Wednesday, July 24, 2024

SA’s GNU must harness moderation and goodwill for growth: Terence Corrigan

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In his article, Solly Moeng urges the Government of National Unity (GNU) to embrace a healing and cooperative approach to politics. He advocates for a focus on constitutionalism, institutional rejuvenation, and addressing South Africans’ top priorities: employment and corruption. By recognizing broad public consensus and avoiding divisive politics, the GNU has a chance to reset the nation’s path and foster economic and social progress, aligning with the electorate’s moderate, pragmatic aspirations.

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By Terence Corrigan*

Solly Moeng’s thoughtful contribution on the priorities of the Government of National Unity (“The GNU must embark on a drive to heal SA”, 2 July) is a call to a more productive form of politics. It correctly highlights the need to defend constitutionalism, to rejuvenate South Africa’s frayed institutions and to realign political attitudes to facilitate “healing” rather than driving a programme of vengeance.

One can only salute this sentiment. And in light of the electoral outcomes, one cannot but endorse it. For the GNU represents an attempt (imperfect and perhaps grudging as it may be) at the sort of cooperative politics that Moeng advocates, and also a counterpoint to an election result where for the first time a party campaigning on a platform unambiguously hostile to the constitutional order gained significant traction.

Fortunately, the GNU moment may provide a moment to reset South Africa, and to build a new, reform oriented political majority. The key to doing so is to understand the electorate and what its priorities are, and what they are not. On this, there is a wealth of evidence. 

The Institute’s regular polling exercises have been interrogating people’s demands on government since the early years of the millennium. The results have been consistent. Above all, South Africa’s people want employment. In last year’s poll, 47% of respondents identified job creation as one of the two top priorities for government action. In second place, at 22% was corruption. 

The results went on to illustrate that it was fundamentally quality of life issues – economic opportunities, living conditions, security – that held people’s attention: countering abuse of women and children (18%); dealing with the electricity crisis (16%) and so on.

On the other hand, status-related and ideological issues were not especially prominent. Empowerment policy came in at 7%, racism at 3% and land reform at 1%.

We have also found high levels of cross-racial acceptance, even amity. A substantial majority (59%) reported having had no personal experience of racism in the past five years, while two thirds of respondents believed that the different races needed one other for progress. 

Over the years, our polling has also shown an endorsement of merit in appointments and for special measures to enhance the capabilities of those who have historically been excluded from the economic mainstream.  

Our findings have at times been criticised for contradicting the narrative that our politics is a bitter racial contest; but we are hardly alone in this. Afrobarometer’s most recent survey – undertaken in 2022 – identified similar concerns among South Africa’s population. Asked to name the three most pressing problems facing South Africa and its government, just over 50% pointed to unemployment. A little over 3% drew attention to a basket of issues (discrimination, ethnic tensions and so on) that might broadly denote racial stress. 

All told, the weight of South African opinion is broadly restrained, pragmatic and moderate; materialist in aspiration and respectful of the claims of fellow citizens. This is a strong basis on which to build.

Note too though, that polling also detects a restlessness, a hunger for material change that could overwhelm democratic impulses. For example, Afrobarometer finds that close to two thirds of South Africans would be willing to surrender the franchise for a government able to imposes law and order, deliver housing and provide unemployment. A hypothetical proposition, certainly, but one that illustrates the gravity of the situation.

Moeng comments: “It should no longer be that in a country with a nation as diverse as South Africa’s population, those employed to serve in public institutions remain at the beck and call of political masters whose agendas are to continue driving wedges aimed at entrenching racial divisions for narrow political aims.”

This is quite correct. The solution, if the GNU is up to it, lies in getting governance working and the economy growing – each of these being dependent on the other. It also lies in recognising the rather extraordinary degree of societal consensus on the type of society South Africa’s people desire. It’s a valuable asset, if malicious, short-term opportunism is not allowed to undermine it.

Read also:

  • ANC invokes Madiba in pursuit of government of national unity
  • Ramaphosa’s unity cabinet: Strategic moves for South Africa’s future
  • South Africa braces for cabinet battle in new coalition government

Terence Corrigan* is projects and publications manager at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR)

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