A Week in August: Factions in COSATU, Economic Fear Mongering and the State We're In

By Leonard Gentle · 2 Sep 2013

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Picture: Crosses planted at the foot of the infamous Koppie in Marikana in memoriam of the miners killed, courtesy destiny.com.
Picture: Crosses planted at the foot of the infamous Koppie in Marikana in memoriam of the miners killed, courtesy destiny.com.

Lenin once said, “There are decades when nothing happens and then there are weeks when decades happen.” British Labour Party Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, was to similarly explore the vicissitudes of political time when he remarked, “a week was a long time in politics.”

It’s too early to say whether the week beginning 12 August 2013 was such a week, as might have been thought of by either the revolutionary Lenin or the reformist Wilson. Yet two events in that week suggest that there were indeed such momentous shifts taking place. These events are the trade union federation, COSATU’s, decision to suspend its General Secretary, Zwelenzima Vavi and the convening of a memorial for the murdered workers of Marikana, one year after the massacre.

The week of 12 August was marked by the Central Executive Committee (CEC) of COSATU deciding to suspend Vavi on charges of sexual impropriety, amidst open contestation between NUMSA on the side of Vavi and NUM, SADTU and NEHAWU aligned with the South African Communist Party (SACP) Central Committee members, President S’dumo Dlamini, and NUM’s Frans Baleni.

Since Jacob Zuma’s ascendancy to power at Polokwane and the subsequent 2009 elections, which made him President of the country, we have witnessed increasing tension within affiliates of COSATU and between some leaders and the SACP. The immediate causes for COSATU’s infighting lie in the break-up of the COSATU-SACP- ANCYL axis, which drove Thabo Mbeki out and Jacob Zuma into power. That agenda had little to do – as we now know - with some kind of Left-Right programmatic tension within the ANC, or with the fact that Zuma, as opposed to Mbeki, was a more “pro-poor candidate”, but was about a series of manoeuvres to get into influential positions in the state machinery.

Both the SACP and COSATU got appropriately rewarded with cabinet ministers. Julius Malema’s Youth League got its own rewards in the form of both cabinet ministers and lucrative business tenders from national and provincial governments. But whereas Malema’s sin was ingratitude and over-ambitiousness, Vavi’s was to renege on an assurance to move on from COSASTU general secretary in 2010 and not covet Nzimande’s leadership position in the SACP. So the SACP’s grubby Stalinist hands have been itching to get at Vavi since then. Vavi’s abuse of power and sexual indiscretions have provided the SACP with the necessary ammunition. And so the spectre of the implosion of COSATU, once the finest expression of democratic mass resistance against apartheid, now looms…Sadly, as T.S. Elliot once warned, “Not with a bang, but a whimper.”

But the real sources of COSATU’s problems lie much deeper than this leadership spat. At a time when Marikana unleashed a wave of strikes, which COSATU ignored, in sectors such as mining and farming (not known for many years for such militancy), and with almost 10 years of unabated community revolts, these should have been circumstances in which a militant COSATU would have thrived, grown and provided leadership. Yet its demise is imminent precisely at this time and it all came to a head in mid-August, the week of the anniversary of Marikana.

It has been notable that despite media hysteria about the “strike season” how much COSATU unions are desperately trying not to strike. NUM declares a dispute with the Chamber of Mines and then calls for a ‘cooling down period”, ostensibly to give the Chamber a chance to make a more “serious offer”. SACTWU ballots its members for a strike in the clothing sector, gets a 70% approval to strike from its members, and then decides not to. Only at NUMSA - the union adopting the most militant position in the COSATU leadership spat - does a strike actually proceed in the auto sector.
The underlying causes for the problems within COSATU lie in the major structural changes that have happened to the working class over the last 20 years of neoliberal capitalism and the re-alignment of COSATU’s membership. In that period the neoliberal attacks on the working class have seen a shift away from full employment and fixed employment towards casualization, informalisation and unemployment in the case of the world of work, and the abandonment by the state of the sphere of reproduction of the working class -- from apartheid brick houses in townships to shacks in informal settlements; from Bantu education to no education or privatised education; from discriminatory services to no services or commodified services -- beyond the reach of the poor.

By way of contrast, COSATU increasingly became a federation of unions drawing from white-collar workers, permanent workers and skilled workers. COSATU shop stewards and worker leaders are now full-time shop stewards living in the world of negotiations, subsidised cars and houses, rubbing shoulders daily with the HR departments of their bosses and moving through the many committees and task teams associated with national negotiating forums. As such COSATU is no longer a representative force of the majority of the working class.

With union membership and leadership distant from the critical issues facing the working class, COSATU has become a home for careerism and a pathway for senior leaders to move into government and into the Cabinet. The case of NUM, which was so graphically revealed after Marikana in the way the general secretary was earning R300,000 per month and where the worker leaders were full-time shop stewards on the payroll of the companies enjoying perks, and the union even owning shares in the bank that loaned money to workers - is a case in point.

A decisive ingredient in these developments has been the SACP. The SACP and its National Democratic Revolution (NDR) – in which the “first” stage would be a capitalist democracy - has long abandoned any notions of socialism and has become completely integrated into an avowedly capitalist state. Both its general secretaries are cabinet ministers under Zuma. Even under Mbeki and Mandela, the secret in ANC circles was always to appoint SACP heavyweights to senior cabinet positions, which had unpopular tasks to carry out – privatisation, e-tolling, etc. The Communist Party has comfortably combined the rhetoric of socialism at May Day rallies with implementing neoliberal policies in government.
It has always been the SACP that has been the glue that held the Tripartite Alliance together. But, as the ANC has shifted, so has the SACP. In the recent past, the SACP played the role of a “loyal opposition” – criticising government policies such as GEAR while remaining loyal to the ANC and its leadership for what they called the NDR. Not only did the SACP remain loyal; it gave a left ideological spin to the ANC’s embrace of neoliberalism famously accepting the privatisation programme announced by then Deputy President Mbeki in 1995, as long as privatisation was done on a “case by case basis” and not on “ideological grounds”.

How did they resolve this tension?

In the first phase of the Mandela administration, the SACP blamed apartheid bureaucrats and World Bank consultants - advising departmental managers in the state - for misleading the ANC in government and allowing the neoliberal agenda to creep in. And so the goal of the SACP (and it dragged COSATU along with this given its ideological hegemony within the federation) was to ensure “transformation within the state” and thus dedicate its cadre to hold to this line. Despite the avowedly neoliberal GEAR being crafted under the Mandela presidency as a home-grown structural adjustment programme, the SACP stuck to this loyal, but critical, arrangement. Key SACP Central Committee members served in the cabinet.

But increasingly the Mbeki presidency was marked by greater centralisation of power not only within government, but also within the ANC itself, and the two became indistinguishable. And so the space for SACP luminaries to staff key government policy portfolios became limited and Mbeki used to delight in showing his ability to use the SACP’s own “Marxist-sounding ” language against them to slap them down. So under the Mbeki regime, the SACP coined the term the “Class of ‘96” -- unnamed ANC and business interests who were to blame for GEAR and its programme. But that “Class of ‘96”, according to the SACP, would have its way if the SACP and COSATU did not continue to support an ANC government.

Underlying this loyalty was an increasing integration of the SACP into state structures – like parliament, cabinet, provincial and local government structures, development agencies and so on.

And then since 2007, the SACP-COSATU-ANCYL coalition, rallied to install Jacob Zuma using his travails under Mbeki to get undertakings to being placed at the centre of power in the new administration. Now, being at the centre of Zuma’s administration, the SACP has seized any pretence of being any kind of opposition at all. Instead it has positioned itself as the Rottweiler of the ANC government – the first to attack Julius Malema (not when he was the favoured son at the head of the Youth League and an ally within the Zuma coalition, but when he began to call for nationalisation of the mines and accused Zuma of selling out to white capital). Similarly it has been the SACP that has been the most vociferous in its attacks of COSATU and Vavi’s public criticisms of the ANC government.

The SACP and union leaders aligned to it drive the current spats within COSATU. The process of integration of the SACP into the state is now complete. Blade Nzimande, the cabinet minister and Blade Nzimande, the SACP general secretary, are now one. And Nzimande’s threats in mid-August that: “Anyone contemplating leaving COSATU (as NUMSA has warned) will first have to deal with the SACP and its red door,” represent the worst of a new disease in our body politic: the mixture of Stalinism with neoliberalism. All this came to a head in the week of 12 August.        
The only surprise associated with the common front coming out of the latest Tripartite Alliance Summit was the idea that anyone still had the naiveté to expect surprises.

And then that fateful week in August had a second and most important event – it was the week of the anniversary of the Marikana massacre.

Recall that, notwithstanding the media predilection to cast the ANC as being an opponent to business or having “policy uncertainty” when it comes to ensuring that South Africa is “investor- friendly”, Marikana established exactly how far the ANC was prepared to go to make South Africa investor-friendly. So while workers commemorated that day, 16 August, the ANC, the SACP, COSATU and NUM all boycotted. Vavi held his press conference on 16 August choosing to rail against government conspiracies, but finding no time to make common cause with the workers of Marikana. A range of churches and parties came to pay their respects, thereby at least acknowledging that something of important needed to be acknowledged.

In the meantime, the media, parties such as the DA, Agang, etc., hardly found time to doff their caps at the Marikana workers on 16 August before unleashing a tidal wave of criticism against the “unrealistic” wage demands of mine workers – the very demands that made the police shoot them. Rarely can hypocrisy be so bald-faced.
The problem facing the South African elite is a problem in politics rather than pure economics.

The configuration, which made possible the legitimacy of the neoliberal project in South Africa, is now under threat. We should recall that although South Africa is the most unequal country in the world now and although the poor in South Africa have known nothing other than joblessness, cuts in public spending, lack of housing and so on, since 1994, this was offset by the joy of having the liberation movement in power as the governing party.

The ANC and its legitimacy as the party of liberation was key to the project of shifting South Africa towards the kind of neoliberal nirvana that Thatcher and her acolytes could only dream of. South African companies became some of the most important in the world and the country became a haven for investment precisely because the ANC could preside over an electorate that elected it over and over again despite its non-delivery of any of its electoral promises. And alongside the ANC stood its alliance partners – the SACP and COSATU. The former serving as the glue that holds the Alliance together, while COSATU served to mediate conflict by acting as both a register of conflicts in workplaces but at the same time, delivering votes to the ANC in elections.

This symbiotic relationship between COSATU, the Communist Party and the ruling party has delivered since the dawn of democracy in 1994. Now that COSATU’s legitimacy is in question, its erstwhile largest affiliate – NUM – is disgraced, alongside the SACP. And with this goes the legitimacy of the ANC itself.

Some more prescient commentators, notably Carol Paton of the Business Day, have identified the fact that the DA’s dream of a new alignment of SA politics emerging of out the disintegration of the Tripartite Alliance that would see the ANC’s “liberal constitutionalists” make common cause with the DA and forge a liberal consensus to the right of the ANC, may well prove to be wrong. Instead the threat of a Vavi-inspired break from the Alliance and the proliferation of left groups in the aftermath of Marikana speak to a very different alignment -- challenges coming from contestations to the Left of the ANC.

Alistair Sparks attempts to analyse this same possibility of a new alignment in politics by fingering Jacob Zuma for the intrigues against Vavi amongst COSATU’s affiliates. Both, however, tend to view developments with lenses largely focussed on the 2014 elections and both too readily seek out easy suspects to place at the centre – from Vavi possibly leading a new Workers’ Party, to the noises coming out of Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF).

But if we look deeper and beyond the ANC, SACP and COSATU and if we grant the post-Marikana striking workers and their self-organised committees the agency and integrity that centres them in our analysis, together with the on-going community “service delivery revolts”, then we have a very different picture of dramatic changes of August.                                                                                                                                       

What we see is the entry of forces into the political drama that were in the recent past condemned to be off-stage while the “serious” formations of civil society - parliament, big business, the well-known political parties - ply their craft and keep us enthralled.

One year on from the massacre at Marikana and tectonic plates are shifting in South Africa -- shifts that Marikana exposed and that, in its aftermath, continue. These changes are about deeper structural and conjunctural dynamics that cut through all the usual suspects amongst the elite politics of the parliamentary parties and the desperate yearning for the sad caricature of COSATU to now somehow launch a new party.

We can view all of these developments paralyzed by the fear-mongering of the business media fanning the flames of imminent economic collapse caused by “unreasonable demands” by militant workers in the mining sector, or “ill-disciplined” community activists offending us with their poo-protests. We can delegitimise these struggles by association with Julius Malema’s EFF. And then we may as well join all of those who boycotted the Marikana memorial.
But if we view these developments through the spectacles of the possibility of a new movement untainted by the machinations and the compromises made since 1990, then the emerging strike committees, the militancy displayed by workers on the mines and on the farms and the on-going protests at community level are signs of a new movement for social justice emerging. Then these are instances for celebration rather than fear. And in that sense, August is the end of winter and heralds a new spring.

Gentle is the director of the International Labour Research and Information Group (ILRIG), an NGO that produces educational materials for activists in social movements and trade unions.

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3 Sep

What a Fantastic Piece!!

It's just after 5 in the morning and already these two lines have made my day:

"the SACP's grubby Stalinist hands" & "a new disease in our body politic: the mixture of Stalinism with neoliberalism"

Also, I agree that Carol Paton is doing some of the very best analysis of anyone in SA.

But its this part of the piece that is so right on:

"But if we look deeper and beyond the ANC, SACP and COSATU and if we grant the post-Marikana striking workers and their self-organised committees the agency and integrity that centres them in our analysis, together with the on-going community "service delivery revolts", then we have a very different picture of dramatic changes of August."

"What we see is the entry of forces into the political drama that were in the recent past condemned to be off-stage while the "serious" formations of civil society - parliament, big business, the well-known political parties - ply their craft and keep us enthralled."

Civil society is irrelevant. Malema is an irrelevant opportunist. It is the strike committees, the farm committees and the shack committees that will make our future.

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Mandla Sishi
3 Sep

We are the Majority, the Producers, We are the Future

Thank you comrade Gentle. This goes way ahead of the commonplace sophistry of official analyses.

7 Sep

@Mandla Sishi

"We are the Majority, the Producers, We are the Future."

Socialists have been saying this for more than a hundred years. It hasn't happened. Your neo-religious faith is not helpful. Let's engage with reality.

Rory Verified user
6 Sep

The Dis-empowered

In any society where a significant portion of the population is marginalised and dis-empowered by those that have made it the real impetus for social change will be found within this community.

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MFXJ Verified user
8 Sep

A Luta Continua

Thank you, Mr. Gentle. 1994 was meant to bring an end to the need for this rallying call in SA. I am sick to my stomach at how in 18 short years the 80 years of struggle against injustice has been absolutely trashed. It is time to sweep away this terrible rot that has taken over our society. I would welcome with great happiness the emergence of a credible "new movement untainted by the machinations and the compromises made since 1990". It will have my vote.

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