The Presidential Years

While the Government of National Unity Cabinet worked as intended most of the time, its multiparty character and relationships between leading figures, complicated matters. At certain moments, almost always on issues relating to stability, crime and security, tensions flared especially between Mandela and De Klerk.

With regard to implementation of policy, as noted elsewhere, the president quite early on delegated oversight of much of the work of government to Thabo Mbeki as deputy president, while retaining involvement in and close oversight over security and stability.

Madiba’s focus with regard to government work was the security issue. So he would come to meetings of the cabinet committee … that dealt with security matters … because he was very concerned about the possibility of counter-revolution, and, like all of us at the time, he thought counter-revolution would come from the right-wing Afrikaner in the army, in the police, in the security sector, who would resort to arms to destabilise and then possibly overthrow the government. That was his particular interest. But with regard to the rest of the work of the cabinet, of government, he would say, ‘No, you go and attend to that.’158

Thabo Mbeki

He nevertheless directly intervened with ministers on other issues when he felt it was needed. Ministers from all three parties would come to his office to report or seek advice, and provide reports when requested.

Matters of policy, however, were more complex when they touched on issues close to the interests of the constituencies of the minority parties in the government. Each party had structures or processes for maintaining policy coherence.

In the case of the ANC, there was during the Government of National Unity, the ANC cabinet caucus of ministers and deputy ministers – its purpose was to maintain coherence without pre-empting or rubber-stamping decisions of Cabinet:

The NP had a strategic policy group which consisted of the NP ministers, the party’s provincial leaders and some party spokespersons, Pik Botha said in an interview. ‘We would meet regularly and decide on tactical moves within parliament and outside politically, almost like a shadow cabinet’.159

In this regard the Cabinet’s multiparty character made for a structural fault line that generated tensions between what happened in Cabinet and outside.

For one thing, there was disagreement on the matter of collective responsibility for decisions of Cabinet. The NP and IFP insisted on their right to publicly criticise decisions of the government which they opposed in Cabinet. The issues were few, but the differences were sharp and recurrent, complicated still further by relations between the party leaders. The fact that the Government of National Unity operated only at Cabinet level and not in Parliament or with the same permutations in the provinces, amplified party pressures on the Cabinet.

The approach of local elections towards the end of 1995 multiplied tensions as parties claimed achievements and rejected responsibility for problems. At an early campaign rally, in the contested coloured Pretoria township of Eersterus, Mandela joined the issue: ‘Mr De Klerk has been trying to create the impression that the NP was playing a leading role in the Government of National Unity and that business confidence and foreign investments were dependent on his participation in the government.’ He said that while he appreciated De Klerk’s role in the cabinet and that the NP needed to be part of the government in the period of transition, ‘It is wrong to try and inflate the NP’s role out of proportion. The ANC has 18 Cabinet members compared with only six from the NP.’ The Reconstruction and Development Programme, he said, was an ANC initiative.160