[ANALYSIS] Winds of change for SACP and Cosatu

Road signs in our swirling torrent of politics are few and far between, particularly to the most important questions, about who will win in December and how that will influence the elections in 2019. But, the actions of Cosatu and the SACP may be about to provide us with a few pointers to our future. The SACP is about to start a process that could mark the start of fundamental change in our politics, something that will not just change the game, but change the playing field altogether. Should the SACP decide at its conference in July to leave the alliance, it would almost certainly mean the party does not believe Cyril Ramaphosa has a chance of winning in December.

In 2012, Cosatu, the SACP and the ANC all had their big conferences. And all ended as they had begun, with the same top leaders in charge. It was the actions of everyone involved then (particularly in Cosatu) in just trying to clamp down on the inner tensions of the groups involved that eventually led to the situation we have now, where we can end 2019 with wholesale changes in all of these groups, and massive changes to our politics as a result.

In some ways, the changes are overstated; there are those who believe that if Cyril Ramaphosa wins, the ANC will properly transform back into what it was during its glorious moral heyday. But that ignores the very real problems Ramaphosa would face as leader, and issues around a culture of corruption that Kgalema Motlanthe and many others believe has taken hold of the party. But in other ways, they’ve actually understated. It seems likely that if the party does not just split, other huge changes are in the offing.

One is the possibility that the SACP goes it alone. The voices in the party calling for this are growing stronger, and its conference is growing nearer. In fact, it will happen just days after the ANC’s Policy Conference. Still, there are plenty of issues the SACP needs to consider before making a proper decision on this.

The first is whether it simply has to give up on the ANC. This really boils down to whether it thinks its preferred choice, in Ramaphosa, still has a chance of winning. If there is no chance of him winning – if it will definitely be won by Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and, through her, President Jacob Zuma himself – then they really have no choice. They have to go. Which means that if the SACP decides not to leave the alliance in July, it could well mean they believe Ramaphosa still has a strong chance.

In the same vein, if we accept for a moment that the actions of the SACP could be a predictor of what might happen, it might also suggest that if it leaves the alliance, then it is more likely that the ANC will itself split, just as its move to support Zuma in 2007 was an indicator that he would win.

But there are other factors to consider as well, and Cosatu is one of the most important. The final declaration of Cosatu’s Central Committee last week could be over-simplified to say that it was now joining the active campaign against Zuma, and by extension Dlamini-Zuma. Strangely, the SACP is now like Cosatu used to be when Zwelinzima Vavi was still there, all pushing for the working class and critical of the Zuma-led ANC. And Cosatu has now caught up to the new SACP, and is actively campaigning against Zuma.

In other words, their agendas and interests are now finally aligned.

But for communists, something more fundamental and difficult might be at stake. Generally speaking, these are people who believe in class struggle, the idea that the working classes have to take on the capitalist elite for control of the commanding heights of the economy. It’s about the lumpen proletariat and big capital (but not, strictly not, White Monopoly Capital) and the Marxist theory of something most people don’t ever quite get their heads around. So, for the SACP then, they have to answer the question: which is the best way to actually get their class interests represented, and improved in our society.

Up until now, the answer to that question has been through the ANC. It was the quicker, easier route to state power. And if you ever have an awful lot of time on your hands, you could delve into the online discussions around whether Nelson Mandela was a communist and a member of the SACP and how much power the SACP may have had over the ANC over the years. But now their way to exercise that power is blocked. By Zuma, and other dynamics, which means it may be time to change tack.

One of the ways, and certainly the most logical at this point, would be to contest for power on its own, and to use the seats it wins in Parliament as a way that represents its class interests. So, if the ANC (presuming it won the 2019 elections....) proposed that big companies be nationalised, then the SACP would back it. If the party instead brought a bill to privatise SAA, then it could oppose it.

This would have an effect on our politics that would be, to use one of the SACP’s favourite words, revolutionary. Imagine, we would have politics in Parliament based on actual ideas. Depending on how things panned out, you may end up with a political party that is in power, but is not able to pass everything it wants to. Imagine the ANC needing SACP votes to pass some bills, and DA votes to pass others.

At the same time, presumably, Cosatu would be behind the SACP, which would give it a huge organisational force. To make things even more interesting, it is possible that the new SA Federation of Trade Unions, Zwelinzima Vavi’s Saftu, could join as well. It would surely be in their interests to. And while it may be crossing the line from political science-fiction to fantasy, this could be the way Cosatu and Saftu (and Vavi and Numsa) come back from their de-merger.

The final result of all of this could be something based in the very nature of our system. In many countries that use proportional representation, it is common to see many different smaller parties contesting for power, rather than two or three bigger ones, as we have at the moment. For examples, much of Europe will work as a textbook, think Denmark, the Netherlands and Belgium. The introduction of an independent SACP could well lead to this happening in South Africa as well.

That could have positive and negative consequences. Coalitions would be necessary, which might remove some of the bitterness and public emotion from our politics. There’s no point insulting someone you may have to work with later. And it is tough to commit corruption in a coalition, because the person who would benefit from blowing the whistle is in the same government as you and can see what you’re up to. But it can also lead to more instability with no one party being able to maintain a coalition for long enough to give the country a policy direction. Italy is a good example.

While there are certainties in our politics at the moment, it does seem safe to say this – 2017 will not be 2012. It could in fact be the opposite. This time things may change completely and utterly.

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

Stephen Grootes is the senior political correspondent for Eyewitness News and the host of the Midday Report on Talk Radio 702 and 567 CapeTalk. He is the author of 'SA Politics Unspun'. Follow him on Twitter: @StephenGrootes.