South Africa’s march into a democracy was greatly helped by a multiparty government of national unity established after the 1994 elections.
The government of national unity, which governed from 1994-1999, has been largely credited with fostering unity of purpose and relative confidence between previously warring parties to build trust in a joint future. It laid the foundation for healing wounds as well as remarkable socioeconomic development. During the period it governed, the country enjoyed an economic growth rate of close to 3% per annum.
Given the damage that’s being caused by President Jacob Zuma’s administration since he assumed power in 2009, the country will need elements of a government of national unity when he goes.
The fact that South Africa is in recession is only the latest in a growing list of Zuma-induced catastrophes. Others include credit rating agencies downgrading South Africa. Their decision was linked to a cabinet reshuffle widely seen as an attempt to capture key state institutions.
The state capture allegations have been corroborated by a number of credible parties including the former Public Protector, the South African Council of Churches as well as a group of academics who produced a report titled Betrayal of the promise: How South Africa is stolen.
These reports make it clear that high levels of corruption are at the root of the economic crisis gripping the country. Corruption has driven away investment, and as a result economic growth has suffered. It has also led to an erosion of trust in government.
It’s therefore necessary to start debating what happens when Zuma goes. South Africa will need a government of national healing, administered by a government of national unity. This is the only way in which its citizens will be able to learn to trust one another again, as they did after 1994.
Healing will be needed
Governments of national unity have served some countries, including South Africa, well. Israel had several governments of national unity, while Kenya had one from 2008 to 2013. Greece had a government of national unity in 2011 to help the country deal with the aftermath of the international financial crisis.
A South African government of national unity should include representatives of all major political parties in parliament. Its role should be to:
- focus on restoring confidence in government institutions and in the government itself,
- restoring trust among people, and
- eradicating any form of corruption which, in turn, will restore trust in the government.
National healing requires sacrifices from all citizens to ensure a better future. A government that represented all key players in society, run by leaders appointed for their technical expertise rather than their political party loyalty, would be much better placed to ask people to make these sacrifices.
The question of a wealth tax is a good example. Already on the table for debate, a wealth tax could work well if it were presented as a contribution to the interests of the country has a whole.
But people would need an assurance that the money would be put to good use and not wasted. Only a freshly minted government could provide this.
A wealth tax could play an important role in national healing if it were implemented with the necessary circumspection. Given the fragility of the country’s economy, a number of key considerations would need to be taken on board. These would include whether there should be a once-off restitution tax for wealth redistribution, or an annual wealth tax.
Successes since 1994
The new government could draw on the considerable successes the South African government has achieved since 1994. This includes the fact that millions more people have basic services such as electricity and running water. The percentage of households with electricity has increased from 58% to 90% while those with access to running water has more than doubled from 7.2 million in 1995 to 15.2 million.
Institutions have been built to safeguard the country’s democracy. South Africa boasts an independent judiciary, despite attempts by the Zuma administration to undermine it. And the country’s central bank remains independent.
On top of this, there’s the goodwill of millions of South Africans with dreams for a better future for their children.
Dreams of a post-Zuma era
The government of national healing would have to create conditions for sustained economic growth, particularly a reduction in the country’s high unemployment rate. Strong but caring leadership will be needed to deal with a number of sticky issues that are limiting investment and job creation.
For example, the country needs to make it easy and attractive for entrepreneurs to do business. This will require a relaxation of labour laws, particularly for small businesses that suffer under the burden of cumbersome regulation. At the same time the removal of red tape for small and medium enterprises would help greatly.
Bold decisions, including privatisation, would also need to be made to deal with the country’s decaying state-owned enterprises. Most, such as South African Airways and the national power utility Eskom, have become an unnecessarily heavy burden on the state.
Addressing the crisis in primary and secondary education would also have to be a priority. And devolving powers to the provinces from the central government would be another.
South Africa has exciting prospects and can look forward to rapid economic growth after the Zuma administration. South Africans need to start dreaming, planning and working towards a government of national healing.