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Analysis: Cosatu and SACP, a commune under stress

Analysis: Cosatu and SACP, a commune under stress

The SACP and Cosatu are usually seen as the closer couple in the odd marriage of three. But events during the last week, and particularly this weekend, seem to indicate there might be a shift that could lead into a gap. One that could have very real implications for the alliance, and thus, all of us. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

Over the past few months the main political story (now that our favourite “Young Lion” has gone so quiet and all) has been the clear blue water emerging in the space that used to be occupied by the formerly-conjoined hip of Cosatu and the ANC. But less noticed has been what seems to be a slow separation between Cosatu and the South African Communist Party. We’ve already shared our thoughts on what seems to be going wrong for the communists. We even said that as a capitalist website, theirs was a voice we missed. Cosatu now seems to agree.

Late last week Cosatu’s central executive committee repeated its call for SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande to leave his job as higher education minister and move back to SACP HQ. Geographically speaking, that actually means the building they share: Cosatu House. Perhaps it’s because the building’s lifts are a little rickety (although not as bad as those at the South Gauteng High Court – Ed), but Nzimande is showing no inclination of going back. Even though Cosatu has offered to pay his ministerial salary (that’s about R1 a Cosatu member, if you’re wondering).

In their rather annoyed response, the SACP’s central committee, or politiburo, said after its weekend meeting that the decision to deploy Nzimande to government wasn’t just about him. It was a decision taken by the whole party. In the statement on Sunday, it goes even further, saying it is “heartened by deployment developments over the past year”. While they’re not just relying on head-counts, they’re clearly pretty chuffed they’ve got some people into top jobs.

Chuffed they should be, it was one of the main reasons the SACP supported President Jacob Zuma in the first place. But there is a cost. It’s one the ANC knows well. It has a perennial discussion about how many of its top people should go into government, and how many should stay at Luthuli House to make sure the party isn’t weakened. It’s a big party, with a lot of people with managerial experience. In comparison, the SACP is suffering from some of its big names being in government. In short, SACP may have a talent depth problem. And don’t forget that its other big fish, Jeremy Cronin, Nzimande’s deputy, is also in government, and seems to be using his brain in sorting out things that really impact on our lives, like the Road Accident Fund and roads generally.

But all of these deployment issues are just day-to-day politics, and an internal debate on strategy and tactics. The real issue seems to SACP and Cosatu’s very different views on economic development minister Ebrahim Patel’s new economic growth plan. The SACP’s leadership has welcomed the plan completely, reckoning the plan will “grow the economy, create more wealth, and reduce inequality”. Of course, the SACP being the SACP, more state intervention is a good thing. But Cosatu, which usually tends to go along with the slogan “Socialism in our lifetime” is not convinced it’ll add to the sum of human happiness. Of course, there’s the issue of wage caps to consider. They’re also just not convinced it’ll do any good.

It was left to the National Union of Mineworkers (whose national executive committee also met this weekend) to put it bluntly. “We feel this will widen the gap between the rich and the poor and income distribution will be a pipedream,” was how its general secretary, Frans Baleni, summed up the plan. As the biggest affiliate of Cosatu, the NUM matters. But the real political insult was the claim that the plan is “largely a recycled growth, employment and redistribution strategy (Gear)”. In alliance politics that’s stinging stuff. Bear in mind that the “1996 Class Project” is what the Left calls the Mbeki-ites who implemented Gear, that it’s seen as neo-liberal and anti-left, and you realise how frustrated the NUM must be.

In the past, when it came to matters ideological, the SACP and Cosatu seemed very closely aligned. This could be changing. They’re not going to split or anything like that, and they’ll both still do their utmost to keep the ANC on a leftward path, but something appears to be shifting. Whether it’s the SACP’s leadership taking its eye off the ball, or just a temporary ideological blip is difficult to say.

But this much is clear. Predicting future events within the tripartite alliance is difficult enough when the holy trinity of our politics is singing from the same hymn sheet. When it’s two against one, as has been the public perception recently, it’s trickier. But imagine what things could be like if the SACP and Cosatu decide to back different factions or candidates at Mangaung (imagine what things will be like in their shared building for a start). What if the SACP felt more and more and marginalised, and in ten years’ time decided to test its electoral strength. Could the ANC and Cosatu find themselves united in their quest to quell the rebellion?

As always, it is foolish to make predictions ten years into the future. If we were forced to put money on it, we’d probably back the alliance to still be with us, pretty much in its current form, in the 2019 elections. But things could still change and what looks like a slight shift now, could herald bigger things later. DM

Grootes is an EWN reporter.

Photo: South African state workers seeking higher wages take part in a strike in Johannesburg August 26, 2010. Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko.


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