09 July 2024 | Story André Damons | Photo Stephen Collett
Thought-Leader panel discussion July 2024
The University of the Free State (UFS) hosted its UFS Thought-Leader panel discussion in collaboration with the Free State Literature Festival, featuring Gert Coetzee, former editor, Volksblad (left); Sanet Solomon, Lecturer, Department of Political Sciences, Unisa; Prof Francis Petersen, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the UFS (centre, facilitator); Ebrahim Fakir, Consultant Election Analyst, Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa (EISA); and Prof Erwin Schwella: Director, Centre for Good Governance in Africa, School of Social Innovation, Hugenote Kollege.

Even though there might be concerns about South Africa’s newly established Government of National Unity (GNE) and the associated challenges, there are also hope, optimism, and a lot of opportunities that come with this new reality.

This was according to the panellists at the University of the Free State (UFS) Thought-Leader panel discussion, titled Navigating a new era of democracy in South Africa. The discussion took place on Thursday (4 July) as part of the 2024 Thought-Leader Series presented in collaboration with the Free State Literature Festival. The discussion was facilitated by Prof Francis Petersen, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the UFS.

The panellists included Ebrahim Fakir, Consultant Election Analyst from the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa (EISA); Prof Erwin Schwella, Director of the Centre for Good Governance in Africa, School of Social Innovation at the Hugenote Kollege; Sanet Solomon, Lecturer in the Department of Political Sciences, College of Human Science at the University of South Africa; and Gert Coetzee, former editor of Volksblad.

Substantive uncertainty

Fakir started the conversation by saying that over 30 years, South Africans have experienced the use of authority without accountability and power without responsibility. The seventh democratic elections may usher in a new era – an era of substantive uncertainty.

“Substantive uncertainty is important for any democratic society, because it means that anyone who wishes to acquire power can no longer simply rely – as the governing party has for the past 30 years of our democracy – on the support of voters in an unqualifying way. Which means that in a year of substantive uncertainty, a key aspect and a key element of democracy, namely uncertainty, comes into play.

“In so far as uncertainty and substantive uncertainty can be a boon in a democracy, it can also be a bust. Why? Because substantive uncertainty comes not just with the uncertainty of political parties assuming a level of political support in society, it also means that a set of rules by which we engage in political behaviour become uncertain.

“One of the most interesting features post the 29 May elections is the uncertainty about the formation of the government. There are no rules governing how coalition must or should be formed. There are no guiding principles on how this should happen,” said Fakir.

According to him, there are potential benefits, but also significant risks. The first benefit is that there is now space for citizen activism and for influence of political parties.

“There are significant risks to what we do now. If there is going to be a fundamentally new policy regime, in what direction will this flow? I think we must hold out hope for this new form of coalition government, but we shouldn’t be blind to the fact that there are two significant features that will impact the evolution of this GNU: South Africa goes to a local government election in two years’ time.”

“The ANC goes into its own elective conference in a few years’ time when President Ramaphosa comes up for a potential replacement. And this is a significant risk for how the GNU evolves and which partners continues to remain in this, and which don’t.”

No trust in a single political party that governs

One of the things that started happening in 2019/2020 was a push for people to select their government not only from political parties, but also to have individuals representing them at national level. This led to the introduction of the Electoral Amendment Bill. This all came together with the 2024 election where you had independent candidates participating.

“For a number of years, South Africa enjoyed a single party-dominated state, where you had stability in terms of how your country would be governed and who would be in government. The drop in the support of the ruling party has created a lot of challenges and a number of concerns for people,” Solomon said.

According to Solomon, this does not necessarily have to be a scary time for the country, as one of the great things about democracy is that it moves. Eventually, all democracies move from a single party that dominates to a more competitive democracy.

“This is also something to be excited about. One of the concerns was that South Africa could be like Germany where it took six months to form a government, but fortunately we didn’t find ourselves in a situation like that.”

“While there are a lot of concerns, I think the results from the 2024 elections showcases that South Africans don’t necessarily trust a single political party to govern the country, but rather want different political parties to come together. While this GNU will come with challenges, I also think it holds many opportunities,” she concluded.

A new ethos is needed

Prof Schwella introduced three sets of variables; the first is somewhat philosophical and therefore on the level of inspiring ideas. The second is much more institutional. It links to having all the ideals of democratic government and governance, but is it governable? This links to the third, which is more practical, namely – can you implement it impactfully?

According to him, the current disposition has hopefully relieved the country from not only continued state capture, but from the capture of inertia to create new, exciting, and inspirational opportunities.

“A new ethos of continuous quality improvement at the level of implementation through a process of assessing needs to be established, which will then have to be continuously built back into the redesign of the system. There is a lot of hope and optimism in that.”

“Share that journey with us, co-create an exciting and prosperous new South African state. We nearly lost it in the first 30 years of democracy. We stuffed it completely under apartheid. But now is the opportunity. Now is the chance. Let's get together and just do it.”

Be careful of what you wish for

For Coetzee, the way forward is not clear cut, and the country now has a window of opportunity. How this opportunity will be managed is what will set the future, he said.

“We can see where we are now and the main positive of the government of national unity is that we have a government of national unity – a little more than a month ago this would have been unthinkable.”

He talked about the composition of the cabinet and said the DA should be careful of what they wished for.

“The DA got six very important portfolios. Which enables them to make a huge difference, but each of these portfolios can also be a poisoned chalice. Of course they have Home Affairs, so if there's a delay with my passport now, I'm going to be fed up with the DA.”

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