Cosatu spokesperson Patrick Craven was amazed at the media interest shown in the eleventh national congress of the federation. Shortly before the congress opened its doors, 347 media accreditations had been processed, with additional enquiries still being dealt with.
What was obvious was that the widespread “mini Mangaung” hype generated by the media itself — this column excepted — was generally believed: metaphoric blood on the floor among the 3 000 delegates was expected. Even if it did not come to pass, President Jacob Zuma, as keynote speaker, might well deliver some comment, especially about the mayhem at Marikana, that would warrant such media attention.
But there was no day of the long knives on Monday as the entire sitting executive was elected unopposed, with only the police and prisons union, Popcru raising an un-seconded proposal that additional nominations from the floor be considered. And Zuma’s predictable input about the need for unity was hardly headline material and the media battalions retreated, leaving behind a largely local journalistic core trying to assess the width and depth of the political and ideological cracks beneath the often confusing rhetoric.
However, Zuma did make an apparently unreported, off-the-cuff reference to the Bible that summed up the ideological root of the broad church governing alliance: he appealed to congress to learn from Christians who, at church every Sunday, were reminded of what they should do and what their roles were.
In the process he noted, without elaboration, that Christians were reminded of John Chapter 14, verse 6 just as alliance members should be reminded of the words of ANC heroes such as former president, Chief Albert Luthuli.
The reference to the Book of John is the Biblical verse frequently paraphrased politically as: “We are the truth, the life and the way. No-one comes to the revolution but by us.” Perhaps Zuma did not mean it as the ANC-led alliance being the only true way forward. But the comment reinforced the analysis of academic Somadoda Fikeni who, in rather controversial circumstances, addressed the congress as a substitute speaker.
Fikeni noted that what has generally not been appreciated is the way the ANC alliance has managed to deal with contradictions, taking matters to the brink and then pulling back. This, he said, was “the genius of the alliance”. He could have added: “It is also the major fault.”
Because, as Fikeni agrees, the manner in which the pull-backs are achieved, is simply by painting a veneer of unity at all costs over often bitter divisions in what is seen as the only true way forward. Radical rhetoric and acronym-laden policy proposals — RDP, Gear, Asgisa and NGP — also create verbal screens that disguise the fact that nothing, basically, has changed.
The same approach, accompanied by often wooly rhetoric was clearly in evidence at this Cosatu congress. However, the fact that the congress took place at what is arguably a critical and possibly defining moment in the country’s history, was also acknowledged — and this raised many concerns about the future.
Acknowledgement came, officially, in the secretariat political report presented by general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi. This was criticised, roundly at at some length, by the ANC, members of the SA Communist Party (SACP) and various delegates for being too negative about the alliance.
Some of the same delegates who had earlier opposed allowing Fikeni — a critic of government policy who is not a trade unionist — to address the congress, questioned whether the report had been written by Cosatu members or by the academic. The debate finally ended with Vavi pointing out that all affiliates, as well as the ANC and the SACP, had been sent the report two months earlier and been asked to comment on it. The few comments received were taken into account and amendments made.
What annoyed the critics on the congress floor was the stress in the report on trade union independence and an admission that the alliance faced a crisis. They failed to note that, in what is now standard procedure, the critical aspects of the report were balanced out by professions of unconditional loyalty such as: “The political task of the working class in this juncture is to defend the [ANC] leadership collective.”
So, amid warnings about the danger of paralysis at this crucial period, the same tactics were applied with little, if any, consideration of the likely consequences these may have in coming months and years. These could be severe, but the ANC-led alliance is still seen by all factions as the only vehicle to the future.
Behind the scenes the struggles will continue and the precarious balance of multiple contradictions along with the potential for further paralysis may be broken, perhaps in an authoritarian manner or via the development of a radically democratic alternative, referred to, especially by Vavi, as a “Lula Moment”.
A broad hint of this alternative, along with implied criticism of the present situation is contained on the second page of each of the ten books of reports and resolutions produced for the congress. It is the brief last interview given in March 1993 by assassinated SACP leader Chris Hani, in which Hani outlined what a new ANC government should do.
Hani called for a culture of “service to the people” that would include cutting down the “salaries of ministers, of parliamentarians and all [their] subsidies”. In an ironic twist, the congress began with Vavi reading out the interview on the very day that the pay rise to R2.6 million to the key note speaker was announced.
Hani also called on the ANC to allow the “formation of many democratic formations” that would include “independent trade unions”, a fact Vavi underlined — to the annoyance of several delegates. Yet Vavi was elected unopposed. As were the other office bearers.
In this respect, Cosatu in Midrand may be seen as a rehearsal for Mangaung, in the sense that the leader will remain in place, perhaps professing a new, radical way forward while growing divisions remain.