‘New normal’ as white-led party to rule with ANC in South Africa

John Steenhuisen, leader of the Democratic Alliance, said 'we've embarked on a peaceful and democratic transfer of power'
John Steenhuisen, leader of the Democratic Alliance, said 'we've embarked on a peaceful and democratic transfer of power' - Nic Bothma/REUTERS

The African National Congress and its largest rival, the white-led, pro-business Democratic Alliance (DA), have agreed to work together in South Africa’s new government of national unity, in a step change after 30 years of ANC majority rule.

Cyril Ramaphosa, the 71-year-old ANC leader, struck a dramatic late coalition deal just hours before a vote by lawmakers on whether to re-elect him, and will remain as president.

Once unthinkable, the deal between two antagonistic parties is the most momentous political shift in South Africa since Nelson Mandela led the ANC to victory in the 1994 elections that marked the end of apartheid.

“Today, South Africa is a better country than it was yesterday. For the first time since 1994, we’ve embarked on a peaceful and democratic transfer of power to a new government that will be different from the previous one,” John Steenhuisen, DA leader, said in a televised address.

“From today, the DA will co-govern the Republic of South Africa in a spirit of unity and collaboration,” he said, adding that multi-party government was the “new normal”.

The ANC lost its majority for the first time, in an election on May 29 and spent two weeks in talks with other parties that went down to the wire on Friday.

In a marathon parliamentary session, the ANC signed the last-minute agreement with the DA, effectively ensuring Mr Ramaphosa stays on as leader. The parties will now co-govern South Africa in its first national coalition where no party has a majority in Parliament.

Mr Ramaphosa called the deal a “new birth, a new era for our country” and said it was time for parties “to overcome their differences and to work together.”

“This is what we shall do and this is what I am committed to achieve as the president,” he said.

A DA source said the party would receive the post of deputy speaker of the National Assembly under the deal.

Fikile Mbalula, ANC secretary-general, said South African politics had taken a 'remarkable step'
Fikile Mbalula, ANC secretary-general, said South African politics had taken a 'remarkable step' - Xinhua/Shutterstock

“Today is a remarkable step in the aftermath of the 29th of May,” Fikile Mbalula, ANC secretary-general, said, adding that parties included in the unity government would be co-operating in both the executive and the legislative branches.

Long seen as unbeatable in national elections, the ANC lost support in recent years as voters wearied of high levels of poverty, inequality and crime, power cuts and corruption in party ranks.

The DA’s entry into national government is a big moment for a country still processing the legacy of the racist colonial and apartheid regimes.

The party wants to scrap some of the ANC’s black empowerment programmes, saying they have not worked. It says good governance and a strong economy would benefit all South Africans.

The party rejects accusations from opponents such as the hard-Left Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) that it represents the interests of the privileged white minority.

Some voters, including ANC supporters, also see it in that light, while others take a more positive view of the racial dynamics.

“The ANC was also failing. They need a partner so they can rise again. DA is mostly white people so if they came together we can have more power and maybe a lot can change, even jobs could be created,” said Bongani Msibi, 38, a street vendor in Soweto.

Helen Zille, a senior DA figure, said Mr Steenhuisen’s skin colour was irrelevant.

“The melanin-quotient of the DA leader is the least significant aspect of this historic agreement,” she said in a post on X, formerly Twitter, critical of some media headlines.

The EFF, which came fourth in the election, said it would have been prepared to partner with the ANC but not with the DA, which it has described as “a tool for imperialism and for white monopoly capital”.

Two smaller parties, the socially conservative Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and the Right-wing Patriotic Alliance, will also take part in the unity government, they said.

Meeting in Cape Town, the National Assembly elected the ANC’s Thoko Didiza as its speaker. It was then due to elect its deputy speaker and the head of state.

Cyril Ramaphosa, the South African president, is sworn in as a member of parliament
Cyril Ramaphosa, the South African president, is sworn in as a member of parliament - Jerome Delay/AP Photo

The ANC won 159 of 400 seats in the National Assembly, while the DA got 87. The populist uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) party led by Jacob Zuma, the former president has 58, the EFF 39 and the IFP 17.

The inclusion of the IFP, with its ethnic Zulu base, may help sweeten the DA pill for ANC voters. The Patriotic Alliance draws its support from the mixed-race community.

The News24 website published details from a draft statement of intent it said had been circulated to party negotiators by the ANC’s Mbalula. Reuters saw the document but could not confirm its authenticity.

Among the “basic minimum programme of priorities” outlined in the document were rapid, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, the promotion of fixed capital investment and industrialisation, job creation, land reform, infrastructure development, structural reforms and fiscal sustainability.

Capital Economics, a London-based research firm, said the prospect of a coalition involving the ANC and DA was being well received by investors because there was expected to be policy continuity or an acceleration of reforms, and because the EFF and MK would be excluded from policymaking.

Mr Zuma’s MK came third in the election but alleged it was robbed of victory by vote-rigging, and is boycotting the new parliament.