FAIR-WEATHER FRIENDS: Cosatu secretary-general Zwelinzima Vavi, President Jacob Zuma and Cosatu president Sdumo Dlamini at the federations 11th national congress at Gallagher Estate in Midrand in September. Picture: Dumisani Sibeko

The ANC leadership has failed,” declared Irvin Jim, general secretary of South Africa’s second-largest trade union, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), on November 1.

He went on: “Enough is enough. We want real and fundamental change”.

In the same address, and with a similar level of vigour to that with which he had berated President Jacob Zuma’s leadership, Jim expressed the union’s intention to re-elect Zuma. He was largely following a cue, set up by his federation, Cosatu, at its 11th congress earlier in September.

Jim’s address accentuated the irony of their stance: Zuma’s leadership has been a failure, but they’ll support him anyway. The statement embodies a lot more than it suggests. Is it a manifestation of nihilism or an elite consensus to protect privilege?

For starters, Cosatu’s endorsement of Zuma’s re-election is inconsistent with its posture over the past two or so years. Cosatu has repeatedly expressed the same level of disapproval against Zuma’s administration as it did against Thabo Mbeki’s.

Mbeki’s blunder was twofold: he had no time for Cosatu and he implemented market-friendly policies with the same conviction as he did social welfare policies.

Admittedly Zuma seems available to workers, especially Cosatu president S’dumo Dlamini, and the SACP’s Blade Nzimande, but his party and administration have been disappointing to the federation.

Cosatu deemed Zuma’s presidency to be the epitome of predatory rule. The incidents and intensity of corruption got so worrisome for the federation that it even launched an anti-corruption campaign. The rallying-cry against corruption reflected anxiety, within Cosatu, that the state had been usurped by “parasites”, who masqueraded as friends of workers and South Africa’s poor. So despondent did the workers’ federation become that it even regretted supporting Zuma.

Frankly, Zuma’s administration hasn’t done anything substantively different to Mbeki’s. The adoption of the National Health Insurance, extension of social grants to cover 18-year-olds and state activism are not new, having all been on the cards since 2002. National Treasury, whose policy role Cosatu resents because it considers it biased towards the market, is just as prominent now as it was under Mbeki.

This is what got the workers’ federation to resolve never to support an individual, and to insist on worker-friendly policies as a pre-condition for its support. Leading up to its 11th congress in September, it even considered it ill-advised to pronounce on leadership preferences for election at the forthcoming 53rd national conference in the ANC’s mother-city, Mangaung.

Yet, Cosatu’s central executive committee eventually endorsed Zuma’s re-election.

Why would a workers’ federation want to re-elect a president whose first term they considered a failure? What is clear is that Vavi’s disapproval of Zuma’s presidency does not enjoy majority support among leaders of the various trade union affiliates.

Willie Madisha, then Cosatu president and representing what was then a radical teachers’ union, SA Democratic Teachers Union was voted out and replaced with S’dumo Dlamini. Unlike Madisha, Dlamini’s closeness to the incumbent was not considered sufficient grounds to oust him.

This is despite the fact that Dlamini’s cosy relationship with power hasn’t delivered anything substantive for his working class constituency.

Cosatu’s support for re-electing a “failed president” is puzzling. Perhaps the answer lies in one of two possible explanations: trade union leaders are beneficiaries of the status quo and/or they consider Zuma’s presidency the best they can ever wish for – a reflection of nihilism.

It’s not unheard of and South Africa’s trade union leadership, because it has been co-opted into the ruling elite, wouldn’t be the first to be protective of the status quo. History is replete with such examples. Robert Michels, who was a political activist, witnessed such practices in early 20th century Germany, leading him to develop the theory, “Iron Law of Oligarchy”. Michels argued that, because of their confinement to the office and detached activities, coupled with the material comfort, leaders become removed from their membership.

It may well be that Cosatu’s posture in 21st century South Africa is a manifestation of what Michels experienced. If true, then Cosatu leaders are not the only ones within the ruling elite to suffer from such ills. Their comrades in the ANC have long succumbed to what Joel Netshitenzhe, the ANC’s leading intellectual, has dubbed the “sins of incumbency”.

Consumed by such “sins”, the incumbents, as ANC deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe has repeatedly told us, have become “socially distant” from the people.

The government has reportedly spent close to R250m upgrading Zuma’s private home at Nkandla. Public Works Minister Thulas NxesiNxesi, the former trade unionist, seems neither perplexed nor outraged. Rather, Nxesi is determined to catch the official who leaked the details.

Perhaps even more worrying is Cosatu’s silence not only on Nkandla, but also on the president’s seeming reluctance to hand over the intelligence tapes.

Could the silence stem from the fact that these two incidents implicate the president? In speaking out, perhaps the federation now fears that it may lose a seat at the table of power.

What is apparent is that Cosatu risks losing moral authority. Saying one thing and doing the opposite doesn’t make for credibility.

Already, its previous ambivalence and awkward embrace of Zuma’s presidential candidature undermine it as a credible broker. The credibility crisis may endure beyond Mangaung. Satisfying immediate interests can and does endanger the future. Polokwane taught us that.

l Ndletyana is head of the political economy faculty at the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection.