Who moved my Left?

The turmoil within Cosatu has reached the level where the big guns in the ANC and the SACP have had to jump in to cushion the impact on the alliance. The biggest concern, it would seem, is a breakaway or split in the trade union federation and the consequences at the 2014 poll for the ANC. So even if the relationship within Cosatu and the alliance is untenable, those wanting to leave are a "threat to the revolution", according to ANC general secretary Gwede Mantashe and the SACP's Blade Nzimande. It's a pity Mantashe and Nzimande cannot say what they really mean, which is that Zwelinzima Vavi and his band of merry men should get out and leave behind a compliant "Left", but in name only.

"Better Fewer, But Better" was the title of Russian communist leader and political theorist Vladimir Lenin's last writings in March 1923, and was an outspoken attack on then Communist Party general secretary Joseph Stalin and the party bureaucracy. Decades later, the term was used by former president Thabo Mbeki in a speech at the ANC policy conference in 2002, ironically to infer that the Left in the alliance was a nuisance and no longer wanted.

"Our movement and its policies are also under sustained attack from domestic and foreign left sectarian factions that claim to be the best representatives of the workers and the poor of our country. They accuse our movement of having abandoned the working people, saying that we have adopted and are implementing neo-liberal policies.

"On the basis of a false presentation of what is happening in our country, they have chosen to direct their offensive against our movement rather than the political and other domestic and international forces that, objectively, constitute an obstacle to the achievement of the goals of the national democratic revolution," Mbeki said.

"We are permanently interested in increasing the size and strength of our movement. Nevertheless, I am convinced that we must also pay particular attention to the principle - better fewer, but better!"

The dynamics in the alliance have changed dramatically in the last 11 years. In 2002, the targets of Mbeki's ire were the SACP and Cosatu, which were fiercely opposed to his macro-economic strategy and, generally, his leadership. It was clear that he thought the ANC would make better progress without its leftist baggage.

In 2013, many of the people who got under Mbeki's skin back then are in the ANC leadership and government. These days, Left is difficult to define in the alliance. The SACP is completely imperceptible and dysfunctional with most of its top leadership in the state or Parliament. The internal turbulence within Cosatu is primarily between the unions that want to fall politically in line with the ANC, which is not Left, and those who ascribe to radical and militant leftist polices.

Quite strangely, the new ANC leadership now have similar criticisms of Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi and the leadership of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) as Mbeki had of them over a decade ago. Mbeki's line: "They accuse our movement of having abandoned the working people, saying that we have adopted and are implementing neo-liberal policies" could very well have been uttered by ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe this week.

But unlike Mbeki, Mantashe and the rest of the current ANC leadership do not want the Left - or what's left of the Left - to breakaway. The ANC faced no threat to its dominance in 2002, but in 2013 the political scene is quite different. Next year's national and provincial elections will be the first real challenge to the ruling party, and its leaders cannot afford to dabble or take the worker vote for granted.

Following the suspension of Vavi last week pending the outcome of a disciplinary hearing, unions aligned to him such as Numsa and the Food and Allied Workers Union (Fawu) have rallied to defend him against what they say is an onslaught to silence the working class. These unions want to call a special Cosatu congress to re-elect its leadership, as they are quite confident that the mass membership of the federation would come out in support of Vavi. They also want Cosatu President Sdumo Dlamini booted out.

In order to call a special congress a minimum of seven affiliates need to submit a request in writing to the Cosatu leadership. While Numsa and Fawu might be able to convince other unions to support the idea in principle, the factors standing in their way include the affordability of a special congress. While Cosatu foots the bill for the venue, affiliate unions have to bear the costs of travel and accommodation of their delegates. Some unions are already battling to pay their subscription fees to Cosatu.

So as Vavi's troubles intensify, Numsa and Fawu have upped the tempo with talk of a split in Cosatu. Both have also intimated that their electoral support for the ANC was no longer guaranteed.

Mantashe did not take this well, and had some not-so-subtle warnings for labour leaders. Even the SACP came out from long-term hibernation to rail against talk of a split in Cosatu. And President Jacob Zuma, who has remained aloof from the convulsions in Cosatu, was on hand to offer some friendly advice to the union movement.

Speaking at the Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (Popcru) political school on Wednesday, Mantashe said a breakaway from the ANC could have serious consequences, and if the working class pulled out other interests would fill the void.

"It's a gamble - head or tails - with the revolution. You can't gamble with the revolution because you leave the space, other conservative forces will close the vacuum.

"You have made an assumption that if you decide to leave the ANC, the ANC will become static. (However) you will have an ANC that will grow more and more conservative and once it is more conservative it will be brutal on the working class," Mantashe warned.

"If you think it's neo-liberal now... You will push it (ANC) to the right," he said. Mantashe also warned against union leaders determining who their members would vote for in the elections, saying this was an individual's choice.

Speaking at the same meeting on Thursday, SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande denied that his party was behind the divisions plaguing Cosatu. Nzimande, who is also a member of the ANC national executive committee, said affiliates should not contemplate leaving the federation because of differences.

"You must stand strong because the unity of Cosatu as a federation is not up for sale, nor can it be recklessly gambled with to satisfy short-term and opportunistic objectives. Any threats to split the federation must be exposed for what it is: an enemy plot to defeat organised workers and our revolution!"

In a possible over-estimation of the SACP's strength and influence, Nzimande said: "If some leaders think that they are going to take certain affiliates out of Cosatu then they will find the Communist party first. Those who are threatening to walk out, they will first have to open this red door."

Zuma, speaking at the South African Clothing and Textile Workers Union national congress in Durban, did not touch on Cosatu's troubles directly. However his advice was for the union movement to butt out of politics and focus more on their core function of representing worker interests in the workplace.

"If you shift too much to political work, you leave the space at the factory floor. You are likely to have unprogressive unions taking the space and therefore recruiting your own members to them because you are no longer paying attention.

"That's the reason why we have this beauty (sic) entity called alliance in South Africa, so that those who are political entities do more of the political work," Zuma said.

The messages to Cosatu from the political heads in the alliance are clearly aimed at reining things in to settle the discord. While the threats of a split or breakaway seem to be causing anxiety, they also do not want a volatile Cosatu causing trouble for the ANC and government.

What is ironic, though, is that all three leaders, Zuma, Mantashe and Nzimande, do not recognise that the hollowing out of the Left has a lot to do with their abandonment of their own constituency. It was Cosatu that drove the pre-Polokwane campaign, which resulted in all three being elected to the ANC leadership on the Left ticket. But as a result of the disconnect between them and their base since then, Cosatu's leaders have had to keep up a juggling act of managing the frustrations of the workers and maintaining support for the ANC, a difficult job.

Having their leaders in powerful positions in the ANC and government resulted in no tangible benefit for the workers. The pressure was therefore on Vavi to speak up to get their attention, but this just cast him as a troublemaker. If Vavi is silenced or driven out of Cosatu, the assumption in the ANC leadership is that the federation would go back to being a compliant partner.

Which could turn out to be a fantasy. The rise in militancy in protest action and the emergence of new ultra-left unions such as the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) and political formations such as the Economic Freedom Fighters and the Workers and Socialist Party signal shifting sands on the ground. Cosatu's own research has been redlining the social distance between the leadership and ordinary workers.

Mantashe's warnings about the danger of the Left being displaced in the ANC has no bearing in reality. The Left has already dwindled or has been gravitating out of the alliance for some time, and its custodians have developed other interests. The Left is now a just romantic notion of a socialist revolution that never was.

By clinging onto a non-existent Left, the alliance is going nowhere. For months now they have been trying to hold an alliance economic summit to smooth out their differences over economic policy, but there is a real danger that if this meeting is held it will end in stalemate. This will expose the fa├žade.

For now it appears that the goal is to keep things together until after the 2014 elections, and the pressure is off the ANC. But it is clear that the centre cannot hold for much longer. For Zuma, Mantashe, Nzimande and Vavi, it certainly would be something if after all this time, Mbeki would be proved right after all. Better fewer, but better.

This column appeared in The Daily Maverick.