Talking tough?

2009-09-29 00:00

WE commentators and the media are already seeing battle lines drawn within the ruling alliance, with the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) poised to challenge its senior partner on a number of issues. Yes, we like tensions and volatile politics. It gives us something to think and write about.

We hate politics of peace and consensus. We find the past few months of peaceful relations bet­ween the African National Congress and its partners boring. Obser­vers who must be celebrating the waning influence of the South African Communist Party for ideological reasons, are disappointed because this has produced a politics of kissing and hugging. We will have none of it. In these conditions we have transformed information that an SACP general secretary, who is now the minister of Higher Education and Training, has (like many in cabinet) bought a luxury car into a matter of nat­ional importance. We are looking for hot issues.

For the record, many communists have joined the gravy train in the past decade, but their conduct did not cause national debate because the SACP continued to give us something to write about through the mouths of its independent-minded officials. The likes of Alec Irwin, Essop Pahad, Ronnie Kasrils and Jeff Radebe all acquired the amenities that come with their high offices, throwing revolutionary ethics and morals out of the window.

With the SACP chair Gwede Mantashe, its general secretary Blade Nzimande, and his deputy Jeremy Cronin, doing ANC work, the party is unusually silent or reconciliatory in public debates. Intelligent party members argue that the party has chosen more effec­tive methods of penetrating the ANC in order to take it over. But we commentators and the media­ will have nothing of such nice talk, not because of ideological aversion to an SACP-led ruling party or opposition to the idea of co-opting power, but because this means less public sparring bet­ween the two alliance partners.

So, we have turned to Cosatu (and occasionally the ANC Youth League) for potential instigators of the public tensions we have so much appetite for. Their public criticism of cabinet luxuries and Cosatu’s over-personalisation of the debate on government planning are all indications that there will soon be a war within the ANC. We salivate, hoping for more to come. Hence, last week we watched the federation’s national conference in Midrand in anticipation of fireworks.

After all, we know that the ANC, as a multiclass organisation, has many internal contradictions on matters of ideology, policy and practical management of the alliance. According to the ANC, its role as the senior party in the alliance is to manage and direct these contradictions as a life-giving force to propel the broad church from one phase of its evolution to the next. These contradictions enable the ruling party to occupy virtually every space in our national politics, rendering opposition parties, both to the left and to the right, rather ineffectual.

The Cosatu conference was billed for a showdown on the basis­ of distinct issues arising from a natural difference between what we have erroneously labelled a conservative ANC and leftist Cosatu­ in the context of a global financial crisis. The issues thought of in such terms include the future direction of economic policy, industrial strategy, wages and social spending, employment, national health insurance, cadre deployment and national strategic planning.

Indeed, these issues and many others were discussed at the Cosatu conference. Backed by research data and sound analytical work conducted by the federation’s analysts, the conference discourse was generally intelligent, but too subdued for our liking. Opening sessions offered some, but not enough, sparks for the tensions we had anticipated.

The real substance of Cosatu’s position was fashioned by delegates in the commissions. These sombre discussions firmed up what is generally the ruling party’s position on most of the issues mentioned above. Of course, some in the federation did provide the media and observers with some “interesting” talk, from the call for nationalisation of pharmaceutical and mining sectors to the insistence that Trevor Manuel’s ambition of becoming a defector prime minister be nipped in the bud. The federation also promised to resist the de-unionisation of workers in the defence sector and would have nothing of lab­our brokering. The conference ended with the re-election of most of its leaders and the election of new officials, such as Freda Oosthuysen as treasurer.

The declaration adopted in the end testifies to the fact that Cosatu and the ANC walk the same track, even though there is talk of talking tough. With the imminent Alliance Summit likely to iron out the few matters of difference picked up, there will sadly be very little for some of us to write about. There will be more kissing and hugging. Perhaps Cosatu is fast transforming into a non-militant organisation, not because militancy is undesirable, but because it is hard to be militant when the senior party is willing to give the federation the opportunity to raise its issues.

Cosatu could only be militant if it is independent of the ruling party. However, it understands the costs of taking the route the SACP once contemplated in terms of political space and policy influence. It is safe to say that a combination of changing global conditions, the current economic crisis and open engagement within the ruling alliance conspire to transform the role and place of Cosatu in national platforms in a manner more fundamental than we may notice.

 

• Siphamandla Zondi is the dir­ector for southern Africa at the Institute for Global Dialogue.

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