Inside Labour: Cosatu war drags SACP to oblivion

2014-12-02 06:00

Politically, the biggest potential loser in the ongoing and increasingly bitter fracas at Cosatu and its affiliates is the smallest member of the ANC-led tripartite alliance, the SA Communist Party (SACP).

Its medium-term vision, described in some party documents as a “10-year plan”, looks close to being in tatters.

This “vision” calls for the creation of “socialism”, which the SACP describes as a mixed economy, multiclass “transitional social system”. It is a goal that can be attained by bringing “all key sites of power and influence” under “working class control”.

But since the SACP describes itself as THE party of the working class, this implies SACP control. Here, the trade union movement is vital. In the words

of the medium-term vision, “building working-class power in the workplace is a key dimension”.

The SACP was particularly successful in this: until very recently, almost every member of the Cosatu executive was a party member. The same applied to the leadership structures of the biggest unions.

This led to much of the tension and back-stabbing between Cosatu leaders and amounted to an acrimonious divorce between former comrades who once shared the same vision. The dissidents, led by metal workers’ union Numsa, argue the SACP has “gone off track” and been “absorbed into the ANC” to support anti working-class policies.

Loyalist elements in the SACP are understandably outraged, so it is unsurprising that some of the most vitriolic attacks on Numsa have come from unions such as the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), and the major public sector union, the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu).

Frans Baleni, the general secretary of the NUM, serves on the central committee of the SACP. His Nehawu counterpart, Fikile Majola, sits on the even more powerful 11-member politburo with Cosatu president Sdumo Dlamini and ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe, a former general secretary of the NUM.

NUM’s immediate past president, Senzeni Zokwana, who this year moved into Parliament as agriculture minister, is the national chairperson of the SACP. He is the latest of a number of leading SACP unionists to have moved into politics at both the provincial and national levels. Prominent among them is SACP deputy chairperson Thulas Nxesi, former general secretary of the SA Democratic Teachers Union and now public works minister.

Since Parliament is obviously also a “key site of power and influence”, it is unsurprising, given the medium-term vision goal, that the SACP is disproportionately represented among ANC MPs. This, according to Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim, is the party’s reward from the ANC for “delivering” Cosatu to the governing alliance.

A loss of influence, let alone control, over Cosatu would almost certainly mean a severe loss of influence with the ANC, certainly in terms of parliamentary positions. As matters now stand, SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande is the minister of higher education, while his party deputy is the deputy minister of public works.

Among other SACP central committee members in Parliament are Minister in the Presidency Jeff Radebe, his trade and industry counterpart Rob Davies and Deputy Mineral Resources Minister Godfrey Oliphant. Deputy parliamentary Speaker Lechesa Tsenoli is also on the central committee, along with former communications minister Yunus Carrim and former energy minister Ben Martins.

The targets of the ire of this faction are Cosatu’s beleaguered general secretary Zwelinizima Vavi and Jim.

Both, until fairly recently, were members of the SACP.

But although the squabbles at the leadership level have tended to dominate the news, the main driving force behind the turmoil seems to be the widespread demand among rank and file members for a return to democratic control of the unions. That would mean a loss of influence and financial support, especially for the SACP, but might, in the longer term, make for a larger, healthier and more vibrant trade union movement.

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