‘Reconciling The Impossible’: South Africa’s Government of National Unity, 1994-1996


In April 1994, after a decades-long struggle for democracy and more than three years of arduous peace negotiations, Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress formed a power-sharing government with its rivals: the National Party and the Inkatha Freedom Party. It was vital to overcome lingering distrust between the three groups, which had been locked in a violent conflict. Based on the outcome of an election and in accordance with an interim constitution adopted the year before, political leaders apportioned cabinet posts and appointed ministers from all three parties to the new government. They then tried to design practices conducive to governing well, and they introduced innovations that became models for other countries. When policy disputes arose, they set up ad hoc committees to find common ground, or they sought venues outside the cabinet to adjudicate the disagreements. Despite the National Party’s withdrawal from the power-sharing cabinet in mid 1996, South Africa’s Government of National Unity oversaw the creation of a historic new constitution, restructured the country’s legal system and public service, and implemented a raft of social programs aimed at undoing the injustices of apartheid.


Leon Schreiber drafted this case study based on interviews conducted in Cape Town and Johannesburg, South Africa, in September and October 2016. Case published December 2016. 

This series highlights the governance challenges inherent in power sharing arrangements, profiles adaptations that eased these challenges, and offers ideas about adaptations.

The United States Institute of Peace funded the development of this case study.


power sharing
unity government
government transition
caretaker government
coalition cabinet
opposition parties
democratic transition
Focus Area(s)
Centers of Government
Power Sharing
Critical Tasks
Consensus building
Election schedules
Inter-ministerial coordination
Organization and staffing
Political liaison
Priority setting
Core Challenge
Credibility (trust)
Dispute resolution (compliance)
Country of Reform
South Africa
Case Studies
Leon Schreiber