The ‘Zunami’ and the cracks in the tripartite alliance

2014-03-04 10:00

The Jacob Zuma tsunami (so-called Zunami) has run its course and left in its wake a few political casualties and no real change on the political, economic or social fronts.

But it also encouraged an upsurge in demands for worker democracy – and this is what lies behind the very evident trade union cracks in the ANC-led tripartite alliance that emerged last year with the suspension of Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi.

The extent of such cracks was revealed when representatives of several Cosatu-affiliated unions joined a demonstration outside Parliament on Wednesday as Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan delivered his budget speech. The unions and their allies were protesting against a range ofgovernment policies.

But this clear sign of rifts in the governing alliance was the culmination of a row that long predates the campaign to elevate Zuma to president of party and country. It is something that has been brewing within the tripartite alliance for more than 20 years.

The beginning of what seems likely to end in a messy divorce came when the first ANC delegation to the World Economic Forum shelved the macroeconomic policy document prepared by its own Macroeconomic Research Group (Merg).

Hardly revolutionary, the Merg proposals were based on the idea that the redistribution of wealth should be a prerequisite of economic growth, a concept that turned on its head the then dominant liberal theory of growth first.

The Merg researchers and the labour movement argued then – as unions still do today – that the redistribution of wealth should be the priority and that a policy based on redistribution would not only be a better but a more equitable way forward.

They point out all the evidence shows that growth-first, “trickle-down economics” only makes the rich richer, and widens the wage and welfare gap.

But by 1994, Cosatu was committed to the idea that the ANC was a “terrain of struggle”, where the forces of “socialism” in the form of the SA Communist Party (SACP) and Cosatu needed to defeat the forces of capital.

This “top-down” and “multiclass” approach was opposed initially by an apparently small minority within the country’s largest union federation.

But by mid-1996, when the government finally presented its macroeconomic policy, called Gear, the voices of doubt grew louder. Although Gear stressed job creation and the redistribution of wealth, it prioritised economic growth.

This was fundamentally in line with the proposals of the business lobby contained in Growth for All, a document put forward in the same year.

But the combined labour movement had also, with the aid of the Merg research, produced a comprehensive set of macroeconomic proposals called Social Equity and Job Creation. It predated Gear, but there was little argument when the government’s proposals were announced.

In the name of alliance unity, Social Equity was placed on the back burner and Gear was reluctantly accepted as another front on the terrain of struggle.

Less than a decade later, with growing restlessness in worker ranks, both Cosatu and the SACP were condemning Gear as the “1996 class project”.

At the 2006 Cosatu congress, Vavi as general secretary hailed the “Zuma tsunami” that would carry the revolution forward.

Then president Thabo Mbeki duly became the first high-profile casualty when he was unseated as head of the country and the ANC. Then Cosatu president Willie Madisha, who did not support either Zuma or Mbeki, also got his marching orders from the Cosatu executive after a failed attempt at congress to dismiss him.

There is a distinct echo here in the events surrounding Vavi. He became increasingly outspoken against the Zunami he had previously hailed and a campaign was launched to have him unseated at the 2012 congress.

It failed because the majority of worker delegates supported him. But in much the same way as had happened with Madisha, the executive acted against him.

But unlike Madisha, who left and attempted to form another federation, aligned to the then newly formed Congress of the People, Vavi turned to his supporters within Cosatu and they called for a special congress to either ratify or overturn the executive decision.

Nevertheless, Vavi is but a symbol of much wider dissatisfaction. This was summed up last week in a Food and Allied Workers’ Union statement that workers see the alliance as using them as “election fodder”.

They now want to “reassess the relationship” and are demanding an end to centralised control and blind loyalty.

The budget on Wednesday, especially with its provision for an effective youth wage subsidy, seems to have hardened this view.

Join the conversation! encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions. publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Inside News24

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.