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Allister Sparks believes SA will be entering a phase of coalition governments at all three levels over the next five years.
Cape Town - Tectonic shifts are taking place in our political structures. The civil war racking Cosatu is moving towards a crisis. Opinion polls show both the DA and Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) gaining support from both flanks of the ANC, while the lesser parties are trailing far behind.
We are heading for what will essentially be a three-party political system, which, I believe, means South Africa will be entering a phase of coalition governments at all three levels – local, provincial and national – over the next five years.
This will radically change the nature of our politics. It will force politicians to be much more responsive to public sentiment, which in turn will make this a much more democratic country.
It will also enable us to become more economically successful because it will end patronage politics.
But a word of warning: we may experience some choppy seas in the short-term as we navigate this new transitional passage. Political change is always a difficult process, but this one will be eased by the fact that it will come incrementally.
The civil war in Cosatu is the main feature of this looming upheaval. The conflict has been brewing for a long time, but it reached boiling point earlier this year when general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi became more voluble in his criticism of President Jacob Zuma and began using Cosatu’s strength in the tripartite alliance to veto Zuma policies he didn’t like.
These are the acts of a disillusioned man. Vavi stuck his neck out in 2009 to support Zuma and oust then-president Thabo Mbeki. Had the pro-Mbeki faction won, Vavi would have been dead meat. But Zuma won, thanks to Cosatu’s support, so Vavi expected there would be some payback for his left-wing political stance.
But there wasn’t. Zuma, preoccupied with the corruption case hanging over his head, played it cautiously, trying to keep all the alliance’s factions inside the tent so that none would turn vengefully against him. The result was political stagnation, with no bold steps taken to boost the growth rate as the global economic recession weakened it.
Now, as this year’s growth rate sinks below 2 percent and next year’s looks no better, Zuma has been jolted by his economic advisers into recognising that he had better do something to boost growth, or the government will soon be unable to meet its welfare payments and other commitments.
But with Vavi threatening to block any moves to help business boost growth, he was stymied.
So he decided to deal with Vavi just as he had dealt with Julius Malema a year ago.
Zuma’s technique is to work through surrogates. In this case it meant using Cosatu president S’dumo Dlamini as his instrument to deal with Vavi. This is not difficult when you are running a patronage system; your man knows if he does as you wish he will be well rewarded.
Hence the civil war. Vavi has been suspended for having a sexual relationship with a staff member – a wonderfully ironic punishment imposed by Zuma’s allies – obviously as a prelude to expulsion. But Vavi is a tougher nut to crack than Malema. He is an institution in the ranks of the working class where he has powerful allies, none more so than Irvin Jim, president of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), now the biggest of Cosatu’s 19 affiliates.
With the support of eight other affiliates, Numsa has called for a national congress to decide the issue, where Vavi would likely win because of his popularity among ordinary workers rather than union officials. Realising this would put his position at risk, Dlamini is stalling on convening the congress. He is talking about maybe mid-2014 – after the election.
Numsa is now calling its own congress on December 13, where the union will consider two issues: whether to withdraw its support for the ANC at next year’s election, and whether to break away from Cosatu and form a rival trade union federation with the support of some of the other pro-Vavi affiliates. There is also a move to appoint a commission to investigate what support there would be among workers for a Labour Party, should the pro-Vavi unionists decide to form one.
Such a move would be a heavy blow to the ANC’s political dominance. A recent opinion poll indicated that 65 percent of Cosatu members would vote for such a Labour Party should it be formed, and only 28 percent for the ANC. Even without such dramatic developments, the prospect of the ANC falling short of outright majorities in local and provincial elections and having to seek coalition partners to form a government, is looming closer.
* Allister Sparks is a veteran journalist and political commentator.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.