South Africa, Politics

Will the real Leader of the Opposition please stand up?

By Chris Gibbons 10 May 2012

While the social networks are having a field day about Zwelen Zille and Helenzima Vavi, a very serious leadership problem is developing in the opposition to the ANC's rule. By CHRIS GIBBONS.

South Africa has one – and only one – official opposition, right? It’s called the Democratic Alliance and its leader is the somewhat formidable former journalist, Helen Zille. She’s as bright as a button, a skilled, often razor-sharp debater. She has taken the trouble to learn an African language – unlike about 99.9% of the rest of the white population – and by all accounts she’s doing a creditable job running the Western Cape as its premier. Cape Town, her flagship city, works – apparently – better than any of the ANC’s flagships like Johannesburg and Durban and it’s run by Zille’s close ally – also a politician of note – Patricia de Lille.

Their strategy: don’t waste time in an increasingly emasculated Parliament. Rather take the country piece by piece, town by town, city by city – and until quite recently it looked as though it was working. A swathe of towns along the Western Cape coast fell to the DA. Port Elizabeth – cradle of the ANC in so many respects – was within a hair’s breadth and within DA circles there was much talk of “Johannesburg’s next!”

But there’s a problem. Over the past few months, which party has mounted the most effective opposition to e-tolling? Or to the Protection of State Information Bill? Or to the Labour Relations Act amendments? Or – via its affiliates – to numerous corrupt senior government officials? Sadly for Zille, the answer is the ANC itself, not the DA.

If that sounds like a contradiction in terms, it is. The senior ANC politician responsible for most of these recent successes is Cosatu general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi. Now, before you shout me down and point out that Vavi sits neither in Parliament nor in Cabinet, let’s consider the facts.

Is Cosatu a key component of the ruling tripartite alliance? Yes. Does Cosatu nominate MPs who sit in Parliament under the ANC banner? Yes. Does Vavi exert a controlling influence over those MPs? Given that he controls the union federation’s nominating lists, yes. If he told them to ignore the ANC whip and vote against a particular bill, would they do as they were told? Yes. Ergo, Zwelinzima Vavi is as important a member of the ruling alliance as ANC President Jacob Zuma or Communist Party leader Blade Nzimande.

He’s been offered a position in Cabinet. We know this fact because he tells us repeatedly that he turned it down, adding that he doesn’t want it. So what’s he up to? Inside the tent? Outside the tent? And which way, to politely paraphrase Lyndon Johnson, does he intend to micturate? Right now, that’s a moot point because Vavi is a very subtle politician who plays his cards close to his chest whenever he needs to. To extend the Texan metaphor, bet that whichever way he decides, he won’t wet his boots!

We may get a clue if we consider the Australian political expression “dog-whistling”. It comes from the almost silent, extremely high-pitched whistles shepherds use to control their sheep-dogs. The sound is undetectable to the human ear, but the shepherd making the sound knows what’s going on, as does the dog. The rest of us stare in blank amazement: how are they communicating?

An Aussie politician is held to be “dog-whistling” if he or she speaks to the electorate in ways that only certain portions will understand. Thus, “We can’t enlarge the roundabout outside the Primary School because the road is too narrow” looks quite reasonable on the surface. But the dog-whistler knows the key voters in that constituency will realise it means “we don’t want to enlarge the Primary School because we don’t want any more immigrants!”

Dog whistling – politicians all over the world do it, and Vavi is a dog-whistler of note. On the surface, his message is quite straightforward: Cosatu acts for working folk and will defend their rights relentlessly, including a halt to the beastly e-tolls and stopping the vile secrecy bill. Beneath the surface, his dog-whistling message is quite different. If it’s not keeping Helen Zille awake at night in Cape Town, it should be. Vavi is whistling to his supporters that he is now the leader of South Africa’s opposition.

That he has manoeuvred himself into this position is testimony to his political skills as much as it is to Cosatu’s clout in the streets. There are even times when he conjures images of Jay Naidoo at the front of a UDF march in the mid-80s. It almost became untenable for him when the secrecy bill went to a vote in the House of Assembly. Despite Cosatu’s noisy and principled opposition outside Parliament, inside the House every single one of its nominated MPs voted in the bill’s favour. Shortly after that vote, I questioned him directly about the contradiction. It had been “difficult”, he told me coyly.

There are many who assume that Vavi and Cosatu are not quite big or strong or ready enough to break away from the ANC, that they are biding their time. But if you listen to the dog-whistling, you’ll hear they have no intention of breaking away at all, at any stage. Far from it – if you listen to the whistling, Vavi is telling his supporters that he’s going to become party leader. Logically, it’s the only thing that explains the secrecy bill vote. Read his response to the Zille tweet stories and you’ll be in no doubt at all which way he’s facing, either. He’s inside, facing out.

A Vavi leadership challenge seems unlikely to happen this time round – the decay and rot in Zuma’s government hasn’t reached rock bottom quite yet. But in five years’ time? Count on it. If you don’t like the theory, run the numbers. Unemployment is up sharply at the moment as another 600,000 youngsters try to enter the labour market and find they can’t. Most of them are black and badly educated. It will happen again and again over the next few years. Can you see any of these unfortunates voting for Helen Zille or even Lindiwe Mazibuko? But votes for Vavi? The legend who stopped e-tolling and labour broking? Vavi to the rescue of a broken party and nation? What a question!

So where does this leave Zille and the DA? As Vavi’s shadow grows bigger and bigger, Zille may come to regret abandoning Parliament for the Western Cape Premier’s office. It’s not a big enough platform from which to launch a counter-attack and rebuild her national profile. Nor does Lindi Mazibuko, Zille’s newly elected proxy in Parliament yet cast enough clout. Any time or anywhere that Vavi calls a news conference, he’ll get a bigger turnout of journalists than Mazibuko.

So will the real leader of the opposition please stand up? Forget it, mate, you’re too late – he’s already up and his name is Zwelinzima Vavi. But his political opponent is not Helen Zille, it’s Jacob Zuma. DM

Photo by Jordi Matas.



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