Despite having been endorsed by the African National Congress’s national conference in December, one trade union within the governing alliance has now called for an “alliance summit” on the National Development Plan (NDP). Another has alleged that the NDP has replaced the Freedom Charter. Indeed, a showdown seems to be looming around this much-hailed policy document.
The NDP appears to have badly rattled left-wing labour circles. But claims of outrage based on policy- and ideological grounds may simply be a smoke screen for another factional war within the alliance.
The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and its affiliated unions still continue to advocate a socialist developmental state with a narrow class bias in favour of workers and the poor.
The ANC, on the other hand, views itself as a broad, multi-class organisation embracing a mixed economy with strategic state regulation in partnership with a market-driven private sector aimed at economic growth, job creation and poverty eradication. This is encapsulated in the NDP.
Against this background, factionalism in the alliance is creating a situation filled with contradictions and anomalies.
At a recent Cosatu conference, the gulf between the union and the ANC seemed wider than ever before. ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe warned that the ANC was not an extension of Cosatu, and that Cosatu was on a “dangerous downward slope” and would destroy itself.
Cosatu general-secretary Zwelinzima Vavi retorted that the “ANC must come to the party”, must shed its “neutrality” in favour of returning to its historic bias to the poor and workers, and that Cosatu wants a developmental state.
However, Mantashe’s harsh admonishment was most probably aimed at the Cosatu faction led by Vavi, and not the union federation as a whole.
Following pro- and anti-Zuma factional battles in the alliance leading up to Cosatu’s national congress and the ANC’s Mangaung conference last year, the Zuma factions in both cases emerged dominant.
In Cosatu, the pro-Zuma faction coalesced around the union’s president Sidumo Dlamini and includes major unions such as the National Union of Mineworkers, the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union, and the Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union, among others. Union leaders from this faction, including Dlamini, were rewarded by the ANC with seats on the ANC national executive committee.
In the opposing camp were Vavi and unions such as the Food and Allied Workers Union (Fawu) and the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa).
These developments recently led to attempts by the pro-Zumaists in Cosatu to disgrace and possibly expel Vavi from Cosatu.
Against this background, the Vavi-led faction now seems to be taking the fight to its opponents using the NDP as the chosen battleground.
In the past week or two, strong criticism of the NDP has come from within the Vavi camp, in particular from Numsa and Fawu. On the other hand, the Dlamini camp has been silent on the NDP, despite the Vavi camp’s correct conclusion that the policy document is at odds with Cosatu’s official policy.
At the ANC’s Mangaung conference, both Vavi and Numsa’s general-secretary Irwin Jim thwarted their co-option onto the ANC national executive as part of the thrust for hegemony under Zuma, by refusing nomination.
A Numsa central committee statement on 7 March among others refers to “a continuation of failed attempts during the 11th National Congress last year, which sought to capture Cosatu and convert it into a conveyor belt for the legitimisation of anti-working class policies that are being pursued in our name as the working class.”
Since then, Jim has become the most vocal critic of the NDP. He and the Numsa central committee released a lengthy critique of the NDP of more than 11 000 words. It argues that “significant and strategic parts of the NDP were directly lifted from DA (the opposition, Democratic Alliance) policy documents”.
Fawu, in turn, called for an alliance summit on the NDP, saying it is an issue of “Freedom Charter-like proportion”.
While there may be some similarities between aspects of the NDP and DA policy – as DA leader Helen Zille also claimed – it is more likely a sign of growing common ground between business, government, political parties and other role-players in a developing ‘national vision’ on what is needed to take South Africa forward.
Meanwhile, this past week a draft discussion document issued by Cosatu’s secretariat, headed by Vavi, took a scathing view of the ANC’s adoption of the NDP, claiming it had replaced the ANC’s Freedom Charter as the central policy-guiding document.
This document is likely to heighten tensions between the Vavi and Dlamini camps and could impact on relations between Cosatu and other alliance partners. It puts the Dlamini camp on the spot, since they may have to choose between the ANC stance on the NDP and the official Cosatu policy position.
The ANC has reacted with a stinging dismissal of the criticism levelled against adoption of the NDP by Jim, Numsa and others in Cosatu. Minister in the Presidency Trevor Manuel, who heads the National Planning Commission that drafted the NDP, described Jim as having an "infantile disorder" that made him averse to anything rational. ANC deputy general-secretary Jessie Duarte attacked Numsa in an open letter, labelling it “populist”.
The South African Communist Party – the third member of the governing alliance – fired off some shots at the Vavi camp, warning Cosatu against adopting a reactionary or “rejectionist” stance, blaming “factionalism”. It urged Cosatu to "close ranks" against the "onslaught" it faced.
Over the weekend, when addressing the ANC's provincial general council in KwaZulu-Natal, President Zuma warned “alliance leaders” who criticise the NDP, to choose their words carefully.
"You may have views (on the NDP), but you must respect the views expressed by ANC delegates in Mangaung,” he said.
As the battle around the NDP picks up momentum, only time will tell how much longer the contradictory ideological stances within the alliance can remain under the same umbrella.