Left, Right march for the heart of the ANC

If nothing else, the spat between Cosatu’s Zwelinzima Vavi and the ANC’s Gwede Mantashe last month put a very public lid on the post-Polokwane love-fest that smoothed the way for President Jacob Zuma’s ascent to power in the ANC and the state.

Inside the ruling ANC this has been clear for months. Meetings of the ANC’s national working committee (NWC) and between the ANC and its allies have always been ­robust affairs, but recently they have been particularly bloody.

There have clearly been tensions within the tripartite alliance – and they have been serious.

But they are not between a unified ANC and ­Cosatu; the tensions are within the ANC, ­between the organisation’s Left and Right wings.

There is no doubt that there are political forces keen to entice Cosatu away from the alliance to form a left-wing opposition to the ANC, and that they were active at the Civil Society Conference a fortnight ago when the organisers’ failure to invite the ANC triggered the ­Vavi-Mantashe spat.

But Vavi’s tough defence of the ANC against delegates bent on using the gathering for an orgy of ANC-bashing shows that Cosatu is not about to vacate the corridors of power for the sniping fringes of opposition.

So too did Cosatu president S’dumo Dlamini’s comments shortly after the spat: “When the central executive committee of Cosatu sits on November 22, it may well conclude that we made an error for not inviting the ANC (to the conference).”

A worker breakaway is simply not on the agenda. “No leader of Cosatu can convert the federation into a political party,” says Dlamini. “The majority of Cosatu members are ANC members or vote for the ANC.

“We are not about to follow a trend which has failed in Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe.” In this he has, post-spat, been backed by leaders of ­Cosatu’s most powerful unions.

The Mantashe-Vavi shouting match was not a contest over who is in power. It was a spat about the use of that power: it is about government policy – as are the underpinning tensions within the ANC.

Historically, these tensions have appeared regularly throughout the near 100-year history of the ANC. They were sharpened significantly after 1994 – and even further during the Thabo Mbeki decade, unsurprisingly given the president’s attempt to push the organisation to the right.

These have been characterised by open conflict over whose constituency – the Left would term it as which “class”, the workers or the comprador bourgeoisie – gains most from government policy.

They are doing so in circumstances in which government policy must navigate through the minefield of sluggish domestic economic growth, a battered global economy and an extremely unforgiving world investment community.

This has, for Zuma, imposed very real constraints on how to deliver on his electoral promises.

It explains the fight over the extent the state’s role in stimulating economic growth, played out on issues ranging from the role and mandate of the ­Reserve Bank, monetary ­policy and the National Planning Commission.

Zuma’s ANC has been ­characterised by a move back to the traditional broad-church approach.

This approach is based, in turn, on the perspective that both the ANC and broader South African society, fractured by decades of apartheid, need a ruling alliance between ­workers and those of a “patriotic bourgeoisie” to achieve the developmental state that is central to ANC thinking. This has been greeted unenthusiastically by the ANC’s right wing, which dominates the NWC – as witnessed by NWC’s seizing on the civil society conference as an opportunity for Left-bashing.

For Zuma the key organisational challenge has been nudging the contesting wings of the ruling party – their mutual antagonism honed to razor-sharpness during the Mbeki years – from contest to debate. In this he has won significant middle-ground support.

The powerful emergence of ANC Gauteng leader Paul Mashatile as a peacemaker during the ANC national general council (NGC), and the NGC’s containment of the assertive youth league, is a clear indication that he is gaining ground.

The recent Cabinet reshuffle ­suggests he recognises this and is building confidently on it: his ­inclusion of three SACP leaders as deputy-ministers is thus not a sign of “giving in” to the Left but of the growing potential for a consensus on the central planks of ANC policy.

Criticism from the left will not fade away any time soon. But key players across the ANC spectrum believe a real possibility exists for the ANC to stabilise, further ­coalescing its vocal contests into ­coherent debates towards common platforms.

Thus Dlamini’s assertion: “We can’t do without (the alliance). We don’t have to follow each other’s line, but we do need closer engagement.”

The Vavi-Mantashe spat thus marks not only an end of the Polokwane unity – temporary at best because it was driven by opposition to Mbeki – but also of the open ­post-Polokwane contest between Left and Right over policy direction.

Class tensions between worker interests and those of the ANC’s emerging capitalist (and aspirant capitalist) interests look set to be channelled through Dlamini’s “closer engagement” for the ­foreseeable future.

» ?Brown is a freelance analyst

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