The new Alliance Gospel according to Mantashe

While our political commentariat has been focused on what now looks like the slow, inevitable split of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), and what Irvin Jim will one day no doubt call the divorce between the federation and the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa), there are big stirrings within the ANC for a change in economic policy.

The two processes are, of course, intertwined. The ANC would never have rammed the Youth Wage Employment Subsidy through Parliament if Cosatu were still the force it was just this time last year. But now the man who is supposed to be the centre weight of the alliance has made an intervention that is revealing about both processes. And as we all know, when Gwede Mantashe speaks, action can soon follow.

The Secretary General of the ANC has been a little scarce of late. We've missed his grunt in our public debate. This being a year between the re-election of his political champion, and 2014 national elections, he would have been hoping for a slightly quieter twelve months.

But of course, aside from all the scandals, the political elephant of Cosatu split has intervened. As we've said before, you will have to look very hard indeed to find someone who understands the Alliance like Mantashe does. The chair of the South African Communist Party (SACP) until last year, the Secretary General of the ANC, and the former general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), Mantashe has been at the coalface of all the major debates within it for the last many years.

It was when Mantashe first announced that he was deeply worried by Numsa's stance, and the possible break-up of Cosatu, that we all know this was really happening, and it was really serious.

This Wednesday he said something that could change that entire process. Or it could just be politicking.

If Irvin Jim's summation of Numsa's relationship with Cosatu that "if you can get married, you can get divorced" was the soundbite of Tuesday's press conference, then Mantashe's "If the price you must pay for pursuing Vavi is to split Cosatu, it is not worth the price; try something else", was clearly the phrase to remember a day later.

At face value, it seems to suggest that actually, Mantashe is desperate to keep Cosatu together, and is willing to pay almost any price to make that happen. Bear in mind, Vavi has been the most difficult critic for Mantashe and President Jacob Zuma to deal with. The coiner of the phrase "political hyena", the man who is happy to lash out at Luthuli House when no one else will, the middle-class hero of the e-toll opponents, Vavi's been the biggest, and most potent thorn in the post-Polokwane ANC's side. And that's not to mention that it was clearly he who arranged for Zuma to be greeted by stone cold silence during Cosatu's Central Committee in 2011.

So, when Mantashe says Cosatu must work to keep him in, then you know that actually Cosatu matters to the ANC. This could well be an indication of how the ANC needs Cosatu's organisation during elections, the way it's able to use Cosatu leaders as proxies for the ANC, when the party itself is so unpopular that it can't even campaign in places like Port Elizabeth. It may also show that the ANC is addicted to the money Cosatu's unions pay it on a regular basis.

The fact that Mantashe sits very much on top of our politics means that he's a big beneficiary of our current system. Which means he has everything to lose if that system changes and the Alliance and Cosatu break up. So it's well within his interests to put up with almost anything to keep the system together. Which is another way of saying that if Numsa does go ahead and create some sort of "workers' convention" next year, he would be one of the people who would lose the most.

Of course, this wouldn't be a Daily Maverick article if there wasn't another, more cynical theory to play with. It is possible, just possible, that Mantashe believes Cosatu is going to split anyway, that he's already factored it in. If that's the case, he may be playing a slightly longer game, in that he's trying to make it look as if he, and the ANC through him, is being hugely magnanimous to Vavi. So, when Vavi does go, they can make it look as if it's Vavi who was being petulant. Especially if he wants to take that desk with him.

Mantashe's comments also put Cosatu President Sidumo Dlamini in a bit of a fix. If the analysis that he is acting on Zuma's behalf is right, and if Mantashe is Zuma's enforcer, then what does he do now? If the pressure on Vavi does suddenly ease up, it could be proof that he does really act on Zuma's behest. That's not good for him. If he keeps up the pressure on Vavi, he's disobeying what looks like an order from Luthuli House. Vavi and Jim are unlikely to have much sympathy for his predicament.

However, in the longer term, Mantashe's other main comment of the day may turn out to be more important.

In a set of prepared "speaking notes" emailed out by the ANC yesterday, Mantashe says:

"Our economy is not growing fast enough for it to absorb new entrants to the labour market. This trend will continue until the private sector comes to the party. Organised labour has the responsibility to be constructive in supporting these efforts. If it plays an oppositionist role we must at best ignore it or engage it as such."

The fact these were e-mailed out means that Mantashe wants people to know he said this, this isn't some off-the-cuff comment. He wants us to know that he stands by it. And the only way to interpret this is that it's a sign he and the Zuma-ANC are getting sick and tired of trying to govern in an alliance with unions. In other words, the ANC is beginning to learn, at last, that it has to govern for the whole country. That governing in an alliance with unions is unsustainable and, in reality, impossible.

In economic terms, governing for the whole country means both employed working/middle class and the unemployed. And that it's the unemployed who have the greater need at the moment. So when Cosatu has repeatedly tried to ban labour brokers, and stop the Youth Wage Subsidy, it's clear it has angered the centre of the ANC in the process.

It's now also clear that Mantashe, and thus presumably Zuma, have accepted that Cosatu is actually an impediment to creating jobs. Its behaviour is preventing jobs from being created - which is THE priority of Zuma's government.

This is for several reasons. Firstly, it is simply, the right thing to do. Secondly, there is serious politics at stake. The unemployed are losing hope, which means they lose interest in parliamentary politics. They don't vote, but they do participate in "service delivery protests". Which makes it harder for the ANC to govern. It also means that when radical young populists come along, claiming to have the manna from heaven of land redistribution and red berets, the ANC has to be seen to act. It needs to insulate itself from the criticism that its relationship with Cosatu is responsible for the fact no jobs are being created. This statement appears to create some of that insulation.

But it could also be seen as a declaration of war. It's saying to Cosatu: back off, we are going to create new jobs; some of them will come through labour brokers, and some will come through the Youth Wage Subsidy.

At this stage in the game, most South Africans won't care where they come from, as long as they come.

As Numsa prepares to leave the alliance, and Cosatu, our current political system is going to be shaken to its foundations. We know already that this will have several big and important consequences. We may already be seeing how this split could change our economic policy. And that it may, in the long run, lead to more people working.

Grootes is the host of the Midday Report, and the senior political reporter at Eyewitness News. He's also the author of SA Politics Unspun, which has been placed in the politics section of some bookshops, in the biography section of others, and the humour section of at least one. He doesn't care where it goes, so long as it's also in the best-seller section.

This article appeared in Daily Maverick.