PETER ATTARD MONTALTO: We all know the GNU process is performative

We are all exhausted. The country is exhausted; the political parties are exhausted. The IFP in a press conference on Friday seemed to be pleading with everyone to just have a quiet weekend not thinking about coalition permutations.

Yet we are all moaning far too much and should spare a thought for the Europeans, who often take months to negotiate coalitions.

Things overall have progressed “smoothly”, with broadly expected levels of drama generated in the ways expected by the people expected for the reasons expected.

On top of this has been expected levels of spin and fluff deliberately put out to influence narratives for internal battles and bases more than between the parties — as expected. That doesn’t mean things didn’t come close to collapse, but for all the drama there was at least goodwill and fair negotiation from some people on each side.

Still, it is important to recognise that the past week or two have shown that the psychological trauma in the ANC of getting 40% has not fully receded. We are likely to see this on the policy agreement in the government of national unity (GNU) as well as how the ANC seeks to “impose” rather than negotiate a platform on the partners.

Indeed, the GNU itself remains a smoke screen for a coalition. The thing I cannot quite get my head around is that everyone in favour of the GNU in the ANC knows it’s really a coalition, everyone against it knows it’s a coalition with the DA and others. The same is true in the DA and anywhere else.

This point is important going forward. Cabinet and the whole of government cannot operate on some kumbaya vision of parties all just sticking to a simple programme agreed on paper. There are huge powers and a range of actions that ministers must undertake to ensure the operation of their portfolios that the centre of government, the planning, monitoring & evaluation department and the presidency simply cannot police or sign off on. In other words principle-based trust is required to ensure the government in a coalition works.

The DA and other GNU partner ministers will have real executive powers deployed by the presidency and must then get on with it. If everything needed signing off centrally, everything would grind to a halt.

Ministers have the ability to set broad political weather around policy in their portfolios. There is this bizarre, quite profoundly wrong, overly simplistic view that has emerged in the past few weeks that ministers are somehow robots that must implement the last administration’s policies. What hogwash. Such a view represents the ongoing and quite misplaced attempted over-legalisation of the political and leadership realm. If a minister — ANC or DA — says “we are going to write a new white paper” on a policy issue, the weather on that issue immediately changes, as does the way civil servants and stakeholders behave. This has absolutely nothing to do with the law.

The point is that if such statements were counter to the GNU policy agreement the ANC would call them out, create a ruckus and lodge an objection in terms of the conflict mechanisms of the GNU. But equally the DA — say — making noise in one area might well find common cause elsewhere, such as from ANC ministers at the National Treasury and so on. This idea of simple ANC versus DA binaries may well be a gross oversimplification. (The same might well be true on National Health Insurance.

What happens when an ANC health minister says one thing and the DA in government says another?) We should not forget there are deep seams of market-friendly and reform mindedness in the ANC that have been smothered in the past decade.

Such conflicts should, if managed constructively by the president, lead to better policy and better outcomes. (The risk, of course, is being stuck in the mud.)

The performative nature of the GNU, however, will continue. We have the national GNU dialogue, which again will be a tick box and the state of the nation address and internal agreements are likely to be done by then. Everyone involved in these processes must surely know they are performative. One wonders when SA will be able to ditch doing things for the sake of it and because they were always done that way.

The call last week by several foundations for a dialogue falls into this camp. All sides of such dialogues know what the other ones think. None of them have mandates to negotiate on behalf of anyone in particular. Small groups of the elite cannot compact on behalf of anyone else, nor solve any problems. Indeed, to make this thing (at least from a popcorn perspective) decent to watch you should put these foundations in front of the EFF and MK and a group of non-voters in a room and allow them to have it out.

Why? Because the fault lines exposed by the elections are deep seams of anti-constitutionalism and disaffection. What do these foundations have to say about such things in a “dialogue” that is intended to come to some resolutions? Very little.

It is the same with policy dialogues. Change and reform requires deep and complex work to make different parts of the political economy (such as unions) understand the need for change and how it can deliver to their vested interest groups and stakeholders.

This is what has happened successful on electricity and water industry reform and is ongoing (successfully so far) on logistics reform. You cannot sit in a room and somehow negotiate these things — you need to have detailed and evidence-based conversations. Take reform of the trade, industry & competition department. The need here — even without touching transformation or the like — is a focus on exports and institutional reform of things like the International Trade Administration Commission.

Unions and others don’t disagree with these things, but they get bogged down in the wider issues nevertheless. Sitting in a room isn’t going to help that, but hard work talking to partners over a long period with evidence and data does.

Appearing in several post-election conferences and forums in the past week has driven this home to me. Any talk of structural reform leads to an outcry that transformation is being forgotten. But surely there will be no transformation when an electricity system and a logistics system are not working? We want transformation at scale and that needs a working economy.

This is why the performative elements can be damaging and give a false impression. The GNU (and more particularly the individual parties with an eye on 2026 and 2029) will need to show real gains in standards of living, jobs and real sustainable transformation that comes in a working economy — or else those who question the constitutional dispensation will be snapping at their heels.

Peter Attard Montalto leads on political economy, markets and the just energy transition at Krutham, a SA research-led consulting company.

This article first appeared in Business Day.