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Cosatu will not be the effective partner of the ANC at next year’s election that it has been in the past, says Allister Sparks.
Cape Town - In the muddied circumstances of the gladiatorial contest between S’dumo Dlamini and Zwelinzima Vavi, there is only one thing that is clear. Cosatu will not be the effective partner of the ANC at next year’s national election that it has been in the past.
Ever since 1994 Cosatu has been the organisational arm of the ruling alliance. The ANC itself is the political flag-bearer, the party with the cachet of having liberated the country from apartheid, but it is frankly sloppy when it comes to organisation. As for the SACP, it is a mouse beside its allies, a party with a membership the size of the population of Mthatha, capital of the old Transkei Bantustan.
Cosatu, on the other hand, is a structured body with a solid culture of organisational efficiency and a total membership of some 2.2 million, which is more than double that of the ANC. It is they who bring out the voters at election time.
But Cosatu is in disarray now because of the warfare between a faction led by Dlamini, its president, and the supporters of general secretary Vavi, which has been raging since last December and seems likely to continue for the rest of this year and beyond.
Essentially the conflict is over the degree of loyalty the labour federation should show to the ANC as the party in power.
Vavi insists it should be an arm’s-length relationship, with Cosatu broadly supporting the government but reserving the independent right to be openly critical of policies with which it disagrees and to pressure the administration into adopting what he calls the federation’s “progressive agenda” of distributive policies.
Dlamini and his supporters, on the other hand, contend that Vavi is too critical of the government, particularly of President Jacob Zuma’s leadership, and that his outspokenness is endangering the unity of the alliance.
And since Vavi is famously outspoken and determined not to be silenced, his opponents, clearly backed by Zuma, are trying to demote or even kick him out of the federation.
But this is not proving easy, since Vavi is a proud and determined man who enjoys strong support among ordinary trade unionists throughout the country.
His opponents have therefore tried to nail him on disciplinary issues where Cosatu officials can act on their own, first by accusing him of corruption because of the sale of Cosatu’s headquarters building in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, which they contended was sold below its value, and more recently over a case of sexual misdemeanour to which Vavi has openly confessed.
However, neither has satisfied the pro-Vavi camp, who argue heatedly that the campaign against him is a thinly disguised political conspiracy by a gang who want to ingratiate themselves with the president by turning Cosatu into a sweetheart “labour desk” of the ANC.
From a point where it looked as though he was heading for the canvas, Vavi made a comeback last week when nine of Cosatu’s 19 affiliate unions petitioned Dlamini to convene a special congress of the federation to resolve the issue.
Such a congress would throw the issue before the broad body of worker members, where Vavi’s strength lies.
As a result, his supporters are now crowing that they will reverse the conspirators’ intent and ask the congress instead to remove Cosatu’s three top leaders, Dlamini, deputy general secretary Bheki Ntshalintshali and second deputy president Zingiswa Losi, and replace them with a new team.
But Dlamini, who now finds himself backed into a corner of his own making, has an opportunity to filibuster the issue. Cosatu’s constitution requires him to respond to the demand of the nine unions within two weeks, but that means Dlamini need only prepare a logistical report about arrangements for the special congress at that point for presentation to Cosatu’s next central executive committee meeting in November.
That will drag out the issue until a mere five months before the election, and it will still roll on after that.
Back in April, Business Day suggested there could be only one of two outcomes to this issue – either Vavi would be kicked out of the alliance or the ANC would go into the election in a state of civil war.
As things stand, it looks as though Vavi will not be evicted but that the ANC will indeed be at war with itself as it confronts its political opponents in April.
That means it will go into the election with its most important ally seriously weakened.
This is bound to affect the outcome.
Last week Dlamini pledged Cosatu’s full support for the ANC in the election, but will it really be able to provide that? First, the opposition DA has threatened to go to court to challenge Cosatu’s right to use workers’ money to help fund a political party’s campaign. Whatever the result of such a case, if it comes to court it is questionable whether Cosatu is in a financial position to be as generous as it has been in past elections.
Member unions are reported to be R9 million in arrears with their affiliation fees, partly because of the shrinkage of membership as new splinter unions have broken away from Cosatu over the past year. In addition, Cosatu’s biggest union, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), headed by Vavi’s chief ally, Irvin Jim, has threatened to withhold its substantial fees if the assault on Vavi continues.
Most important of all, though, is the role Vavi himself might play. He effectively triggered the escalation of what until then had been merely a simmering conflict in the federation when he openly clashed with Zuma at the ANC’s conference in Mangaung in December.
Zuma had just announced, in his speech wrapping up the conference, that both the cabinet and the ANC had fully endorsed a National Development Plan (NDP) drafted by a commission under the Minister of Planning in the Presidency, Trevor Manuel, and that there was now “national consensus” on this programme which charts a developmental course for the country to follow over the next 20 years. He called on the whole country to unite behind it.
But for Vavi, this was a blue rag to a leftist bull. First, he regards Manuel, who was Thabo Mbeki’s finance minister, widely acclaimed by the business community, as the leader of the “neo-liberal” wing of the ANC. Second, all Vavi’s resentments of Zuma’s failure to implement “progressive” policies since becoming president have become encapsulated in his vehement opposition to the NDP.
It would be difficult, Vavi announced, for Cosatu to support the ANC in the election if the NDP was part of the ANC’s programme.
Well, the NDP will be part of the ANC’s election platform. So what will Vavi do? Where will he be?
He may well find a slot beside his ally Jim in the fast-growing Numsa, which in turn may evolve into something of a rival to Cosatu.
Or he may go fully into politics, forming a left-wing Socialist Workers Party modelled on that of the former Brazilian President, Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva, whom Vavi has greatly admired.
Those are all longer-term possibilities. In the short term we are looking at an election taking place in seven months time under political civil war conditions.
* Allister Sparks is a veteran journalist and political commentator.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.