Tripartite leaders in it for the long run

Stephen Grootes

This week’s move by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) to retain the same top-six national leaders fits in with the dominant pattern of this year’s politics. This appears to be leading to a situation in which the current political personalities, and the systems and agendas they bring with them, are being consolidated.

This could lead to an entrenchment of the current political personnel in the African National Congress (ANC), Cosatu and the South African Communist Party (SACP) alliance, which could be to its detriment in the long run.

While many people expected that this year could see wholesale political change, as all three members of the alliance were having national congresses, this has not been the case. With two of the three leadership election processes out of the way, there has yet to be any serious change.

Cosatu’s leaders have emerged unchanged at this week’s congress. Earlier this year the SACP saw only slight change to its national leadership. The key positions — that of general secretary and deputy general secretary saw Blade Nzimande and Jeremy Cronin retain their jobs. While one new position was created, that of second deputy general secretary, it went to Solly Mapaila. He’s seen as close to Mr Nzimande and the appointment could be seen as an entrenchment of Mr Nzimande’s power.

This also means that the leaders of these two organisations will have very lengthy tenures. By the end of their terms in 2017, Mr Nzimande will have been in the same job for 19 years and Mr Vavi for 18. If they were the leaders of states, the length of their tenures would indicate dictatorial tendencies.

The net result of their lengthy stay in power has been that it is becoming harder and harder for anyone they oppose, to take over from them.

Thus when the names at the top do finally change, the actual politics or agendas they espouse will not.

It also means that what Cosatu refers to as "social distance" between leaders and members will continue to grow. The longer someone has been a leader, the less they are likely to remember being a mere member. As a result, the distance between the grass-roots and the upper echelons will grow.

It also means that there is very little space for people coming up through the ranks. As the members grow frustrated, they will either have to learn to cool their heels and accept the status quo — in policy and in leadership — or leave the organisation.

This trend may be beginning to trickle down.

The National Union of Mineworkers, an affiliate of Cosatu, also saw an election this year in which its general secretary, Frans Baleni was retained. It was shortly into his current term that the Marikana shootings exposed what appears to be big shortcomings in the way the union has developed over the past few years.

This trend is also happening in the ANC. Kgalema Motlanthe was secretary-general for ten years before becoming deputy president. President Jacob Zuma has been in the top six national leaders since the mid-1990’s.

There are several provincial leaders who have been provincial secretaries for more than ten years. That is partly so because the national leaders do not give way easily and therefore their choice is to either stay put, or to give it all up.

The increasing distance between members and leaders could open space for other organisations, or youthful individuals, to capitalise on mistakes made by the alliance.

Stephen Grootes is an Eyewitness News reporter and the host of The Midday Report.