South Africa

Analysis: The Establishment strikes back and misses – badly

By Stephen Grootes 8 July 2014

The big story of our politics is not necessarily playing out within the formal structures of our politics. It is playing out, it seems, in other arenas. We see this on a daily basis at the moment, through the problems the union movement is facing, with the rise of AMCU, and even NUMSA. At the same time, we know that there are millions of South Africans, in fact a majority of them, who did not vote in our recent elections. What appears to be happening is that those who feel failed by our politics are organising themselves, and the Establishment is beginning to feel the heat. How it deals with this heat, could well determine the success or failure of SA, Inc. as a going concern. And so far, the Establishment is not dealing with it well. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

The 2014 elections are likely to go down as the last of the elections dominated by what you could call the “post 1994 consensus”. In other words, it may turn out to be the first, and possibly the last time our politics was really about the contest between two main parties.

We know now, with the rise of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), and the voice of Julius Malema more generally, that there is a large group of people who reject that consensus. While Malema still has to prove he can go the distance and turn his one million votes into some kind of real consistent traction, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) has already done that. By surviving the strike, by winning in the end, and holding out for five months, AMCU has established itself as a major player. It, too, is made up of people who have, in the most active of ways, rejected Establishment politics as we know it. They rejected the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), and went with the new, radical outfit.

Then we have the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (NUMSA), the union that’s causing all the trouble within Cosatu. Just last week, at the NUM Central Committee, we saw the sight of NUM officials, and even SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande himself, castigating the union.

If we accept, for the sake of argument, that these three bodies, NUMSA, AMCU and the EFF, are the closest thing we have to an anti-Establishment movement for the moment, we have to ask the question: how is the Establishment, made up primarily of the ANC but comprising the DA as well, dealing with it?

Badly, would have to be the answer.

There are usually several strategies you can adopt if you are the Establishment, and you are under assault from an outsider.

The most successful in the longer run is to co-opt them. Make those who are anti-Establishment, Establishment. Give their leaders a smallish slice of the pie, get them used to private health care and parliamentary food (as slimming as it is supposed to be nowadays). If you are able to make them as middle-class as you are, you align their interests with yours. And, over time, they start to think (and, on the old parliamentary food, look), like you do.

If you look at this over time, you can see how successful it is. When the British Labour Party was first created, it wanted socialism, and not in our lifetime, but now. By the end of the first year of Tony Blair’s premiership in the UK, The Economist could use the world’s second-best ever headline “The Strangest Tory ever Sold” to identify him.

The other option is to try to smash the anti-Establishment forces. To use the power and the institutional force you have at your disposal. In this case, the police, the law, are your greater resources. The risk you face, though, is that there might be a backlash, and you might, inadvertently, create more support for them, if it becomes clear to their natural constituency that this is what you are trying to do.

It appears the latter is the strategy that our Establishment has adopted.

Instead of trying to suck in these groups, they are trying to force them out. Last week, as the Gauteng Legislature refused to let EFF members remain in their seats. Those with big political brains, such as Gauteng premier, David “e-tolls-killer” Makhura probably sighed inwardly, as the Speaker Ntombi Mekgwe fell right into the trap. Instead of a boring story about Makhura’s State of the Province, The Star’s photographer was able to relay the drama of hiding out in the media bays (which were undemocratically, wrongly, and completely unconstitutionally cleared by security) as the police used force to drag the EFF members out.

The next day was dominated by headlines around the broken arms and asthma attacks of the EFF members. It was great, glorious publicity. Now the party will be able to claim that it really is prepared to pay a physical price to represent the poor.

While you would expect the ANC to be partisan, and to follow the lead of their own Speaker, the opposition parties should hang their heads in shame. What happened to the EFF could easily happen to them one day (especially with Mekgwe as Speaker). Instead of proving some kind of support, of even contemplating it, they whole-heartedly went with the ANC. They allowed their hatred, or disagreement, with Malema to cloud their judgment.

The impression that was given was that all the Establishment parties are Establishment. The EFF will say this is proof that it is on its own. And thus it is the true legitimate voice of the outsider.

AMCU, of course, has already been able to do this, its history with the police is already so violent and difficult (remember Marikana) that is already is able to give this impression.

And for the moment, every time a senior alliance leader speaks, they seem to spew outrage at NUMSA, which means NUMSA is, of course, able to make the same claim (to be fair to the ANC and the SACP here, NUMSA leaders like Irwin Jim do give it straight back!).

The reason it seems that the ANC-led Establishment is using this strategy is because it is so angry that all three of these groups have come from within itself. It may be because of this that the party’s leaders are simply unable to see what is happening objectively.

It is of course, completely human to feel betrayed – who wouldn’t? But if the Establishment is going to survive this, trying to push down this assault won’t necessarily work. In fact, considering the number of unemployed people, the scale of the potential constituency of anti-Establishment voices, it is in fact downright dangerous. Every time you shoot miners at Marikana, or break a red-uniformed arm, you could see the anti-Establishment voices being strengthened.

It’s time for the Establishment, all of it, to consider a better option. To look at co-opting these new voices. For them to survive, it’s going to be the easiest way, in the longer run. DM

Photo by Greg Nicolson.



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