can only be achieved through the active participation of the oppressed in their own struggle for justice and equality. When those in power deny the existence of systemic issues or fail to take meaningful action to rectify them, they perpetuate a cycle of oppression that keeps marginalised groups in a state of subjugation. This is where the crisis lies for South Africa rather than the reasons stated for the creation of the GNU.

The whole GNU thinking perpetuates a problematic “saviour-victim” dynamic. This dynamic constructs the relationship between the ruling elite and the marginalised majority in a way that casts the elite as benevolent saviours and the marginalised as helpless victims. Therefore, it disempowers the marginalised, avoids accountability for the elite and perpetuates inequality by focusing on charity instead of systemic change.

President Cyril Ramaphosa casts his ballot in Soweto during the 2024 general elections. His party, the ANC, lost its parliamentary majority for the first time since the advent of democracy. He leads a grand coalition, known as the government of national unity (GNU), which includes the DA, IFP, PA and Good parties.

In conclusion, the ‘Friends of the Natives’ fail to grasp the true nature of freedom and justice. Their paternalistic approach, coupled with the saviour-victim narrative perpetuated by the GNU, ensures the continuation of racialised oppression in South Africa.

Minority rule persists under the guise of democracy and liberties in contemporary South Africa, illustrating a complex and layered reality where formal democratic structures coexist with enduring inequalities and power imbalances.

Freire’s insights into the persistence of oppression under these conditions emphasise the urgent need for a more authentic, participatory approach to liberation that fully acknowledges and addresses historical and structural inequalities. Only through such an approach can South Africa hope to break the cycle of oppression and achieve true social and economic justice for all its citizens.

Siyabonga Hadebe is a PhD candidate in international economic law and a labour market expert based in Geneva.



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