OPINION: From dynamism to co-option
'Building unity' is a catchphrase that often features in the African National Congress (ANC), the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and South African Communist Party (SACP) statements, both in terms of their own organisations and the alliance relationship. The divisions in Cosatu and growing possibility of a redesign in organised labour have repercussions for the alliance, and could mark the final unravelling of the mass movement that dominated the fight against apartheid. But the weakening of Cosatu and paralysis of the alliance has also disabled a distinguishing feature in the movement: internal debate. The alliance is moving towards a relationship where the ANC is the all-powerful unchallenged force with the two chorus groups tagging along, disconnected from the constituencies they claim to represent.
Cosatu's national office bearers - minus the general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi - announced last week that a special national congress would take place in July this year. This is after nine affiliate unions requested the special congress and then went to court to compel Cosatu president Sidumo Dlamini to convene it. Considering Cosatu's financial state, with R11 million yanked out of its annual budget since the expulsion of metalworkers' union Numsa, and the propensity for open warfare at this meeting, it is doubtful whether the congress will in fact take place.
The faction demanding the congress believes the only way to confront the leadership battle is to let the mass membership decide the way forward. They believe this is the only chance to strengthen the federation and restore its role in society. The faction opposing it believes the congress will be used to engineer Numsa's return and allow Vavi to shake off the disciplinary charges against him. But because the matter has been taken to court, Dlamini has been cornered into setting a date for the congress.
Word doing the rounds though is that a mass meeting of unions will take place in July - whether Cosatu will convene it or not. Informal discussions are underway between Numsa, independent trade unions, other labour federations and Cosatu rebel unions that could lead to a mass meeting of workers with a view to forming a new federation. So Cosatu needs to act fast to get the rebel unions, which are boycotting meetings since Numsa's expulsion, back into the fold before they get lured into a competing federation.
But it seems that while the rebel unions are standing behind Vavi and are campaigning for Numsa's return, they might not be ready to make the leap to a new federation yet. The reason for this is their political attachment to the ANC and the belief that no matter how crippled, Cosatu's proximity to the ruling party serves their interests.
Of course, the facts do not support this argument. Cosatu's leverage in the Alliance has diminished over the years and its influence on ANC policy has been waning. Despite its fierce opposition to the youth wage subsidy, government went ahead with the employment tax incentive. An alliance task team set up in 2013 to deal with Cosatu and the SACP's problems with the National Development Plan has made no progress. This is mostly because the ANC contingent in the task team has not bothered to show up for meetings or give serious consideration to the objections from Cosatu and the SACP.
It's not as if the SACP seems to mind this. As far as the party is concerned, the alliance is still in top form. A statement released on Sunday following a central committee meeting stated: "With our sustained majority electoral mandate, the ANC-led alliance has the capacity and the responsibility to play the leading role in nation building." The fact that a political party that does not compete in elections and yet has representation in Parliament can use the words "our sustained majority electoral mandate" is somewhat ironic and perhaps the reason the SACP is so delighted with the state of play.
The SACP also tore into the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) as part of its self-proclaimed role to look out for "early signs" of a regime-change agenda. "The demagogic leaders of the proto-fascist EFF openly and recklessly boast of their intention to overthrow the current government 'by whatever means'. In Malamulele, a handful of agents provocateurs associated with the EFF have been behind the burning down of four schools and one administration block," SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande claimed.
He hastened to add: "We shouldn't, of course, exaggerate the potential of the EFF. However, in Parliament they receive tacit support for their wrecking-ball agenda from the Democratic Alliance, and from much of the media."
"In the face of deliberately provocative anarchistic behaviour in Parliament and out on the streets of our towns and communities, it is important that the ANC-alliance and government counter firmly, without over-reacting, without closing down democratic space and, above all, as defenders of our hard-won democratic Constitution and rights," Nzimande said.
Encouragement to "counter firmly" is apparently what the SACP sees as its role in the alliance in the face of a multifaceted crisis. The SACP's traditional role in the alliance was the generator of intelligent thought and debate in order to promote and safeguard worker interests. Its role now appears to be to protect the ruling elite and stomp on any form of dissent, whether it is from inside Cosatu, from communities, from opposition parties or the media, including news websites, according to the central committee statement.
A point to consider is whether the EFF would have the strength and resonance it now has if the SACP and Cosatu were still playing the roles they were meant to play in the alliance. Part of the value and dynamism of the alliance was the calibre of internal debate. The ANC's two allies were the primary stopgaps, the internal checking mechanism for how the ruling party contended with major issues. Cosatu and SACP's principled stance on Aids treatment, for example, exerted pressure on the ANC to invoke a turnaround when the Mbeki government had adopted a dogged approach.
While some issues caused a souring of relations, such as the SACP and Cosatu's resistance to the Growth, Employment and Redistribution Plan (Gear) in the mid-90s, the debate was handled within the ANC family. It kept the ANC accountable and on its toes.
The fact that the ANC is unchallenged internally, with all forms of dissent crushed at its 2012 elective conference in Mangaung, and one of its alliance partners paralysed by factional fights and the other co-opted as a praise singer, means that it can reign without any contestation.
The question that must be asked is if Cosatu and the SACP were playing the roles they should be, would the Nkandla issue, for example, have escalated to the point it has? Should they not have questioned the ANC and government's stance on Nkandla before the matter got completely out of hand and became the single biggest political preoccupation? Isn't that what they would have done if most of the leaders in the SACP and Cosatu weren't beholden to President Jacob Zuma?
Both Cosatu and the SACP deny that they have betrayed their worker constituency by pandering to the ANC. But they have little to show both in the form of debate within the alliance or actual influence in terms of policy and government programmes they initiated to benefit the working class.
According to one prominent member of the alliance, the fear is growing that the EFF is usurping Cosatu's policy positions and resolutions as part of its programme. He said EFF leader Julius Malema's speech during the State of the Nation Address debate in Parliament was derived entirely from Cosatu resolutions. Of course these had not been articulated by the federation's leaders for a really long time because of their preoccupation with internal battles. Even if this is true, they can hardly stand up and ask Malema to give back their speaking points and relevance that they inadvertently and foolishly surrendered along the way.
Too much has happened to be undone. The redesign in organised labour may now be inevitable as Cosatu cannot heal itself. The faction of the federation that remains in the alliance might have an ornamental presence. Its value to the ANC will be further diminished by the fact that its capacity to campaign during elections will be reduced. The breakaway from Cosatu will in all likelihood set off a chain of events that would redefine the labour sector and politics to the left of the ANC.
The SACP's assimilation into the ANC and government positions means its role is symbolic, with nothing different to add to national dialogue. It is there to issue statements under a different letterhead to the ANC's and goad the opposition and anyone else it perceives to be critical of the ruling party.
And for as long as the ANC, the SACP and Cosatu continue to trip and fall over themselves, the EFF, and other opposition parties to a lesser extent, will capitalise on this. There is actually very little that the leaders of the alliance can do now to change the state of play. All they can do is reminisce about the glory days when the Tripartite Alliance was a force that mattered.
This column first appeared on Daily Maverick.