For as long as the policy conflicts and ideological battles of the alliance are fought by means of the knife, uncertainty will continue.
Irvin Jim, leader of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), is making threatening noises about the union's support for the ANC in the 2014 election. As we report in this edition, he's saying Numsa may not be out there on the hustings pulling in the voters for the ANC this time around, because the ANC is not paying attention to the demands of the working class, as articulated by Numsa.
Elements in trade union federation Cosatu have made this kind of threat a few times in the past, often as a ritual prelude to election season, ever since the ascendancy of what radicals such as Jim call "the 1996 class project", meaning the replacement of the Reconstruction and Development Programme by then-president Thabo Mbeki's fiscally conservative Gear strategy.
This is the moment at which the ANC, as South Africa's governing party, went over to "neoliberal" policies, in the eyes of the likes of Jim; today, the National Development Plan (NDP) is seen as the natural extension of Gear-type policies, and they are resisting it strongly.
But Jim's threat also feels a bit like a last gasp from the radicals in Cosatu; the rest have been ousted or bought off, and that's part of the problem. The suspension of Zwelinzima Vavi, Cosatu's general secretary and a strong critic of the broad policy decisions and behaviour of the ruling party, is a victory for those close to the ANC and the South African Communist Party's leading clique, and it may be making Jim feel somewhat nervous. As one of Vavi's most vociferous supporters, he is surely next in line for the kind of manoeuvre that got the Cosatu boss suspended.
The issue here is not support for the NDP or a lack thereof, though that is a debate South Africa should by now have worked through. Jim's threat is catalysed by the treatment of Vavi, and by the reactions of alliance leaders to the situation. Numsa did not attend the alliance summit of a week ago, because it believed Cosatu had not prepared itself sufficiently, and that it would be railroaded by the ruling party – which is pretty much what happened.
The parties that did attend the conference emerged saying everyone had agreed to have a constructive debate about it all, which wasn't much more than saying the unions would not be voicing the kind of objections Jim and Numsa have raised, or at least not so loudly and harshly, and the discussion will continue – although the ANC has already nailed its colours to the mast and said the NDP is its policy and will be part of its election platform next year.
Funny, when Cosatu (including Vavi) was supporting Jacob Zuma for the leadership of the ANC and thus the alliance, they were arguing that Mbeki's policies, such as Gear, had led to an ideological split in the alliance, pitting the neoliberals with a capitalist agenda against the radicals who wanted a more thoroughgoing transformation of society. So Mbeki was to blame, and Zuma was the solution because he seemed willing to push the kinds of policies favoured by the left in Cosatu; Zuma would bring unity to the ANC and he would bring unity to the alliance.
Since then, Cosatu – and other erstwhile Zuma supporters such as the ANC Youth League – have discovered that the cry of "unity" means, as it did at Mangaung, "vote for the incumbent". Outside of voting times, it means "don't challenge the incumbent or the policies put forward by the executive". And by now Cosatu and others have discovered that if they don't support "unity" they will get shafted – as Julius Malema was dumped, as Kgalema Motlanthe has been sidelined, and as Vavi has now been taken down a few notches.
They should see, too, that the reaction to anyone who challenges the Zuma leadership is ruthless. There was no leadership challenge at Cosatu's own electoral conference before the ANC's equivalent at Mangaung, and many saw it as a reciprocal deal made by the alliance partners: don't rock our boat and we won't rock yours.
But, once Mangaung was done and Zuma was firmly in control, his supporters and agents immediately began the project of undermining Vavi as the most prominent leader of Cosatu. Attempts on his integrity were made with the release of information about the buying and selling of a union building, but this had no impact on Vavi's standing. It took a charge of rape (later withdrawn) and the revelation of the workplace affair Vavi was stupidly conducting to get him closer to the exit.
Vavi could yet make a comeback, but if he does it will be with the full awareness that those in charge of the ANC in government, and those who claim to be the most fervent supporters of the tripartite alliance, are not to be trusted; he will surely be more convinced than ever that their manoeuvres are really about power – and that policy is really an afterthought.
And, for as long as the policy conflicts and ideological battles of the alliance are fought by means of the knife in the back and not through honest, open debate, this uncertainty and indirection will continue.
Voters take note.