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Vavi, the SACP – and Zuma overreach


Nic Borain is a political analyst, writer and garlic farmer. He advises financial market investors about South African politics and is currently top ranked in the Politics and Industrial relations category of the Financial Mail Analyst of the Year ranking.

There are too many things happening to allow me to give anything the meandering exploration I would prefer. So instead here is a cursory summary of one aspect of what appears to me to be important about South African politics today. Forgive the shorthand, but it’s rush, rush, rush out here in the political risk markets – especially as far as South Africa is concerned.

The SACP/Zuma cronies in Cosatu appear to be tightening the noose around Vavi’s neck, but I am confused as to what their endgame is, or how they understand what they are doing. I also think there are significant risks associated with the strategy – for the Zuma cronies and the country as a whole.

The peculiar and awkward (unholy?) alliance made up of the remnants of the Pirates of Polokwane (post the shafting of Malema) seems to have reached the conclusion that Vavi, too, must go. Vavi’s criticism (of the NDP, the Zuma patronage machine, of the orgy taking place in parts of Zuma’s family/clan/tribe, of the opportunistically embedded SACP and possibly the fact Vavi’s allies are at the forefront of making government’s infrastructure execution a little iffy e.g. at Medupi), seems to have brought his (Vavi’s) neck up to the top of the chopping-block queue.

But is the strategy to take him down or shut him up – and how well has it been thought through?

The ANC owns the Youth League. No matter how powerful Julius Malema became in his own right, and no matter how talented he was in reading and riding the zeitgeist, expulsion from the ANC was always going to starve him (at least temporarily) of air; deny him access to the constituency and platform that he always and only accessed by virtue of his status as President of the ANC Youth League. Taking down Malema was (at least temporarily) a low-risk strategy, because there are no independent and natural organisations that could have left the ruling party or alliance with him. Yeah, he tried to catch a ride on AMCU, but that was never going to work.The ANC Youth League might have briefly thought it was a free agent, but Zuma’s ANC has successfully brought it to heel and has left Malema going nowhere except on his way to prison. (I am convinced he’ll be back but that argument can wait for another day.)

But Vavi represents a different kind of challenge.

Malema, to a limited degree, ‘stood in’ for an African-nationalist tradition that attempted to oppose the rise to dominance of this peculiar bond between the sinister tribal chauvinist, strongman, big-man, populist Jacob Zuma and the SACP – held together with that reliable old glue of rank opportunism. Sure, Malema was a manipulative populist and looter of the worst stripe. However, it is impossible to avoid that ultimately, he was urged or pushed forward to fight Zuma and the surprising SACP advances by a group that could broadly be categorised as constituting an African nationalist tradition within the ANC (a tradition that would, over a span of years, have included individuals as diverse as Mandela, Tambo, Mbeki, Modise and Nkosazana-Dlamini Zuma). He ‘stood in’ for this shattered and directionless group as it gradually tried to pull itself back together – which it inevitably will, because it is and always has been the heart of the ANC.

The point is that the African nationalists are indigenous to the ANC – the organisation is their heritage and home, they have no choice but to wait out the hopefully temporary dominance of the unholy Nkandla alliance, perhaps occasionally throwing little spluttering Malema and Motlanthe-type damp squibs in the general direction of the usurpers.

This is not true for Vavi and Cosatu and Numsa.

The factional, especially ideological, splits in Cosatu are complicated and interesting and probably warrant a whole column on their own. But the long and the short of it for this nutshell here (and forgive the broad brush) is that this crew does not directly have its genesis and home within the ANC or Congress or SACP traditions. You would need to go back to the 1973 KwaZulu-Natal strikes, the debates in Fosatu in the 70s and the struggles and tensions in the lead-up to the formation of Cosatu in the 80’s… and also explore various species of Trotskyite, the Wages Commissions on the Nusas campuses in the early 70s, and the Marxist Workers Tendency expelled from the ANC in 1985.

Cosatu has always been a careful balancing of the ANC/SACP/Sactu traditions with those of the ‘independent’ unions that have historically been quite distrustful of what they see as authoritarianism and capitalist sympathies of the ANC and the Stalinism of the SACP.

From 1985 till the present Cosatu has managed (not always without difficulty) to hang together, as well as remain fruitfully within the Ruling Alliance. There were moments… but not even Mbeki on a bad day pushed Cosatu to the point we are reaching here.

Shafting Vavi could conceivably split Cosatu – and even lead to the formation of a new left or worker-based political party. Take Numsa, all the other trade unions and bits of trade unions that support Vavi, and add the individuals and organisations Vavi has been accused of flirting with (in the National Anti-Corruption Forum and earlier in the Civil Society Conference – October 27 2010) and dig out all those leftists long ago alienated from the ANC (think the brilliant and creative Zackie Achmat and those connected to him); go wild and add AMCU and some not yet discernible political formation emerging around AMCU or even around Agang … and you have the ground for a real and serious challenge to ANC. At the very least shafting of Vavi might not equal clearing Cosatu of his influence. It might equal clearing the ruling alliance of Cosatu… leaving Zuma inc clinging to a fading NUM and a few cronies.

Zuma does not appear to be an over-hasty fumbler who blunders through and into political chaos. But that might just be dumb luck, given how close he seems to have been, at various points, to permanent political ignominy and prison. But the fact of his ascendency and his current sitting-pretty-on-a-perch status behooves us to take the possibility of his tactical wiliness seriously – although giving him undue credit could lead us up alternative dead ends imperfectly illuminated by the false light of hindsight.

I am starting to become convinced that Zuma and his strategists and various allies (most notably in the SACP, but among his financial backers and family beneficiaries as well) are skirting on the edge of the error of overreach.

I don’t have access to the full scenario that is determining their response… and nor do I know, for sure, that they are actually moving to shaft Vavi rather than just discipline or ‘warn’ him. Remember, the stakes are high for this crew. A loss of power that could come about from the accumulated sniping of the Vavis of this world (the constant pointing out of the role of the Guptas, the Zuma family gorging itself on government aided deals) could cause serious damage to the ANC’s electoral performance in 2014 which could, in turn, fundamentally shift the balance of forces within the ANC itself. If this is the reading of the Nkandla Crew, of the Zuma strategist, then it is possible that they have decided to risk shafting Vavi, that the strategy is the lesser of two evils  … perhaps convinced that they will be able to present it as a straightforward corruption clean-up. Perhaps they have the goods on Vavi, know where the bodies are buried: this is, after all, their forte.

But they are going to have to produce something extraordinarily convincing to sway or neutralise Vavi’s allies – or convince them that he is not being set up.

If they fail to do this we could, conceivably, have a left political movement building up a head-of steam, at worst case scenario (for some) in time for the 2014 midyear general election (although I think this is a vanishingly small possibility).

Perhaps this is all only gamesmanship and everyone will back away from the brink long before they tip over the edge, with Zuma Inc. hoping Vavi will suddenly come over all puppy-dog-like.

But it is a risky game. One of the by-products could be another catastrophic year on the industrial relations front. If Cosatu splits, it won’t be a neat division between different unions – the fault lines will run through individual unions and the disturbances generated by the AMCU/NUM contest could become a model for the whole economy. Such an outcome – one I still have to say is unlikely, but could at some point become unavoidable, especially if they successfully shaft Vavi  – will cause what is left of the Polokwane Pirates to live in infamy amongst the ANC most loyal and traditional supporters and members. It’s clear what the Zuma financial beneficiaries are getting out of all this, but it is by no means clear what the SACP believes it has, or still might, win. In my admittedly jaded view, they have been rewarded with getting the unspeakable and oleaginous Blade Nzimande a ministerial position (and the right to the big black car and to strut around huffily in a tailored red jacket because Chris Hani’s remembrances started without him … and a few government positions for their most effective members) in exchange for letting lose a virulent, ethnically chauvinist, patronage-machine; one with real ‘proto-fascist’ instincts; not the straw-tiger they made of Julius Malema? It just doesn’t add up.

I would dismiss this (the breaking of Vavi) as a vanishingly unlikely outcome if I didn’t understand how much the Zuma camp has to lose from Vavi’s continued independence  – and therefore why they might act in a manner that under normal conditions would seem injudicious. Failure to hold onto power and failure to take tight control of the succession process in the ANC could conceivably unravel to the point that key players in this camp could go to prison and, in turn, lead to them and their allies losing the assets they have accumulated during their happy time at the top – and whatever political capital the SACP imagines it has stashed in the bank.

That’s high stakes poker, and I wish I could see everyone’s hand a little more clearly. DM


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