Alliance soapie trundles on

2013-06-03 00:00

“CONFUSION hath made his masterpiece.” That quote from Shakespeare’s Macbeth seems to sum up perfectly the statements, comments, reports and machinations surrounding the Cosatu executive committee meeting this week.

Yet for all the confusion and media conjecture about what had happened, was about to happen, and is happening, the outcome on Wednesday last week was wholly predictable.

As this column has noted, perhaps ad nauseum, when metaphoric blood on the floor seems imminent within Cosatu and the ANC-led alliance, the protagonists quickly retreat behind a facade of unity, from whence they cast aspersions at the media and innumerable “faceless sources”.

The fact that most of these “faceless sources” are to be found among the individuals who are often the most vociferous in their condemnation of the media, merely adds to the general confusion. And it is only the media players who are aware of this fact.

However, in this case, some of the sources, such as Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (Popcru) general secretary Nathi Theledi, are hardly faceless.

The federation’s general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, noted as much at the National Union of Metalworkers (Numsa) bargaining conference in April. The sources of rumours about him having his fingers in the Cosatu till were, he said, “a few senior leaders of our affiliated unions”.

But each episode in this long-running and largely unscripted alliance soap opera ends with complete denial.

Like the cinema serials of old, the build-up to a dramatic finale is always confounded, allowing the next episode or the next series to start with the same players, and in much the same way.

At the Cosatu congress in September last year, for example, the first episode of this latest series played itself out. There were two guest stars on that occasion: President Jacob Zuma, and the academic and political analyst, Somadoda Fikeni. The audience included a large contingent of foreign and local journalists, all there in anticipation of a dramatic finale.

The present series had then only just begun, and Popcru, backed by elements in the National Education Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu), had let it be known that they had workshopped a major script change that would see the departure of Vavi. But largely because of the intervention of Irvin Jim, general secretary of Numsa, Popcru and Nehawu failed to persuade the majority of actors to change tack.

As a result, the journalistic horde retreated, not waiting for the credits to roll. But, in his brief appearance, Zuma underlined, in a passing reference, the key to understanding this political theatre. As was noted at the time, he called on congress delegates to learn from Christians about the roles they should play. And he quoted the Biblical verse John, chapter 14, verse six, to illustrate this point.

This verse has been paraphrased in this column as: “We are the truth, the life and the way, nobody comes to the revolution but by us”.

It provides both the framework for the ongoing and generally confusing alliance drama, and an understanding of why, despite apparently irreconcilable differences, the script outline remains intact — and the show goes on.

It is this that enables Cosatu to take centre stage to oppose the macroeconomic orientation of the ANC government, to decry e-tolls, the Secrecy Bill and various other confirmed policies while, at the same time, pledging to work for an ANC electoral victory.

It is an approach summed up this week by Nehawu spokesperson Sizwe Pamla: “[Unions] are allowed to disagree on the minutiae, as long as these disagreements do not amount to a strategic rupture.” In other words, actors may ad lib as much as they like, provided they return to the basic script.

This was a point Fikeni also highlighted at the congress last year. He noted that what has generally not been appreciated is the way the ANC-led alliance has managed to deal with contradictions, taking matters to the brink and then pulling back. It is, he said, “the genius of the alliance”.

But this genius lies in “painting a veneer of unity at all costs over often bitter divisions”.

Radical rhetoric and acronym-laden policy proposals also created verbal screens that disguised the fact that nothing, basically, has changed.

Increasingly, however, there are signs that the technique is no longer working, that the show is clearly losing wider support and the backing of organised workers. But several observers have noted that this much has been obvious for years.

The fact that fewer and fewer eligible voters vote, or even bother to register to exercise their vote, is indicative of this.

Over the past decade and more, there have been indications that demoralised voters have lapsed into apathy, that the 66% of the vote gained by the ANC in 2009 amounted for just 38% of the potential electorate.

However, for most of this steadily less enthusiastic audience, the alliance soapie remains the only serious show in town. And, as the numerically largest organised group of supporters of the unity script, Cosatu is essential to keep the alliance show in the lead position.

But other trade-union players who appear, for the most part — and for the moment — to despise political theatre, are starting to make their presence felt in the wings of the national stage.

They are rehearsing their own, largely economic, scripts with a variety of radical political directors attempting to influence the direction they may ultimately take.

This is a real threat to the dominant feature, since such sideshows could morph into alternative theatre, and eventually top the political bill.

But the Cosatu players, rather than adapt to accommodate these new developments, cannot deviate from the alliance unity script since it has the status almost of Holy Writ.

To deny the validity of the script amounts to heresy or, in alliance terminology, counter-revolution.

And so the episode ended last week, with Vavi and the whole Cosatu leadership cast declaring themselves to be the best of friends as ever there were.

• Terry Bell is a journalist, commentator and author, specialising in political and economic analysis and labour matters.

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