The African National Congress is facing political turmoil as cracks appear in the ‘tripartite alliance’ between the ANC, the unions and the Communist Party. The expulsion of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa from the Congress of South African Trade Unions, as well as an embarrassing incident in Parliament, have increased the pressure on President Jacob Zuma, writes Tom Nevin.
A debate over the ideological future of South Africa’s ruling African National Congress has intensified after fissures opened in the ‘tripartite alliance’ between the party, the Communist Party and the labour unions. Analysts are struggling to predict how the break-up of the leftist force in South African politics will shake out. South African President Jacob Zuma’s only public response to the turmoil in government was to concede, in the tersest of terms, that “the ANC has been shaken and is in trouble”.
He told the ANC Youth League consultative conference in Soweto, Johannesburg, in late November that: “We admit that the organisation is in trouble”, adding the warning that “I can guarantee you that if everything goes wrong with the ANC, everything will go wrong in this country. There is no doubt about it. There are many people who will want the ANC to disappear and they are trying everything, because there’s no alternative.”
The alliance partnership, a cobbling together of the leftist elements to fight South Africa’s first democratic election the 1994, was uneasy from the word go. An early power-grab, which put the ANC at the helm of the alliance, rather than giving each party an equal role, led to tensions that are still extant.
Cosatu, the Congress of South African Trade Unions, has always intensely disliked being the ANC’s lackey and often protested when the ANC unilaterally took key decisions and expected the unions to rubber stamp them. Cosatu has now itself begun to fragment.
In November, Cosatu expelled the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), the country’s biggest union, part of a long-running debate over the future of trade relations in South Africa. Cosatu has been attempting to take some of the heat out of disputes between the unions, the government and the private sector. Numsa took seven smaller unions with it when it went, diminishing Cosatu’s ranks.
Brian Ashley, Treasurer of the Democratic Left Front party, says: “It will bring an end to Cosatu as a fighting trade union force.”
For Gwede Mantashe, the ANC’s secretary general, “the expulsion of Numsa from Cosatu is bad for the organisation itself, it is bad for the ANC, bad for the [Tripartite] Alliance, the progressive forces as well as for society in general. It is disappointing and tragic”.
He believes, however, that putting Cosatu back together is achievable. “Allowing a split in the Federation can only help the historic enemies of the Alliance from both the left and right of the political spectrum. This development can never be celebrated. It calls upon all of us to work hard to find each other.”
Mantashe also acknowledges that the constant tussle between capital and workers is in play.
“The ideological and class character of the ANC has always been contested given different class interests,” he says. “The ANC remains a disciplined force of the left, biased towards working class and poor. The working class, and workers in particular, remains a critical motive force of the NDR and the ANC prides itself as the champion of their rights and interests.”
Police called to parliament
The government also saw another embarrassing episode in Parliament, which reached such chaotic levels that the speaker, Baleka Mbete, also the ANC chairwoman, panicked and called the police, who stormed into the house fully armed and apprehended an opposition member. Attempts by Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa to restore the peace and the dignity of the house made some headway, but then fell to pieces and subsequent sessions have been rowdy and uncomfortable for the ruling party.
Most opinion does not share Zuma’s contention that the end of the ANC will be the end of South Africa. While South Africa has a history of poor governance, the country has seen periods of prosperity, albeit between periods of hardship.
“We are currently in the latter,” observes Ryk van Niekerk in an editorial in the Good News South Africa journal. “The short-term prospects are not too promising, but the cycle will change again. If there was any logic in South Africa’s history, the country would have imploded a long time ago.
“The current ANC regime is a threat to the South African dream of multicultural prosperity,” says Van Niekerk, “but I am confident in our constitutional democracy to ensure that the country will survive this threat and emerge stronger and more unified. The fragmentation of the ANC will not be the end of this beautiful country.”
Even so, some observers have said that the strength of the quake shaking the alliance monolith is such that political and economic aficionados have begun predicting the government’s downfall. In fact, some even see South Africa “on the edge of the precipice”.
Magnus Heystek, director at Brentwood Wealth Management, a high-flying investment strategist, foresees in his blog “the death of the Rainbow Nation”. He points to the recent brawl in Parliament as a sign that South Africa is hurtling towards being a failed state.
Max du Preez, a veteran political commentator, is not quite as dramatic.
In an editorial titled ‘South Africa is heading to its Tunisia Day’, he warns that in the current political environment under President Zuma, South Africa might experience violent instability over the next few years, similar to the Arab Spring that overthrew the Tunisian government in 2010.
Mmusi Maimane, parliamentary leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA), believes that the summer of discontent will have seismic political ramifications. “The message is clear,” he says.
“Jacob Zuma’s days are numbered, and indeed, the ANC’s days are numbered,” he says.
“It is coming apart faster than any of us could have predicted. And the faster the ANC is ejected from office, the better for the long-term future of South Africa.” In Maimane’s view, there is little risk of South Africa descending into a failed state, but the same cannot be said of the ANC and its leader President Zuma.
“The ANC now sees that it cannot just rewrite the rules as it sees fit to protect the President,” says Maimane. “It cannot abuse Parliament for its own political ends. The opposition, united on this score, will not let that stand.”
The “abuse” he mentions was specifically the fact that while the President must submit to questions in Parliament four times a year, he has only done so once in 2014 to avoid harsh grilling from the opposition; and while the speaker of Parliament is bound by law to be non-partisan, she is, in fact, the ANC chairperson.
“The ANC now sees that it cannot rewrite the rules as it sees fit to protect the President,” says Maimane. “It cannot abuse Parliament for its own political ends. The opposition, united on this score, will not let that stand.”
In some ways, the timing is good for the ANC. The holiday season, in South Africa traditionally from the first week in December to around mid January, will have given time for huddles and team talks, and given some space for reflection and discussion. Jacob Zuma’s own political future will be in sharp focus in the new year.
Du Preez is of a mind that the rocky current political environment is a consequence of a fragmenting ANC “under its worst leader in its history, but that South Africa will emerge from this in a better state than that foreseen by many commentators”.
He points out that South Africa’s political landscape has always been volatile; and has experienced poor presidents and leaders over many generations. “Somehow, we muddle through as ordinary South Africans who love this country.”