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Editorial: A marriage of inconvenience

The expulsion of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) from trade union federation Cosatu reflects the fragility and instability of the ANC-led tripartite alliance.

Alliance leaders have been fond of quoting Oliver Tambo to give the impression of a unified, unwavering alliance. “Ours is not merely a paper alliance, created at conference tables and formalised through the signing of documents and representing only an agreement of leaders,” said Tambo. “Our alliance is a living organism that has grown out of struggle.”

But these words, from a 1981 speech commemorating the 60th anniversary of the South African Communist Party, are quoted out of context. They refer specifically to the ANC-SACP alliance, and the leaders who parrot these words omit Tambo’s preceding caution: “To be true to history, we must concede that there have been difficulties as well as triumphs along our path, as, traversing many decades, our two organisations have converged towards a shared strategy of struggle.”

Thus we can say that organisations may diverge, too, in their views and interests. The splitting of the ANC and the SACP was long predicted by analysts, as well as fervently hoped for by some (mostly on the right).

Almost as soon as the post-1990 tripartite alliance of the ANC, the SACP and Cosatu arose, there were predictions that it would one day fracture – probably along class lines.

And this, it appears, is what Numsa’s expulsion means, though it’s not happening quite as foreseen. The SACP is a lapdog party now, and like Cosatu, Numsa believes, it has largely sold out working-class interests in favour of the capitalist accumulation offered by the ruling party (even as it “talks left”).

In the first decade or so of democracy, the alliance worked well for South Africa and the ANC. Over the long term, however, it was always going to prove to be unsustainable. Political alliances, like coalitions in government, are messy and complex and can become all but impossible to manage. South Africa’s political graves are full of alliance and coalition tombstones.

It is disingenuous and ahistorical, then, for alliance leaders to chastise Numsa for raising a dissident voice. Each of the alliance partners (when it suited them, of course) has questioned the usefulness of the tripartite behemoth that has dominated South African politics for two decades.

The SACP once even looked into the possibilities of fighting an election in its own right, though it decided not to and kept its thoughts secret.

Numsa said, 21 years ago, that it would support the ANC in the first democratic elections but thereafter wanted to cut its ties with the ruling party and focus on being a worker-driven union. (It was voted down by other Cosatu affiliates.)

Over the years, Cosatu repeatedly threatened to pull out of the alliance or reconfigure it into a mere pact because it believed the ANC was taking workers for granted.

Alliances of a “united front” nature are good for the politics of protest and challenge, but once the parties are in office they are really coalitions. In their need to satisfy often opposing constituencies, coalition governments tend to choke economic development and stifle decisive policy-making in a fog of unresolved contradictions. This is what has happened in South Africa over the past decade.

The cosy relationship with the government compromised the unions’ independence and their ability to bargain harder. South Africa’s historical economic structure warrants strong unions and an independent SACP, not a sentimental alliance, but it can be seen that they have largely been co-opted by power.

Soon after the ANC and the SACP were unbanned, key central committee and politburo members – including former president Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma – threw away their red socks.

The fall of the Soviet Union also prompted diehard commies such as Joe Slovo to question their ideological faith. Nelson Mandela and later Mbeki were pragmatic in their economic policy choices, and the SACP and union influence waned.

The alliance leaders who bang on about “unity”, or the ANC mediators who tried to patch up the Cosatu-Numsa relationship, are surely nostalgic for the days when so many were united in opposition to apartheid – and behind the ANC. The fact that they are no longer fully behind the ANC has to be seen as an inevitable, and necessary, reaction to the kinds of policy choices and actions the ANC has made in its 20 years in power, and what has happened to South African society on its watch.

If these parties’ interests have diverged, then the parties should diverge. Rather a democratic contestation of the issues, with a clear sense of whose interests are being advocated, than backstabbing and manipulation within the alliance. Government policy has been hopelessly confused – and its implementation undermined – by the alliance’s attempts to keep everyone in the tent.

From this mess a new political configuration could emerge, which would be to the advantage of South African voters. If Numsa’s projected “united front”, when it comes into being, is more than just a group of disgruntled ex-ANC members with a simple anti-ANC agenda, it would be good for our young democracy.

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