Opinionista Aubrey Masango 21 November 2014

The curse of the Broad Church

The expulsion of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) from South Africa’s largest Union federation (COSATU) reveals and exposes an inherent weakness in the notion of the ‘Broad Church’ in South Africa’s political landscape. It heralds a new age of special interest politics and introduces a new era of issues-driven dialectics and definitive ideological polemics. This is a sign of a maturing democracy. However, it also signals a fundamental erosion of the relevance and legitimacy of the Tripartite Alliance and may be the final straw that breaks the back of the governing ANC.

Aubrey Masango

Aubrey Masango was born in Mamelodi, east of Pretoria. Educated at St Johns College in Johannesburg and later went to the University of Pretoria to study to be a teacher. He was bored. He decided to get out of the corporate rat-race in 2009 because he did not like the person he was becoming in the BEE scene, seeing it as pretentious and unsustainable. These days, Aubrey is a talk show host on Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape talk. His regular show “Talk with Aubrey” is on a Sunday evening at 23h00 to Monday morning at 01h00.

Societies are fluid, dynamic ever-changing entities, influenced by the tempestuous winds of circumstance, decisions and actions people take. Organisations and individuals operating in this space must constantly reinvent themselves in order to remain relevant. Those who don’t, perish.

Who would have ever believed, when former President Thabo Mbeki was “recalled” from the high office by the triumphant Zuma camp, that in less than a decade, what was known as the unstoppable Zunami would be coming undone? The Zunami, as it was affectionately known at the time, was the Broad Church alliance of interest groups comprising labour unions in Cosatu, business interests in a particular faction of the ANC and the Machiavellian politics of the SACP.

A Broad Church of interests was then in support of Jacob Zuma, then newly-elected ANC president after the fierce contestation for power at the Elective conference of Polokwane. On the face of it, this alliance of strange bedfellows (capitalists, unionists and communists) seemed to be a powerful reminder of the unity of purpose and cohesion of the once-glorious mass democratic movement –the Broad Church, which fought against the common enemy of Apartheid. It swelled sentiments of a time when people were driven by principle, united by morality and lofty values against an unjust racist system – in the hearts of the idealists, that is. But the same sentiments, or shall I say the power of said sentiments? – of the Broad Church tantalised the lusts of the power-hungry and provided a vehicle for deposing undemocratically the president of the Republic.

Thabo Mbeki, correctly or not, was cunningly type-cast as symbolic of the same oppressive system which the Broad Church had fought against, that he was a threat to the unity of the movement, the people, dictatorial and un-African. The logic was: ‘If people from such diverse social, economic and ideological backgrounds can agree on the unsuitability of this man, then it must be true.’ No consideration was made for the implications of the deep ideological fissures that underpinned this Broad Church going forward in a country of such divergent socio-economic interests. We are now experiencing the consequences of that ill-consideration, and amongst many other regrettable events bedevilling the governing party and its alliance partners is the expulsion of Numsa from COSATU.

This is the fundamental flaw and danger within the notion of the Broad Church.

When there is a contestation for influence and resources for specific interest groups within such a Broad Church, it must be accepted that the narrow interests of the constituent members of that Church will always trump the doctrine of unity, however sacrosanct the idea of unity may seem. That is the way of the world. More so when each interest group believes itself to be the ‘true’ custodian of the principles of said unity and the possibility of access to state largesse is real – such entitlement can spell disaster for the Church.

Indeed the Tripartite Alliance is precisely such a Broad Church. I suppose this was both sentimentally and practically an attractive proposition at a time when the common enemy was a racist and oppressive system. A church consisting of The Worker’s Federation, COSATU, with formerly (before Numsa’s expulsion) 19 affiliate unions comprising more than two million members. The ANC – the foundational political master-structure which enjoys historical residual value and legitimacy as the main liberating political formation – is said to have more than a million members. Indeed, the ultimate broad political church comprised black and white, rich and poor alike. And, of course, the SACP, an obscure group of ideologues whose legitimacy in contemporary politics is questionable but historically tolerable. Each of these entities cross-pollenate membership in order to advance their unique agendas. Agendas which in the absence of the reason for their formation (Apartheid) begin to be unmasked by individual group interests and not the doctrine of unity which supports the notion of the Broad Church. For this reason the Broad Church, however powerful, is destined to inevitable disintegration and demise even at its inception. It is programmed for ultimate failure because of its reactive nature and lack of practical cohesion.

Numsa’s expulsion from COSATU, another Broad Church, on 8 November 2014 was a case in point; we can expect even more such splits and expulsions in all formations of the Mass Democratic movement. This is the inevitable rise of the niche interests of the constituent members of the Broad Church. The natural selection of political forces. It will be characterised by dissenting views amongst former comrades. Even violence perhaps. Impassioned calls for unity and recollections of better days gone by will be the order of the day, but the impetus for relevance and survival will trump such calls as the political landscape changes and the specific demands of particular constituencies call for greater recognition. This was the case when the PAC was formed all those years ago. It was true for the split and formation of COPE and later the EFF. All of these groups were nothing more than the inevitable emergence of special interest groups from within the movement, dare I say the ANC.

The story in the current case of NUMSA’s expulsion is that COSATU’s current leadership has abandoned worker interests for political security within the governing ANC. Be that as it may, it is illustrative of the principle of niche interests above the Broad Church mentality in an ever-changing political reality. This is good for any vibrant democracy. It rids us of outdated identity and personality politics and brings into view a new era of tactical, issue-driven special interest politics. It enlivens debate and challenges notions of historical entitlement for contemporary relevance. Above all, it serves as a warning to the ever-haemorrhaging ANC that it can no longer rely on the value of its illustrious past. That it must now be definitive in its political stance and can no longer be all things to all people as it was in the past. It signals a new age of the politics of practical relevance to the people whom it claims to represent and a challenge to choose clearly and fearlessly which principles it will represent and which it will abandon. This implies an inevitable loss of support either way. It is this inevitability of loss which paralyses the current leadership of the ANC with fear. They need to choose whether they are a party which represents the poor or the rich and take appropriate steps to communicate their choice to their chosen constituency. They need to be clear about their stance on e-tolls, Nkandla and the political liability that is President Jacob Zuma. They will lose supporters. But if they wish to remain relevant as an organisation, one thing is certain: they can no longer continue to be a Broad Church. That day is over. DM



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