In the brand-spanking new building that is Cosatu House in Braamfontein, the federation’s Central Executive Committee is considering the federation’s future. While the main agenda items are the report by the ANC’s Task Team into Cosatu, the real issue is whether or not the CEC will suspend, or possibly expel, the National Union of Metalworkers of SA. Should that happen, the federation’s split will move from “imminent” to “actually happening”. Our union landscape will probably never be the same again. But, perhaps more importantly, what will such a split mean for the ANC? By STEPHEN GROOTES.
The split of COSATU is happening in such slow motion that sometimes it’s possible to almost forget that it’s happening. But it is clear that at the very least, the federation’s own general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi himself, is deeply worried that it could actually happen, or even that it is about to happen. We’ve suggested before that it’s quite difficult to predict what that will mean, and how the drama will thus unfold. But it is surely not debatable that there will be a serious impact on the ANC.
Over the years, a lot of guff and nonsense has been spoken about the link between COSATU and the ANC. Some leaders have even claimed that this alliance would even survive our second coming. But it’s important to remember that COSATU itself was only formed in 1985. According to Ray Hartley’s Ragged Glory, COSATU only really started to link up with the ANC properly (and another party now too inconsequential to name here. Okay, it is the SACP.) during the negotiations after 1990. In fact, it was really as part of the ANC’s 1994 election campaign that they joined to form the alliance in the first place. The ANC may have been the ANC, but that didn’t necessarily mean it had the organisation to fight an election. COSATU provided that. In return, the ANC provided positions for COSATU officials, and incorporated part of its policies within its own policy documents.
Things have changed since then. The ANC has now been in government for twenty years. It has an organisation around the entire country, with branches everywhere (except, perhaps, Marikana). Its headquarters could be described as slightly more plush than Cosatu House. That said, it does still use COSATU’s organisational might, to an extent. Should Cosatu split, come election time, the ANC could lose a fairly big chunk of the organisation it has come to rely upon. This could matter, but the true extent of it is hard to determine.
What may in fact matter more is the ability of the ANC to use COSATU leaders as proxies. We’ve said before that within the alliance we need “COSATU to protect us from the ANC’s corruption, and the ANC to protect us from COSATU’s economics”. COSATU has often played the role of opposition to leaders in the ANC who are corrupt. Not all of them, of course, but certainly some of them. This has also allowed the ANC to use these COSATU leaders to campaign on its behalf when it needs to, when local leaders have been seen as too corrupt. For the ANC, it would have preferred to have someone like Vavi criticising its corrupt leaders from inside the tent, rather than from someone who could be a direct political competitor.
This could all change if COSATU splits. It could mean that this kind of criticism becomes much stronger, and will still be seen as coming from a legitimate source. In other words, the criticism would come from someone who is originally from the liberation movement (in a strange way), and cannot be countered as being, you know, racist. If you consider the problems that Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters have posed for the ANC, consider just how difficult a much more organised, and politically mature organisation would be for the party to counter. Especially when it is run by people who were within the ANC for much longer, and know more of its secrets.
Another aspect of this dynamic is that the ANC could end up a less transparent organisation than it has been in the past. With no strong voice in the alliance to criticise it, the party may be able to keep more of its debate in-house, and behind closed doors.
Having said all of that, it’s likely to be in the area of policy where we see some of the biggest changes to the ANC. We’ve said before that the ANC appears to be jumping, slowly, to the right on policy. That move has accompanied the demise of COSATU’s strength. Surely, this trend would continue. This would mean that the Youth Wage Subsidy (smuggled through Parliament under another name) would just be the start. This could mean that the period just after 2009 was really the high water mark of a union federation’s impact on our politics. Perhaps, just perhaps, even the greatest victory for workers so far, the Labour Relations Act itself, could see a few changes, without anyone inside the ANC to fight for workers.
At the same time, the business lobby within the ANC is growing, and getting better organised. Without a strong worker constituency to challenge it, that growth might well accelerate, with a bigger impact on policy in the end.
If policy discussions start to make less of a blip on the radar screen, the same may well happen for leadership contests. During the run-up to Polokwane it was COSATU and the SACP (and the ANC Youth League, remember them?) that helped to keep President Jacob Zuma’s name in the frame. Songs like “My Mother was a Kitchen Girl” and the naming of Zuma as a “Tsunami” all came from alliance leaders. Should COSATU split and almost disappear, then they would be of no use to leaders fighting these battles. It would be harder to keep such contests out in the open. This could enlarge the scope for skullduggery behind the scenes.
All of this would appear to paint a bleak picture for the ANC. But it would by no means mean the end of the road. The ANC lasted for over seventy years before COSATU was even formed. Of course the political environment has changed, but it had proved that it can adapt in the past, and could well do so again. Many of the problems around its internal democracy have come from within, and have very little to do with COSATU, which means they could be fixed without COSATU’s help. A change of heart from those in leadership positions could change the way the party does business anyway, and it could well clean itself up.
But the really important question for the Luthuli House is whether the collapse of COSATU leads to a new political formation that challenges the ANC directly. As the people driving this split, i.e. NUMSA, appear to be fairly political, and their stance is very much opposed to Zuma, that would seem inevitable. It’s how the ANC reacts to that, that could really matter in the longer run. DM
Photo: Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi is seen joking with President Jacob Zuma at the trade union federation’s 11th national congress at Gallagher Estate in Midrand on Monday, 17 September 2012. Picture: Werner Beukes/SAPA