The myth of a ‘Lula moment’

Posted on November 30, 2012


Zwelinzima Vavi, general secretary of South Africa’s major trade union federation, Cosatu, has coined or popularised three catch phrases, all of which have caused a mixture of controversy, anger, support and confusion in various quarters.  The first was “a ticking time bomb” (of poverty and unemployment);  the second a call in September for a “Lula moment” apparently to defuse this time bomb;  and, finally, last week, the jibe that governing ANC no longer stood for African National Congress, but for “Absolutely No Consequences”.

All of these are being sifted over and discussed as the crucial ANC elective conference at Mangaung looms.  And while there continues to be much concentration on the possible votes of branches and provinces at Mangaung, the two most organised groups in the governing alliance, Cosatu and the SA Communist Party (SACP), have given unequivocal support to President Jacob Zuma for a second term in office.

This is the reason that there was considerable anger in official ANC and alliance circles about Vavi’s remark about what ANC now represents.  However, the comment also generated a fair amount of mirth and approval in others.

It has also, to the chagrin of party loyalists, been hailed by critics of both the ANC and, in particular, of the party’s present leadership.  To loyalists Vavi’s remark was tantamount to treason, to “giving support to the enemy”.

But it stuck a chord with many in the trade union rank and file, which is where Vavi’s support lies;  it is an open secret that he does not have majority support within the Cosatu executive.

And this is why most commentators become confused and accuse Vavi of inconsistency.  Does he or does he not, for example, support a second term for Zuma? — he often appears not to, but then, as the Cosatu leader, he unequivocally backs that second term.

However, he provided the answer to this apparent contradiction last week when he refused to be drawn on his personal preference, but noted that Cosatu supported the second term proposition.  In other words, whatever his personal view, the majority of the Cosatu leadership took the pro-Zuma position and he was therefore bound by it.

This was a classic example of what the SACP deems to be democratic centralism in action.  It means that what most of the Cosatu executive decides, becomes binding on the federation as a whole.  The fact that most — if not all —  of the Cosatu executive are SACP members obviously helps this process.

However, critics point out that such decisions are not put to the vote of shop stewards, let alone rank and file union members.  This form of decision making, they say, is better described as  bureaucratic or centralised democracy; orders passed down by a leadership clique or elite.

So while Vavi has provided several hints that he is not happy with another term for Zuma, he remains loyal to the decision making concept and practice of “democratic centralism”.  At the same time, his regular verbal sallies against corruption and excesses in high places have also garnered him considerable support at rank and file level, whether Zuma supporters or not.

It is this popularity that played an important role in halting a planned challenge to him from the floor of the September Cosatu congress.  Other factors were the events at Marikana and the revelation that possible challenger, Frans Baleni of the National Union of Mineworkers, had accepted a 108 per cent pay rise, a fact that ruffled many trade union feathers.

It was at this congress that Vavi made his comment about a “Lula moment”.  This was made in the context of the fact that Brazil’s immediate past president, Luis Inacio Lula da Silva had been invited to address the Cosatu gathering.  In the event, Lula could not make it, and his visit was rescheduled for November.

However, the message was clear:  Lula and Brazil possessed the answers to South Africa’s abiding problems of poverty and unemployment.  In other words, the means to defuse Vavi’s ticking time bomb.

There was also the claim that Lula had only been able to work his magic after being given a second term.  The implication again was clear:  coupled with Lula’s recipes, a second term for Zuma would spell more jobs, more prosperity and less poverty for South Africa.

While some Cosatu delegates balked at the term “Lula moment” and wanted, instead, to call for a “Freedom Charter moment”, most seemly bought into this idea that an economic panacea was at hand.  But now more doubters are starting to emerge — and with good reason.

In the first place, the whole argument about national solutions ignores the reality of our global “village”, where surpluses from one region or country undercut similar products in others.  This is the basis, for example, of the present row about Brazil, the world’s  major poultry exporter, “dumping” cut price poultry on our market.

Both Vavi and the Freedom Charter moment supporters also ignored local labour history.  Because what Lula and his Workers’ Party (PT) did in Brazil, was, in broad terms, outlined in the 1996 “Social Equity” document of combined South African trade union movement.

The PT placed redistribution before growth, effectively introduced a basic income grant, extended public works, raised the minimum wage and provided finance to get small farmers producing.  At the same time there was a boom in commodities such as iron ore and soya that Brazil produces in massive quantities.

All of this combined to make for a 7.5 per cent economic growth rate in 2010, an election year.  But last year, growth slumped to 2.7 per cent and there are few economists who predict that Brazil’s economy will breach 1.6 per cent this year.

Because, like South Africa and everywhere else, for that matter, Brazil is part of the global village and subject to all the vagaries of market prices, currency manipulation and other pressures exerted by an economic system broadly managed by the very limited form of democratic control that citizens exercise while more and more of them are made permanently redundant.