South Africa’s President Announces Intent to Form National Unity Government

Days after his African National Congress party faced historic losses at the polls, President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa said on Thursday that he will seek to form a government that includes a wide range of parties, some with starkly opposing views.

Led by the A.N.C. since the fall of apartheid, South Africa has been in limbo since the watershed election on May 29 when voters punished the ruling party for failing to address issues like skyrocketing unemployment, regular power outages and high rates of crime.

Over the next few days, a weakened A.N.C. will meet with opposition parties to carve out a deal to avoid a hung Parliament — one in which no party or coalition has a majority — in what Mr. Ramaphosa cast as an effort to bring stability to South Africa’s government.

“We invite political parties to form a government of national unity as the best option to move our country forward,” Mr. Ramaphosa said in a news conference late on Thursday night. “This moment calls for the broadest unity of the people of South Africa.”

While the A.N.C. remains the largest party in South Africa, winning 40 percent of the vote in last week’s national election, it now has 159 seats, 42 short of a majority, in the 400-seat National Assembly, which elects the president.

In the A.N.C.’s proposal for a government of national unity, many parties would have representation, with cabinet ministers picked from multiple parties. Eighteen parties won at least one assembly seat in the election.

Since the end of apartheid, the A.N.C. had never before failed to win an outright majority.

In deciding on this broad-based approach, the A.N.C.’s national executive committee appeared to be trying to sidestep the dilemma of forming an exclusive coalition with one of the larger parties — each of which is polarizing and could have angered the A.N.C.’s base of supporters.

While such a government would likely allow Mr. Ramaphosa to retain the presidency, it may mean giving roles as senior as deputy president to an opposition lawmaker.

South Africa was led by a government of national unity once before, in the first administration led by Nelson Mandela.

The model from three decades ago may help South Africa get through a potentially tumultuous transition, but not everyone thinks it’s a workable solution.

This type of government would need multiple parties to collaborate, many of which have distinctly different policy goals, which means it would be “completely unworkable,” in the view of Richard Calland, a political analyst. “It would make it impossible to work on a program of action.”

Some of the political parties themselves have also expressed deep skepticism of working with parties across the aisle.

The leaders of Democratic Alliance, the largest opposition party with 21 percent of the vote, have described the idea of the A.N.C.’s working with two other parties — Jacob Zuma’s uMkhonto weSizwe Party and Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters — as a “doomsday coalition.”

Those two parties represent a radical economic shift from both the A.N.C.’s moderately progressive economic policy and the Democratic Alliance’s free-market approach. Both parties want to amend South Africa’s Constitution, though for very different reasons.

The Economic Freedom Fighters want to change the laws on land redistribution and nationalize the central bank. The uMkhonto weSizwe Party, or M.K., wants to change South Africa’s legal system and pardon Mr. Zuma, which would allow him to take up a seat in Parliament.

Mr. Zuma, who previously had led the A.N.C., was forced to resign six years ago as South Africa’s president. His administration was marred by corruption allegations.

An exclusive partnership with the Democratic Alliance could have displeased Black voters in the African National Congress who believe that the alliance is dominated by white leaders and is uninterested in pursuing policies to address racial inequities.

Teaming up only with the Economic Freedom Fighters party could have alarmed voters concerned about extremism. Joining only with uMkhonto weSizwe could have provoked concerns about corruption.

But Mr. Ramaphosa also made it clear that he would not go so far as to compromise with the demands of his nemesis, Mr. Zuma, whose party has called for scrapping the current constitution. He said that coalition partners must respect certain values.

“These values include respect for the constitution of South Africa and the rule of law,” Mr. Ramaphosa said. “These values also include stability, accountability, transparency, integrity, community participation and good governance.”

After ignoring overtures from the A.N.C., Mr. Zuma’s new M.K. party agreed to a meeting to “hear the views presented with an open mind,” on condition that the ideas prioritized “the South African majority and Blacks in particular,” it said in a statement on Thursday.

The A.N.C.’s negotiation team was set to meet with the Democratic Alliance on Saturday. Until now, the two parties have had “very tentative and exploratory talks,” said Tony Leon, a former leader of the opposition party who is now part of its negotiation team.

The Democratic Alliance, a party that has built its reputation on its sharp criticism of the A.N.C., would come to the negotiating table with an open mind, added Mr. Leon.

“This is not the time for posturing and point-scoring but to put the country on the right path,” Mr. Leon said.

Mr. Ramaphosa acknowledged in his news conference that the election had led to fears of “fragmentation and instability,” and that it was a perilous moment.

“There was measure of fear as well that South Africans would not be able to work together,” he said. But he concluded, “The outcome of this election presents an opportunity to forge a more inclusive, cooperative and effective approach to governance.”

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