South Africa

Alliance Summit: Fight for agreement, fight for relevance

By Ranjeni Munusamy 30 August 2013

Since the last alliance economic summit in 2008, the G8, the leaders of the world’s biggest economies, met five times to assess and react to developments in the global economy. The G20, the world’s major economies, met seven times in this same period and will meet again next weekend. It seems it’s much easier to get the world’s most powerful leaders in the same room than it is to assemble the leaders of the ANC, Cosatu and the SACP to discuss South Africa’s economy. Getting them to reach consensus on economic policy has been an even bigger problem. But all that might change when the alliance meets this weekend for a 'great papering over the cracks' exercise. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

When the ANC, SA Communist Party and trade union federation Cosatu last met for an alliance economic summit in October 2008, relations between the three organisations were just peachy. It was a month after the recall of former president Thabo Mbeki and 10 months since the ANC’s Polokwane conference where the Zuma camp had triumphed.

SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande and Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi had been on a collision course with Mbeki for a decade before that, and alliance relations had been frosty for all that time. They therefore became the brains and the brawn behind Jacob Zuma’s rise to power.

At the alliance economic summit in 2008, the leadership of all three organisations were on the crest of a wave, meeting under different circumstances from the fraught meetings when Mbeki was in charge. It was envisaged then that the alliance would meet more regularly, now under cordial conditions, seeing that the Polokwane victors were now in charge. The alliance secretariat was driven by ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe, Nzimande and Vavi, all three great friends and close comrades at the time, so it was expected that the alliance would function as a well-oiled machinery.

However, the alliance met only twice after that. When they held a general summit in November 2009, alliance relations had already begun unravelling. There were differences of opinion over whether the alliance or the ANC should be at the centre of policy making. The summit struggled to make progress with conservatives in the ANC unwilling to cede space to the SACP and Cosatu. As a result, the summit could not reach consensus on an alliance political programme.

The three organisations, and the South African National Civics Organisation (Sanco) which participates mostly as a spectator in the alliance, met once after that in February 2011, by which time the honeymoon was long over. A terse statement issued afterwards gave little indication of any significant progress in ironing out differences.

Presumably, the alliance is meeting for an economic summit now for the same reason it convened this meeting in 2008: “to consolidate the economic policy perspectives that will inform our common election manifesto”. The South African economy has been under severe pressure with low growth rates, resulting in higher unemployment, rising costs and inability for government to meet its development targets. The conflict in the alliance over macro-economic policy and the National Development Plan (NDP) have not helped things along, with constantly contradictory messages coming from the alliance partners.

Cosatu in particular has been an aggrieved partner, and Vavi has not been coy about admitting this. At the Cosatu national congress last year, Vavi said in his political report that a “conservative clique in the movement and government” has sidelined the alliance and used its access to power to advance a particular agenda.

Vavi’s constant criticism of what he calls a “predatory elite” in the ANC and government, corruption and delivery failures has strained alliance relations further. Metalworkers union Numsa has also picked up the tempo in its demands for nationalisation of key sectors of the economy and a radical shift in economic policy, which have also irked some leaders of the ANC. Many of the ANC’s senior leaders feel the “public spats” between alliance leaders are unseemly and that issues of contention should be kept behind closed doors.

Despite several Cosatu and affiliate union leaders being elected onto the ANC national executive committee (NEC) at the party’s Mangaung conference, this has not helped to smooth over relations between Cosatu and the ANC. What it has done is co-opted some of Cosatu’s leaders, who now soft-pedal on the federation’s positions on issues in order to fall in line with the ANC approach.

This is despite the Cosatu congress resolving that “a series of interventions need to be advanced by the federation, together with our allies, including effectively transforming the state, dealing with challenges of corruption and non-delivery, (and) ensuring representative and accountable leadership in the movement.” The congress also resolved that there should be “a radical shift in economic policy and a full implementation of the Freedom Charter”.

With most of the SACP’s senior leadership in the ANC NEC and government, the party is also now more inclined towards the ruling party positions, causing friction with Vavi and others, who have been leaning further left. Vavi and Numsa’s Irvin Jim have been particularly critical of the SACP being neglected while its leaders serve in the Cabinet. This is a constant source of conflict in bilateral relations between Cosatu and the SACP.

One of the major issues of contention in the alliance is the NDP, with the ANC adopting it in its entirety at Mangaung, and Cosatu opposing major aspects of the plan on the economy and labour. While the SACP has also expressed concerns over some aspects of the NDP, it has not been as hostile to it as Cosatu. Like with other issues like e-tolling, and labour brokers, there appears to be no meeting in the middle over the NDP – at least up to now. Government’s plan to implement a youth wage subsidy have been stymied by Cosatu’s fierce opposition to it.

But now things are different. The alliance economic summit takes place this weekend without Vavi being able to attend due to his suspension from Cosatu, pending a disciplinary hearing for misconduct. The summits are normally attended by members of the ANC NEC, SACP central committee (CC), Cosatu’s central executive committee (CEC) and the Sanco NEC. Vavi’s allies in Cosatu are still smarting over his suspension and concerted efforts to gag or fire him. They are convinced that the campaign to sideline Vavi is driven by senior leaders of the ANC and the SACP.

It is not known who from the Cosatu CEC will be attending the summit. The alliance summit is scheduled for 9am on Friday but by Thursday afternoon, Numsa, Cosatu’s biggest affiliate, announced that its leadership would be addressing a media briefing at 11am. The issues Numsa intends addressing at the briefing include attacks against by Mantashe and Nzimande, preparations for a special congress they are calling in December to discuss the situation in Cosatu and the alliance, and the Vavi matter.

The media alert made no mention of the alliance economic summit. It could not be established whether Numsa’s leaders will be at the summit at all over the three days it would be taking place.

On Thursday, municipal workers union Samwu also reiterated its support for Vavi and declared that like Numsa and the Food and Allied Workers Union (Fawu), it wanted Cosatu to call a special congress to discuss the troubles besieging the federation. Samwu also said that it wanted the NDP to be debated at the alliance economic summit as it was not “cast in stone”.

However, it is not known whether the Cosatu delegation minus Vavi and the Numsa leadership would stick to its guns on opposing the NDP in favour of the Freedom Charter and radical interventions for socio-economic transformation. Several Cosatu leaders such as the president S’dumo Dlamini, National Union of Mineworkers president Senzeni Zokwana and National Education Health and Allied Workers Union general secretary Fikile Majola serve simultaneously on the ANC NEC and SACP CC. On issues where the organisations have opposing positions, it is difficult to say whose interests they will be representing.

But ultimately the ANC remains the senior partner in the alliance and what it wants will be what goes. Still, the ANC leadership is also mindful that the 2014 election is just months away and that it cannot afford for alliance disputes to mess with its campaign. The ANC delegation at the summit will likely try to keep the summit under tight control and make sure that the statement which emerges at the end projects a relationship of co-operation and cordiality over the economic trajectory. The SACP and Cosatu delegates in attendance are unlikely to want to rock the boat. Many have their eyes on senior positions in Cabinet next year, so will try to play nicely so that they can make it onto the ANC’s election list.

However, behind the PR exercise and below the duct tape, the cracks remain in the very fibre of the alliance and its raison d’etre looks increasingly divorced from reality. How much longer it continues to coast along with conflicting interests is anyone’s guess.

And while the delegates in the room may even agree on everything that’s served in front of them, a bigger battle will continue outside the room: the battle for shaping the country’s future. It used to be that when the alliance is in the room, so was the entire political might in the country. But with Vavi not present and the increasing number of Cosatu affiliates expressing unhappiness with its positioning, with the growth of new political formations, the DA’s steady rise, and with the growing tide of disaffected masses, that may not be the case anymore. DM


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