OPINION: Alliance summit: Let's get together & close down dissent

In what will be one of the most unusual occurrences in the domain of South African politics, the leaders of the ANC, South African Communist Party and Cosatu will be out of circulation for a whole week as they go on a retreat to sort out their differences. There is apparently no agenda of topics to be discussed, just a general bonding session. For a week. Some alliance leaders do think it is rather bizarre, but since it is happening at the request of President Jacob Zuma, nobody dares object. There will be a few noticeable absentees at the meeting, namely Zwelinzima Vavi and the leadership of Numsa who are now genuinely out in the cold. So what exactly is the motive behind this meeting ?

At the reburial ceremony of liberation struggle stalwart JB Marks in March, President Jacob Zuma proposed a week-long retreat for the leaders of the ANC, South African Communist Party (SACP) and Cosatu to have a frank discussion about divisions in the alliance. It seemed like hyperbole at the time - as if the president was suggesting a lengthy discussion about alliance relations but people did not really believe it would be a whole week.

But what Jacob Zuma wants Jacob Zuma gets.

So on Thursday, the alliance political council will meet at a preparatory session for an alliance summit that begins on Saturday and is scheduled to go on till Friday, 3 July. If this were 2008, such a meeting of the alliance structures would probably be defining for the country's political future. Back then, the SACP and Cosatu were at the peak of their influence on decision-making, having helped Zuma to be elected ANC president and preparing to assist him run the South African government. They had a direct hand in key appointments in the Cabinet, and believed there would be a policy swing to the left with their guy in power.

It didn't quite work out that way. Now seven years later, alliance relations are tepid, Cosatu is paralysed by internal divisions and the SACP has become irrelevant to the functioning of the country. So while the top leaders of all three organisations, plus the alliance appendage the South African National Civic Organisation, will be locked together for a week, no seismic activity is expected.

The last alliance summit was held in September 2013 and like the upcoming meeting, Zwelinzima Vavi and metalworkers union Numsa were absent. Vavi was at the time suspended from Cosatu and Numsa's leaders decided not to be part of the labour federation's delegation due to the internal divisions. The outcome of that meeting was "We're all good and doing fine without them."

But that was not entirely true. There were fundamental disagreements on the National Development Plan (NDP) and economic policy. These were meant to be worked through by an alliance task team. But the task team never got off the ground and the differences persist even though the alliance partners rallied together around last year's election campaign and the NDP has been adopted as government policy.

This is the strange animal that the tripartite alliance is. Nobody quite knows why it still exists let alone why it needs to hold a week-long meeting.

When Zuma proposed the meeting, it appeared to be a last-ditch attempt to help Cosatu from fracturing. An ANC task team led by Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa had been working to help Cosatu through its difficulties. However, despite its intervention, Cosatu decided to first expel Numsa and then Vavi. The ANC did not necessarily want this. What it wanted was a contained Numsa and Vavi. What they did not want was Vavi and Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim outside the fold, mobilising against the ANC. (Perhaps they learned a lesson with the expulsion of Julius Malema.)

The difficulty for everyone is that many Numsa members are still ANC supporters. Although the metalworkers union took a decision at its special congress in December 2013 to explore the formation of a worker's party, many of its members still find a break from the ANC difficult. In the same way, the ANC is aware that many of its supporters who are workers still support Vavi. This is why a rupture in Cosatu is complex and the ANC cannot adopt the posture of Cosatu president S'dumo Dlamini and his allies, who believe the door is firmly shut behind Vavi and Numsa.

But comments at the weekend by ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe suggest that no overtures would be made to Vavi and Numsa. "No, we are not going to individuals. It's an alliance matter and we don't have an alliance with individuals," Mantashe was quoted by The Sunday Independent. "Unity is not about Numsa. The unity is about these (tripartite alliance) organisations and their leagues. If they (Numsa) don't want to be civil, then it's their problem," he said.

Any hope of repairing relations were tossed aside when Vavi and Jim last week announced a civil society campaign against corruption, including a mass march to the Union Buildings. While the march is against corruption, to which there should be universal opposition, it is being perceived as an anti-ANC campaign.

So what will the entire leadership of the ruling alliance be discussing for an entire week? The issues for discussion are expected to be thrashed out at the alliance political council, which comprises the national office bearers of all the alliance partners, on Thursday. Friday will be the 60th anniversary commemoration of the Freedom Charter in Kliptown, which all the alliance partners are expected to attend. On Saturday, the alliance summit begins in earnest with the presentation of a political report by Zuma. The rest of the meeting, until the following Friday, is planned for the discussion of this report.

Zuma is not one to deliver the most compelling of reports, let alone one that can be discussed for seven days. But it is clear that he wants to read who stands where on the major issues in the country and therefore wants everyone in the leadership of the organisations to have their say. This meeting will also be a gauge of the mood in the movement ahead of the ANC national general council (NGC) postponed to later this year due to chaos in the ranks of the ANC youth and women's leagues. There have been concerns that like previous NGC meetings, rebellion against the ANC leadership could be brewing. If this really is the case, Zuma would not want to be caught off guard.

Although it would seem that Zuma's motive for calling the alliance summit is to foster unity, a vibrant, militant Cosatu and critical SACP - not that these exist in the real world - is not in the president's interest. So 'unity' is more of a euphemism for the alliance partners toeing the ANC line in the critical time ahead. The ANC cannot afford its alliance partners agitating as it battles an increasingly aggressive opposition and restless public.

It is not clear what happens to the running of the country while so many senior leaders are shut away for a week. It must also be pointed out that the deadline for Zuma to release the Farlam Commission of Inquiry report into the Marikana massacre expires while the alliance summit will be in progress. The Presidency has not indicated whether Zuma will announce the findings himself, delegate the responsibility or issue a statement on the outcomes and actions he might take. So whether he will leave the alliance summit to deal with the Marikana matter and other issues remain to be seen.

This alliance summit is unprecedented in terms of the time it would take - even ANC national conferences do not take as many days, and some of the sessions are open to the media, including the election of new leaders. It appears that this meeting will be on lockdown and the public might never know what really goes down. But Zuma called it for a reason and it is perhaps only him who knows what that is.

Like many puzzled people who will be attending the retreat, we wait to find out.

This column first appeared on Daily Maverick. Go to _ www.dailymaverick.co.za for more comment and analysis._