Cosatu under attack

2010-06-04 00:00

IT’LL be some time before we really know what happened in the National Working Committee (NWC) of the African National Congress (ANC) on Monday. But it seems clear enough that a majority of the NWC supported a proposal to bring disciplinary charges against Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) leader Zwelinzima­ Vavi. They aim to haul Vavi over the same coals that the party fired up for its recent grilling of Julius Malema. Vavi will, if his enemies get their way, be charged for his criticism of Jacob Zuma and his cabinet for their failure to take decisive action against ministers such as Siphiwe Nyanda, whom Vavi accuses of corruption. The mere fact that this has been seriously considered by the NWC marks both a spectacular escalation of the tensions within the Tripartite Alliance and a further step in the seemingly relentless degeneration of the ANC.

The longstanding tensions in the alliance have ebbed and flowed for years with much of the drama unfolding in the public eye. But Zuma­ blazed his path to the presidency by promising all kinds of things to all kinds of people in the ANC. Expectations were raised on all sides. Once in office, Zuma proceeded to hedge his bets and offer nothing of any consequence to anyone, with the result that the tensions within the alliance have sharpened into a very public drama.

The first episode of the latest series in that drama began last year when South African Communist Party (SACP) deputy secretary-general Jeremy Cronin criticised Malema’s call to nationalise the mines as a public bail-out to indebted private capital. Malema responded by attacking Cronin as a would-be white messiah, following which the Young Communist League called Malema a racist and booed him at the SACP conference the following month. This resulted in an open campaign by the Youth League to replace Gwede Mantashe with Fikile Mbalula as secretary-general of the ANC. In recent days, the Communist Party has upped the anti by blaming the Youth League and its patently self-serving “toilet wars” for the trouncing that the party received at the hands of the Democratic Alliance in a recent by-election in Cape Town.

The ructions within the alliance are now widely understood as a battle for the soul of the ANC that pits the communists and trade unions on the left against the nationalists on the right.

Mainstream opinion increasingly sees the communists and trade unionists as imperfect but nevertheless rational and concerned with the integrity and wellbeing of society as a whole. Cosatu is often seen as a voice and force for conscience in an ethical landscape rendered increasingly barren by the degeneration of the ANC. Given the federation’s principled position on repression in Swaziland and Zimbabwe, its challenge to Thabo Mbeki’s Aids denialism, its willingness to speak up against corruption and so on, this view certainly carries some weight. But Cosatu’s uncritical support for Zuma’s campaign for the presidency, its complicity with the disgraceful nature of the mobilisation around Zuma’s rape trial and the entirely dubious nature of his escape from the corruption charges, along with its failure to act or even speak against the repression of grass-roots movements like Abahlali baseMjondolo and the Landless People’s Movement, mean that neither its political nous nor its ethical commitments should be overstated.

The nationalists are generally seen as a corrupt and predatory group that are hostile to democratic values. In Zackie Achmat’s analysis they harbour fascist desires and must be removed from the ANC. In Paul Trewhela’s view they, following Zanu-PF, are ultimately looking to the authoritarian capitalism of China to secure their fortune, at the direct expense of the rest of society.

The fracture between the leftists and the nationalists in the alliance may well prove to be the decisive political contradiction in our immediate future. But this possibility should not blind us to the reality of other contradictions, or to the fact that as much as the leftists and the nationalists in the alliance may have come to loathe each other, they do share a certain political location­ and certain assumptions.

For a start, both groups are largely alienated from the poor. In recent years the SACP has made serious­ attempts to begin to mobilise the poor in some areas, but their successes have been limited and fragmented. The buffoonish publicity stunts of the ANC Youth League in Khayelitsha in recent days indicate that they also have designs on this constituency. But it remains largely true that in terms of building solid organisation, the poor are a floating constituency that, outside of a few areas where independent poor people’s movements have become hegemonic, has yet to be decisively aligned to any political grouping.

Moreover, both groups are also largely alienated from the ongoing series of popular local rebellions against ANC ward councillors and local party structures and the sustained organisations that have sometimes emerged from these rebellions. These rebellions are not a simple expression of the material crisis of the poor produced by some sort of involuntary spasm of riotous behaviour induced by deprivation. They invariably have a political logic and they need to be understood politically as well as sociologically. In many cases, their political logic takes the form of a demand for the subordination of aspects of the local­ state and local party structures to society. But this popular demand for democratisation is equally alien to the leftists and the nationalists in the alliance who, while adept at contestation in the factory and the boardroom, see political power as something to be captured through a top-down party structure, rather than something to be decentralised, let alone genuinely democratised.

In some specific respects the language of the left and the nationalists in the ANC is equally pervaded by the organisational assumptions of a clunky Leninism far removed from the living realities of a society in which there is a degree of real popular ferment. The political innovation that we have seen in recent years across Latin America, and in places like Haiti, Greece and Thailand, often reaches, amidst all sorts of contradictions and limits, towards a genuine commitment to bottom-up popular political empowerment. This is entirely absent from the discourse and practices of both the left and their nationalist rivals in the alliance. But there are some seeds of this in the popular rebellions and some thriving shoots in the popular organisation that has emerged out of these rebellions.

The ANC Youth League has a significant degree of power within the party, much of which is fuelled by patronage. However, it has very little power in society as a whole. But with two million members organised in workplaces across the country, Cosatu has enormous potential to exercise real political power within society. If the sleeping giant wakes and seriously orientates its political work to society, including the self-organised popular ferment at the base of society, instead of just to the party, it will be able to route the nationalists from below by confronting them on the terrain in which they are weak. But if Cosatu keeps the bulk of its political work on the favoured terrain of the nationalists, in the corridors of power where seats at the tables are not earned on the basis of mass support, and alliances are greased with patronage and backroom deals, it may well lose.

If Cosatu is investing its faith in Zuma to win this battle for it, then it has already lost. The best that Zuma­ will give Cosatu is a delay in the overt expression of hostilities won at the expense of another reduction in the right to critique within the alliance. Zuma simply doesn’t have the stomach to confront the nationalists directly and, given his own profound complicity with the politics of patronage, it is clear that he never will.


• Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University. This article first appeared on the website of the South African Civil Society Information Service (

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