All about politics

2010-08-31 00:00

ANYONE who has only a cursory knowledge of workers’ struggles, in particular those waged by Cosatu, would have been astounded by the president’s concern that the public sector strike is more and more about politics.

Cosatu programmes have always had political undertones. Its very alliance with the African National Congress is part of its political unionism. It is neither new nor unusual that Cosatu uses its power base to achieve political objectives.

Cosatu is born out of a Marxist political school, one that sees employer-employee contradictions in stark class terms, as a war bet­ween the haves and the have-nots. In this view, shop-floor battles should be seen as part of a more complex long-term political struggle to install a government that is controlled by the working class rather than by the capitalist and petit bourgeois classes.

For this reason, Cosatu’s mission is not just about pay hikes and working conditions, but about a radical change in the political economy to create conditions where the proletariat holds economic and political power necessary to create conducive working conditions on the ground.

Cosatu has had an explicitly political approach to workers’ issues from the beginning. It linked shop-floor grievances to the systems of apartheid and settler capitalism and the pursuit of profit at all costs. Hence, Cosatu decided that its mission would be best accomplished in an alliance with the most powerful broad political movement against apartheid, the United Democratic Front-ANC.

Cosatu saw a close correlation between the national democratic revolution of the ANC and its pursuit of a proletariat revolution against bourgeois capitalism and colonialism. But the federation was always conscious of the multiclass nature of the ANC and the fact that the contest between class interests within the ANC is almost permanent. So, victories by either side lead to reversal and a resumption of new battles.

For this reason, Cosatu tends to shift from constructive engagement when space opens up for its interests to be pursued through internal change to confrontation when scope for internal engagement shrinks.

In 1994, Cosatu helped the ANC win the election and install a government in which a few of its leaders became ministers, but it soon became a thorn in the side of the same government over economic policy (the Growth, Employment and Redistribution strategy), leading to Nelson Mandela lambasting the federation for playing ally and opposition at once.

The same happened in 1999 when the Thabo Mbeki-led government was elected. Cosatu soon became a nuisance for openly criticising the government’s policies and performance. The federation became a key impetus for the Jacob Zuma tsunami. Cosatu has now realised that in spite of concessions won in Polokwane, the battle for the soul of the ANC continues.

Government behaviour, priorities and attitudes to contested class interests remain the same. Understandably, there’s more continuity than change. This is because the centre of the governing alliance remains the ANC rather than the SA Communist Party or Cosatu or all three together, contrary to Cosatu’s wishes. So, for Cosatu it is a luta continua — the struggle for worker-friendly economic policies is not over.

The current public servants’ strikes are part of the ongoing class struggles. Hence, the strikes are not just about salaries and benefits, but also about control over fiscal policy (inflation targeting), the budget (state expenditure plans), governance (anti-nepotism and crass materialism) and the contested balance of power in the governing alliance.

Now as in the past, speeches and press statements by union leaders during pickets convey strong messages about the state of our politics and our political economy. They make it plain that the union leaders have their sights on the imminent National General Council of the ANC, the 2011 municipal elections and the 2012 conference.

Clearly, Cosatu is disappointed with the ANC leadership that it helped install in Polokwane. Fortunately for Cosatu, having not joined the Zuma government, it has the independence to challenge the Zuma-led ANC and government.

Cosatu is aware that while it does not occupy strategic positions in the ANC and the government, it leads the masses that the ANC needs to remain in power. This gives Cosatu significant bargaining power which is expressed through pickets and protests, and can also be expressed through withdrawal of the vote come next elections.

For this reason, the strikes should not be seen in narrow terms of being about pay issues alone. It is a political struggle, which requires a political process of engagement to resolve. Otherwise, the Zuma leadership will pay a high price come 2012.

This is what the Mbeki leadership failed to appreciate fully leading up to Polokwane. Striking marchers are already talking about change come Bloemfontein 2012.

• Siphamandla Zondi is the executive director of the Institute for Global Dialogue, but writes in his personal capacity.

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