South Africa – Smoke and mirrors hide power agendas in Cosatu’s faltering house of cards

The role of the African National Congress (ANC) in the labour movement’s disintegration remains something of a mystery. While it is not clear what role the ruling party and the South African Communist Party (SACP) played in the decision – apparent determination – to expel the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) from the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), the move will wound (perhaps fatally) the trade union federation, as we suggested in an earlier report.

Irwin Jim, general secretary of Numsa, named his counterparts Gwede Mantashe of the ANC and Blade Nzimande of the SACP as key coordinators and conspirators in the plot to drive or expel Numsa from Cosatu. Yet Mr Mantashe described the expulsion of Numsa as bad for just about everyone, while Mr Nzimande made no secret of his organisation’s glee to see the back of Mr Jim and company – most of whom were also fellow SACP members. The idea that Numsa had to go because it withdrew formal support for the ANC at the last general elections holds no water at all (and the other ‘reasons’ lack credibility). But the ANC apparently tried very hard to get Cosatu leaders to keep Numsa in the fold, so the contradictions are glaring and irreconcilable. Glaring and irreconcilable, that is, only if the ongoing internal machinations in the ANC and the role of Mr Mantashe are overlooked.

Mr Mantashe’s double speak – agitating for Numsa’s expulsion and then criticising the decision when it came – is merely the contradiction between his personal agendas and the role he must play as representative, spokesperson and guardian of broader ANC demands. ANC National Executive Committee (NEC) talk is that Numsa had to go to embarrass Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, who had assured the NEC that Numsa and Cosatu would kiss and make up (this may be why we are warned not to heed NEC talk). While it sounds fanciful, there are various forces at work in the NEC promoting or resisting the obvious – if undeclared intent – by Mr Ramaphosa to succeed President Jacob Zuma at both party and national level, and this struggle is intensifying. It is this internal power struggle that tends to define actions and reactions, not ideological compatibility or similar policy objectives – those appear to be secondary to who is going to succeed Mr Zuma and what that means for the current power elites. Everyone remembers what happened to those regarded as ‘Thabo’s people’ when former president Thabo Mbeki was removed from office; allegiances to Mr Zuma or the lack thereof are now becoming decisive in everyday politics – ideology, principle, and even rationality are out of the window.

NEC sources say many current developments and decisions can only be understood in the context of the internal power dynamic in the ANC and the potential impact of significant regime shifts on current top office bearers at party, government and state levels. Indeed, there is no logical rational explanation in ordinary politics for a decision that includes the following contradictory elements:

A trade union federation that has and continues to support the ruling party, yet:
Decides to expel its largest, most powerful affiliated union because it would not support the ANC at the last elections, but:
The ANC – despite this snub – pleads with the trade union federation to maintain unity and not expel the errant union, however:
The ANC-supporting trade union federation ignores this appeal and expels the errant union, and in doing so does considerable potential future harm to the ANC, and even better:
The Communist Party – also in an alliance with the ANC and with the trade union federation where there is significant cross-leadership – also defies the ANC and actively campaigns to expel a union with strong socialist leanings and leadership that should make it a natural ally to the communists.
In addition, and as a direct consequence of both Cosatu and the SACP ignoring ANC appeals to maintain unity, Cosatu’s faltering house of cards is in real danger of being blown away as several other union affiliates may withdraw from the federation, unless Numsa – which may not want to come back anyway – is allowed to return. These other unions include the Food and Allied Workers Union (FAWU), the Democratic Nursing Organisation of South Africa (DENOSA), the Public and Allied Workers Union of South Africa (PAWUSA), the Communication Workers Union (CWU), the South African State and Allied Workers Union (SASAWU), the South African Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers Union (SACCAWU) and the South African Football Players Union (SAFPU).

This does not even include the machinations and intrigue around Cosatu’s suspended, then reinstated but still unpopular, general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, and the attempts to get rid of him on what may be serious charges, but which appear trumped up. That is another issue altogether.
WHY DO WE CARE? The reason the ANC (as opposed perhaps to Mr Mantashe) may not want Numsa expelled from Cosatu is that it obviously weakens a key electoral ally and runs the risk of permanently damaging Cosatu and its future ability to mobilise support for the ANC. That is the ANC feathering its own nest, but political parties are expected to do that and it makes sense. What makes no sense is Cosatu acting against its largest and most powerful affiliate despite the express wish of the ANC to maintain unity on the basis that Numsa refused to support the ANC. (There were other issues, but they really were trumped up.) More bizarre, the SACP defies its alliance partner in the ANC and acts to expel Numsa where the metalworkers are cut from socialist cloth to a far greater degree than the Gucci commies in the SACP. In other words, far from embracing a natural ally, the SACP works to give them the boot. Power struggles, succession battles and a lame-duck president may hold the real answers, but the smoke and the mirrors obscure a clear view.

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