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DA leader John Steenhuisen after voting at Northwood High in Durban on May 29. Picture: MOTSHWARI MOFOKENG
DA leader John Steenhuisen after voting at Northwood High in Durban on May 29. Picture: MOTSHWARI MOFOKENG

Thirty years from the dawn of democracy, SA finds itself facing an existential choice once more. One path leads to disaster. The other might — just might — provide the country with the Better Life for All it voted for three decades ago.

That we face a choice at all is cause for hope. So accustomed are we to expecting the worst that we fail, sometimes, to celebrate the best.

Consider this: after 30 years, the ANC has lost its majority and responded maturely. Yes, it is surprised — indeed shocked — but it has accepted the results without hesitation. From the military we have not heard a peep. There are no protests on the streets.

Meanwhile, having positioned itself as the ANC’s most intractable opposition for three decades, the DA has responded to the new reality with openness and pragmatism, declaring its willingness to consider a future in which it and others share power with the ANC. Things could be very much worse.

But before discussions with the DA and other constitutionalists can begin in earnest, the ANC must choose to reject a future that involves the EFF and MK.

The choice is existential, for itself and the country. And it is a choice only the national executive committee (NEC) can make. While it deliberates, SA waits, and hopes.

It is critical to understand just how existential the moment is. What the EFF plans to do with SA is well known: it has a populist agenda that will destroy the economy. MK, by contrast, has behaved with all the hallmarks of a party inspired by Vladimir Putin or as Duduzile Zuma-Sambudla put it in a tweet, “President Putin, ♥ ♥ ♥”. When asked what MK’s plan for the country was, she said, “The same kind of government that we had under president Zuma — those nine amazing years. Very similar.” Or put another way: a country run by kleptocratic ethnic chauvinists. A disaster for everyone except those with access to public money.

For the DA, the conundrum is different but equally existential: on the one hand, it feels it cannot stand by and watch as SA slides ever deeper into poverty, unemployment, crime and corruption. And it would indeed be a gross betrayal of its own supporters to campaign to “Rescue SA” and then, when given a chance to do so, turn tail and run.

Plausible deniability

On the other hand, entering a power-sharing arrangement with the ANC is fraught with risk. Will it be lashing itself to an organisation that can’t — or won’t — do what it takes to turn SA around, and thus expose itself to electoral devastation at the hands of those who keep their distance, but with nothing to show for it? What it will seek to do is find a way to protect SA from MK and the EFF while protecting itself from an electoral savaging. It won’t be easy. But it must try.

There is more than one way to proceed for the DA. It could stay out of government while offering parliamentary support for Cyril Ramaphosa as president and voting his government a budget, in exchange for specific policy concessions. Whether this approach would be acceptable to the ANC is unknown, and whether it would give the DA the plausible deniability it seeks if things go badly is doubtful. But it is an option.

Another is a full coalition, in which the DA and some other opposition parties take seats in the cabinet and agree a foundational policy agenda with the ANC. It would mean taking responsibility for the performance of at least some parts of government, and given the circumstances it might be extremely difficult to succeed. But it, too, is an option.

Whatever transpires, if the DA and the ANC do find themselves in a power-sharing arrangement, there is international experience worth taking into account.

I took up a post as director of strategy to the UK’s deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, in October 2012. Clegg had led the Liberal Democrats into government in 2010 as the smaller partner in a coalition with Britain’s Conservatives. He had learnt a lot about the challenges of coalition government by the time I arrived, and I quickly caught up. Of course, SA is not Britain, and the protagonists are nothing like each other, despite some superficial similarities, but the dynamics of sharing power are in many respects the same.

Red lines

Power-sharing is hard. It requires more skill, effort and resilience than single-party governments, and not just for leaders and their parties. It demands a lot of citizens too. Certainly, it’s hard not getting everything you want. Much more painfully, it also requires parties and their supporters to accept policies they deeply detest. If they are not prepared to, they will either “red line” themselves out of sharing power before it even begins, or the agreement they reach will disintegrate in acrimony.

Some lines are indeed red, and cannot be crossed. There is no point making an agreement that cannot deliver a positive outcome for the country. But party leaders should be honest with their troops, many of whom will be asked to do something very difficult: learn to work with the enemy.

Success depends largely on ensuring the public has adequate sight of the give and take that goes on behind the scenes. Party supporters will only accept the things that feel like betrayal if they experience the things that feel like triumph. And some will never accept any of it at all. Leading in this environment requires exceptional communication skills and an acceptance on both sides of government that the other party has a constituency it needs to take along. If there is a coalition, both Ramaphosa and leader of the opposition, John Steenhuisen, will have their work cut out.

So, can SA be governed from the centre by parties that represent a majority of black, white, coloured and Indian South Africans, or will the forces of racial and ethnic nationalism always win out in the end?

Can the dream of 1994 and the constitutional dispensation that underpins it become a sustainable reality for South Africans, or are we destined always to compete as groups in a zero-sum game that no-one ever wins? Perhaps the next two weeks will give us an answer.

• Coetzee is a former SA MP and director of strategy to UK deputy prime minister Nick Clegg.

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