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Regular readers of this column over the past decade may be forgiven for feeling frustrated and annoyed by the goings-on in Cosatu and the wider, governing, alliance. As noted last week, we have heard it before. But the irony and hypocrisy displayed now seems to have reached new levels.
Apparently blissfully unaware of this fact, the leaders in Cosatu, the ANC and the SACP continue to follow the same script. Like actors in some confusing farce that is steadily losing audience appeal, they change roles in desperate attempts to remain relevant in what sometimes looks like a dated soap opera.
But this is no soapie, it is a real-life drama, the difference is that the battles, certainly over the past week, have now clearly moved beyond shadow boxing and sabre rattling.
As a result, the odds on the long-predicted and messy fragmentation of the tripartite alliance have shortened dramatically, although an impending split is not yet an odds-on favourite.
This may change when the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) delegates decide next week on the way forward for Cosatu’s biggest union.
All options so far floated will probably have an airing in an atmosphere where demands for tactical compromise and going it alone seem to have equal weight.
The alliance partners will be watching closely. As will a range of sometimes bizarre would-be political body-snatchers. These are the various groups, grouplets and putative parliamentary parties that are hovering around the fringes of the main protagonists, hoping to win adherents and boost their parliamentary chances.
At the same time, from within the fractious mainstream have come calls for lifestyle audits, and more allegations of financial and sexual impropriety, coupled with jargon-ridden rants about counter-revolutionaries, anarchists, colonialism and imperialism.
Much of this has been par for the course, especially over the past six years. Not that the calls for such audits have ever been heeded and most of the sometimes serious allegations of impropriety have simply been tucked away in dark, unquestioned corners.
Looking back across those six years in particular, from the perspective of today, the situation is, above all, riddled with irony. A classic case arrived this week with the vociferous demand by Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande, who is the SACP general secretary and also holds an honorary post in the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu). He called for lifestyle audits of Numsa leaders, condemned “business unionism” and insisted that Numsa’s investment company be investigated.
But, as Nzimande and readers of this column are well aware, most of the Cosatu unions, including Nehawu, have investment vehicles.
The same is true of the SACP, whose business interests provide the income that often helps to keep the proclaimed “vanguard of the working class”. The company established by the party is Masincazelane Investments, which has indirect shares in the Gautrain and in mining.
A director of Masincazelane is ANC MP Joyce Moloi-Moropa, who also serves as treasurer of the SACP and is known to be very close to Nzimande. She has a 19 percent shareholding in the private further education and training college, Letsatsi Solutions, and is a director of Zebediela Brick Works, a clay brick company in Makopane that boasts a R300 million annual turnover.
But, going back six years, it was Nzimande himself who was the target of a strident demand for a lifestyle audit.
The demand came from a number of unionists when this column revealed in November of that year that Nzimande and Willie Madisha, the then Cosatu president and SACP politburo member, had set up a secret “war chest” bank account in 2002.
The Kopano Solidarity account contained donations from trade unions, along with R66 000 from the Chinese embassy. Nzimande had signing powers and, over a period of 41 months, had withdrawn various sums totalling R124 500.
As general secretary, he apparently gave an explanation that satisfied the central committee of his party as to why the account had been kept secret and how the money was spent. Nobody, it seems, was concerned about the source of the funds.
This week, in the wake of his demands regarding Numsa, Nzimande pointed out that, as a member of Parliament, he makes a formal and publicly available declaration of his income and assets.
But, as his opponents immediately responded: a personal declaration is hardly the same as an objective audit.
And the matter of the R500 000 in a black rubbish bag allegedly handed to Nzimande by Madisha in 2002 continues to haunt the SACP general secretary. Either Madisha, sacked as Cosatu president and expelled as an SACP politburo member, was lying, or Nzimande was.
When the scandal surfaced in 2008, charges were laid, dockets were opened, and affidavits signed. Then the whole murky business slipped out of the public spotlight.
Now, with all sides digging up dirt, the black bag allegations have again surfaced, along with various allegations about political infidelity and financial and moral turpitude by various union leaders in one or other faction.
“A Pandora’s box has been opened,” an erudite senior post office worker noted about these goings on. He was wrong. The ancient Greek story of the opening up of Pandora’s box referred to releasing all evils into the world.
What is now happening is that there is a growing grassroots demand for union leaders and politicians to be fully accountable; for all transgressions and financial benefits to be exposed.
Should that happen, full democratic control of the unions may be possible. But this could be a step too far and, in the name of reconciliation and “worker unity”, a demand to let bygones be bygones is likely to be heeded.
However, this will not end the ideological war and the insistence on a more transparent and accountable future, especially for Cosatu unions.
But a beginning has been made and, no matter what the outcome of next week’s Numsa special congress – or a possible Cosatu special congress next year – nothing will be quite the same again.