Tensions rise between ANC and Cosatu

Is the alliance about to break up?

Sdumo Dlamini
Sdumo Dlamini.jpg

For almost a year, Leadership Intelligence Bulletin has been reporting on the increasingly unsustainable nature of the unhealthy political relationship between the two organisations.

In September last year we foresaw that in South Africa the relationship between the governing party and organised labour will follow the trajectory seen in post-independence Africa. It has had “complex relations between trade unions and political parties,” which followed the route of a  “a client-type relationship, an unhappy marriage, divorce and abstinence”.

At last week’s lekgotla, or think-tank meeting, of the ANC’s National Executive Committee (NEC), giving effect to decisions of December’s national conference, Cosatu had to swallow in defeat on a number of policy issues. On some it has to date held very strong views. The defeats came despite a number of key Cosatu leaders having been elected to the NEC in December. 

The NEC decisions that went against Cosatu positions include:

  • Education will be declared an essential service, making strikes by teachers, which have become endemic over the past number of years, illegal; 
  • Cosatu had to agree to the introduction of a youth employment subsidy, the implementation of which they have been effectively blocking since its announcement early in 2010 by President Jacob Zuma and despite a R5-billion provision in the national budget of 2011; and 
  • The lekgotla also “directed the state” to urgently find ways and implementable means to deal with the twin phenomena of violent strikes and community protests, in which at least some Cosatu leaders and affiliates have been playing an active role in recent times.

This changing ANC/Cosatu relationship is likely to have far-reaching implication for especially Cosatu as the 'shunted' party in what looks like the start of a drawn-out divorce. 

The first indication of Cosatu’s dilemma as a 'strategic partner' in government, yet apparently powerless to successfully represent its own constituency within the ruling alliance came from the South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu).

Sadtu is now seeking its own direct meeting with the ANC for clarity on the plans to declare education an essential service, indicating they don’t believe the ANC received a full perspective on the issue.

What has happened at the lekgotla is also bound to have an aggravating effect on existing factional tensions within Cosatu, centred on its general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi and its president Sdumo Dlamini, who is also president of the federation’s biggest affiliate, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). 

In recent times the ANC has become increasingly angered by public criticism from Cosatu and specifically by Vavi. Under Vavi's leadership Cosatu and/or some of its affiliates have adopted increasingly militant positions and engaged in, or supported, both political and labour activities which have frequently embarrassed or angered government and the ANC. 

The ANC attempted to change the dynamics of its relationship with Cosatu by co-opting some senior labour leaders into ANC decision-making structures at Mangaung, aimed at making Cosatu a party to the adoption of ANC policies and other decisions. This in itself implies the close co-operation of the Dlamini faction. 

Dlamini, National Education Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu) general secretary Fikile Majola, National Union of Mineworkers president Senzeni Zokwana, Cosatu’s Free State secretary Sam Mashinini and former general secretary of the South African Democratic Teachers Union Thulas Nxesi were all elected onto the, overwhelmingly pro-Zuma, NEC. 

They all campaigned for Zuma and were 'rewarded' with NEC positions. The ANC hoped this arrangement would ease Cosatu back into the ANC fold where the leadership of a 'Zumafied' ANC within the tripartite alliance (Cosatu, South African Communist Party and ANC) is unquestioned and unopposed, as in former years.

However, the cracks are still clearly present, and widening. Vavi and National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) general secretary Irvin Jim, who were both very critical of Zuma’s re-election and various ANC policies in the run-up to the Mangaung conference, refused to be co-opted onto the new ANC NEC, rejecting nomination.

Vavi has in the past repeatedly said that Cosatu’s support for the ANC is not a blank cheque and that its role in the alliance is tactical. Now it seems that the Dlamini faction made a strategic mistake at the December conference in giving unqualified support to Zuma’s re-election.  

A survey among more than 2 000 Cosatu shop stewards late last year found that a majority was in favour of Cosatu forming its own worker’s political party. 

The release of the survey was originally announced for 11 December last year but on that day Vavi said it was “decided not to release the shop stewards survey because it’s still work in progress – the final report will be released in March 2013”.

In the meantime last Sunday a Cosatu leader, referring to union leaders on the ANC’s executive committee, said they would be meeting with federation affiliates to “discuss managing the new arrangement and the relationship between Cosatu’s top leaders”. At the time of writing the outcome of this meeting was not known.

Besides the known issues dealt with at the NEC lekgotla there are other sticky issues remaining, including Cosatu’s demands for an outright ban on labour brokers; government’s continued use of inflation targeting; Cosatu's reluctance to support the National Development Plan; and the ANC’s rejection of the nationalisation of mines.

There are some stormy months ahead in the ANC/Cosatu relationship, which could be decisive one way or another for that relationship.

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