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30 September 2014 19:45 (South Africa)
Opinionista Tim Cohen

Locked into a three-way marriage of convenience, moving sideways

  • Tim Cohen
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The 2009 election was supposed to herald a new, cuddly era of love and respect between the members of the National Democratic Alliance. Instead, for the past year, they have been throwing their toys with such gusto, you‘d be forgiven for thinking Mbeki was still in power.

Ironically, the recent meeting of the old Tripartite Alliance simply underlines the fractious nature of the normal relationship between its constituents. As the conference was billed as an effort at establishing unity, the obvious question was why the need to unify if you’re already united? What happened here? Cosatu and the SACP went to great pains to find and support a presidential candidate of their liking. They won. But President Jacob Zuma’s victory has seemingly done very little to change the squabbling tone.

Did Cosatu and the SACP just back the wrong horse? Or did their horse change direction, as politicians often do when confronted with the harsh realities of excercising power rather than enjoying the giddy process of getting elected? During the election campaign, Zuma did nothing to dissuade Cosatu and the SACP of their fuzzy notions about him – to do so would have been instant political suicide. But on the other hand, he didn’t unquestioningly endorse their policies either. Ever a good politician, and eager to be seen as the “soldier of the ANC’, he endorsed the “Polokwane resolutions”, the set of decisions that was always going to be open to interpretation.

One of the resolutions deals with alliance affairs specifically, and it two opening clauses are, you guessed it, flatly contradictory. The first endorses the “relevance” of the alliance and calls for enhanced coordination. The second says “we should respect the right of individual Alliance partners to discuss and arrive at their own decisions on how they seek to pursue their strategic objectives.” This contradiction is indicative of the desire of alliance members to be unified when it suites them and to go their own ways when it suites them, too.

Actually, the problems with the alliance lie deep within the bowels of its constituent organisations. From being a primarily industrial and mining union movement, Cosatu has increasingly become a union for public sector employees. Its teachers’ and health workers’ unions now dominate the federation in a way they have never done so before. Members of these unions see their interests as best served not necessarily through industrial action, although it might occasionally come to that, but by controlling the purse-strings of government. Hence, they are strongly pro-alliance.

Members of Cosatu’s industrial unions, like the National Union of Mineworker, also want control of the legislature to improve working conditions, but their fight over wage levels is mainly with mining companies. So their feelings about the alliance tend toward the strategic rather than the material.

For the SACP, its central need is to avoid having to face the electorate, where it would be crucified, by remaining a lobbying, ideology-driven group within the ANC. Hence, the SACP’s deep and abiding anger at being excluded from the ANC deployment committee during the Mbeki term, and the Polokwane conference’s resolutions aimed at restoring party, as opposed to executive, control over this process. And what about the ANC? In a true pragmatic fashion, its support for the alliance vacillates with the election cycle, stronger when elections are approaching and weaker after they have happened. But it also needs to maintain a loving distance from its alliance partners; ANC strategists are deeply conscious that the consequence of letting the wolf into the henhouse will be many dead chickens. That is why we have the ANC’s reticence about unions whose unrelenting demands it knows it will need to moderate when they face each other over the wage negotiation table. And its reticence with the SACP whose philosophy everybody knows to be dead (outside of the select club of Kim Jong Il, Fidel Castro and the SACP itself). 

So the trio are lock-stepped in their never-ending dance, bonded together, but forever chafing at the chains. The regular flare-ups do nothing to set them apart. In this specific alliance, the enduring rift is a natural state.

By Tim Cohen

  • Tim Cohen
tim cohen 01

Cohen is a business and political journalist and commentator of more years than he likes to admit. His freelance work has included contributions to the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times, but he spent most of his life working for Business Day.

After a mid-life crisis that didn't include the traditional fast car, Cohen now divides his time between Johannesburg and a house situated almost exactly in the middle of nowhere in the Karoo.

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