Posted on October 2, 2010


A sad chapter in labour movement history ended this week with the formal dismissal of Willie Madisha as president of the SA Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu). And while there has been much concentration of the machinations, claims and counter claims surrounding his case these are merely symptoms of a fundamental contradiction at the heart of the governing ANC-led alliance.

Who is telling or has told the truth about alleged cash donations, disciplinary procedures, credit card misuse and professional misconduct may all be resolved before the Equality Court. But the underlying political reason for this eruption of hostilities remains clouded by confusion and tends still to be seen primarily as a fallout over who supported Jacob Zuma and who Thabo Mbeki as president of the ANC.

As a trade unionist, Madisha argued that neither should be supported, but that the union movement should concentrate on building its strength to demand alternative policies from whoever led the ANC. At the same time, as an ANC member, he felt free to support whichever candidate he thought best, while stressing that unity of the alliance was a priority.

He insisted there was no contradiction, but this was a classic example of the “two hats” argument that raged within the ANC-led alliance more than a decade ago. It was well summed up in 1997 by a member of the SA National Civics Organisation (Sanco).

Referring to Sanco members who were also ANC councillors, he asked: “How will a Sanco leader, who also holds the position of councillor, conduct himself if he is called on to lead a march of residents against the local authority? Who will he lead the march against — himself?”

This is a problem that has for decades confronted the members of the ANC alliance as opposing factions fought for control of what is now the ruling party. The stakes today are so much higher, but the questions remain the same.

For those committed to the alliance, there seem two choices: either support everyone being made to “wear the same hat”, by one faction seizing control over the ANC and, through this, hoping to control the levers of state power, or accept unity in diversity, with constant transparent debate among factions.

However, this latter course raises the prospect of a breach in alliance unity as contradictions come to the fore. And unity has always been stressed as a priority above all else.

Madisha fell foul of that by opposing the tactic that won the day for the “one hat” brigade at the ANC congress in Polokwane in December. Thanks to the organisational muscle of Cosatu, the support of the SA Communist Party (SACP) and a willingness to forge alliances with business and other interest groups, this faction has made government now theoretically answerable to an ANC executive which claims, through the ANC, to be the political representative of the population.

Yet the ANC has only 621 237 members, including almost all of the claimed 53 000 SACP members, out of a population of 48 million, against 1.6 million or more for Cosatu. At the same time, the economic policies of Cosatu are, in many ways, diametrically opposed to those of the ANC.

A senior Sadtu official explains: “Things have changed. Willie was great in the days of shopfloor democracy, but now we are in the era of democratic centralism. He can’t cope with that. He’s just too blunt; too outspoken.”

In other words, shopfloor democracy is history? If that is the case, perhaps a policy of backwards to a better, more democratic future might be in order.

Posted in: Archive - 2008