The Inside/Outside Strategy of COSATU: It May Just Save Us All

By Saliem Fakir · 29 Jun 2011

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Picture: GCIS
Picture: GCIS

There may be some scepticism about COSATU’s noise on corruption and its criticism of the ANC. Some may be thinking that COSATU’s strategy is to create the façade of a critical alliance partner.

It was all done to play to the public gallery and soften the blow of those outside of the tri-partite alliance through a process of civic engagement, as the ANC has lost its foothold in civil society.

The extent to which COSATU has to continue playing the “insider” role will become clearer this week, as COSATU’s central committee meets.

Everybody knows that the internal “popular uprising” against Mbeki was expedient. Alliances of convenience are always tenuous. If there is nothing of mutual interest to hold forces together - other than pitting one figurehead against another - sooner or later the source of stability will dissipate.

Indeed, no sooner was President Jacob Zuma brought to power, did frictions emerge between COSATU and the ruling party. Any party without friction is in eminent danger of self-immolation through conceit. Frictions are healthy in so far as they are arguments about good ideas. They are not useful if they are about retaining power at all costs, as power grabs tend to turn sour and ugly.

COSATU’s various stances in the last year, for which its leader, Zwelinzima Vavi, has been variously rapped over the knuckles by the ANC, is starting to worry the ruling party. Vavi has spoken out against the ANC’s moral erosion and the fact that the party is being captured by forces that will eventually transform the state from a developmental one to a predatory one.

COSATU is right to be concerned and its tension with the SACP involves exactly this point: the alliance partners would not be serving their voters and the South African public if they stood by while the ANC does nothing about corruption, deals poorly with ill-discipline and makes little inroads into job creation.

The friction between the SACP and COSATU is likely to be temporary given the recent successful SACP/COSATU bilateral meeting (23rd June 2011). There is, though, a notable silence from the SACP, if one considers how much of its own vocal cords were stretched on every other issue before the Polokwane conference in 2009.

Since then the flair for political invective against opponents and ANC misdemeanours inside and outside seems to have simmered. It was the SACP after-all that invented that memorable phrase “tenderpreneurs,” which has so enriched South Africa’s political lexicon.

COSATU is right to point to the SACP’s silence.

However, COSATU is slowly evolving a dual strategy: 1) continuing to find internal ways to strengthen the ANC and bring greater levels of accountability from within the alliance, and 2) building a broad base of engagement with civic organisations outside of the ANC.

Even for COSATU, how this dual inside/outside strategy will unfold, is not certain. But it has to somehow hedge its bets. It simply has no option.

COSATU’s hosting of the civil-society conference with Section 27, TAC and others last year raised ANC eyebrows. The trade union federation was scolded for making visibly new political friends outside of the ambit of the ANC alliance. But this didn’t stop COSATU.

COSATU has been notably active against the draconian provisions within the Protection of Information Bill (POIB), joining hands with the Right2Know campaign, a very broad alliance of civic organizations that managed to put pressure on the ANC to re-evaluate the Bill.

COSATU is visibly active against corruption and is now setting up an anti-corruption agency, Corruption Watch, to name and shame politicians who engage in corrupt practices. All of this is winning favour in the public eye.

But what else lies behind the new “working from the outside” strategy?

Given Malema’s success at the recent ANC Youth League (ANCYL) conference, there is a lot to worry about. Behind the revolutionary rhetoric lies something far more sinister: the new avatars of a power grab promised on a pseudo national revolution and economic transformation.

It is a force likely to gain ascendance because the backers of the ANCYL seem to have deep pockets. These are shadow figures, mostly businessmen, who remain nameless but have an eye on the next ANC Congress in 2012 where the new ANC President is to be elected.

What is most significant about the Malema phenomenon is the political rhetoric on the economy as the campaign posture for the next ANC elective conference. This was epitomised in no greater measure than the ANCYL’s conference slogan: “economic freedom in our lifetime.” Malema has come out of the recent youth conference bolder and more vigorous on the nationalisation issue.

Malema is reviving the debate on the “economic question” and causing some embarrassment amongst older ANC stalwarts who for long (and for whatever reason) kept all the uncomfortable questions about the economy under wraps.

However, the economy has become the new battleground - and it is unlikely to go away.

The economy is also crucial for COSATU.

COSATU has always raised pressing issues on this matter. It even produced a discussion document covering a wide range of concerns on both the macro and micro economy with far reaching proposals. 

While it is clear that the unions don’t explicitly reject the idea of nationalisation, they have been opposed to the ANCYL’s position.

The unions remain unconvinced by the sudden hype of political rhetoric on the economy from the youth league. It’s sort of the right thing from the wrong horse’s mouth.

The real enemy within, as far as COSATU is concerned, is the current stock of youth leaguers and the shady businessmen who back the ANCYL and surround Zuma. It shares the public’s lack of confidence in the ANCYL’s radical pronouncements on nationalisation and the land issue.

COSATU’s outside strategy is designed to build a broad civic base against the rampaging populism of the ANCYL in addition to ways of exerting pressure internally within the ANC by using the strength of the outside broad base.

The late John Kenneth Galbraith, a notable US economist, developed an elegant hypothesis -- any concentration of power only begets the creation of a countervailing force. Countervailing forces become a necessity if public measures and regulations fail.

COSATU’s opening of a second front outside of the tri-partite alliance is pretty much a positioning of a new countervailing force.

Its recent forays into the domain of civil society are telltale signs of this experimentation on the go.

COSATU does have strength in numbers and can somewhat shut government down.

COSATU is still viewed with suspicion by those outside of alliance structures. However, there are no signs that the trade union federation’s critics are not co-operating, as they demonstrated support for COSATU when it was under attack from the ANC's National Working Committee for having a hand in the civil society conference.

They have also cautiously welcomed COSATU’s recent stances on the POIB as well as corruption.

Nonetheless, it is still not a case of COSATU abandoning its two-pronged inside/outside strategy. COSATU will probably only make a break with the ruling party if things don’t go well at the ANC’s next conference in Mangaung in 2012. By then it will have mustered wider civic support if it keeps doing what it currently is doing, by slowly building a new moral high ground for itself.

Fakir is an independent writer based in Cape Town.

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