A major political battle was won and lost in South Africa over the past week and more. But the war is far from over and it will continue to have severe repercussions, not least among the labour movement contingents on the fringes and those in the midst of this internecine feuding that includes factional battles within all three alliance partners.
The latest battle, the badly planned and ham-fistedly executed attempt by the National Prosecuting Authority and the Hawks to charge finance minister Pravin Gordhan with fraud, backfired. It was a classic example of tactical arrogance, but it did not seriously undermine the bulwark of the Zuma/ANC establishment; the commanding heights are still under the control of the commander in chief who retains his backers, that include the Gupta family and perhaps a slim majority on the ANC executive.
Also in reserve, perhaps to help police a future state of emergency, is the effective private army of proclaimed MK veterans under the command of the fiercely loyalist deputy defence minister, Kebby Maphatsoe. He claims it is an 80 000-strong force, but this is almost certainly a considerable exaggeration. However, he also has support in the army among the young recruits sent to Uganda for training in the early 1990s.
So the messy political war will continue, unless the small army of compromised politicians, trade unionists and commentators suddenly shift their loyalties. In which case there will be considerable tumult before everything settles down in much the same way, with different faces in established positions.
Whatever happens, ANC-aligned Cosatu, still the country’s largest labour federation, is likely to be a major casualty, especially if fellow alliance member, the Communist Party (SACP) leaves the tripartite grouping. This seems likely if President Jacob Zuma remains in charge and the SACP then decides to leave the alliance and go it alone in the 2019 elections.
The possibility of the SACP being joined in leaving the alliance by a rump or even the majority of Cosatu unionists was underlined last week when the National Education Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu) became the second Cosatu union to publicly call on Zuma to resign. The general secretary of Nehawu is Fikile Majola who also serves on the central committee of an SACP that has become increasingly critical of Zuma.
However, Nehawu does not seem likely to share the same fate as the National Union of Metalworkers (Numsa), the first Cosatu union to call publicly for Zuma to go. Numsa was expelled from the federation for its dissidence that included a decision to leave the alliance. Nehawu was the prime mover in giving Numsa the boot, and in the subsequent expulsion of the also dissident Cosatu general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi.
By then, both Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim and Vavi, who had not held senior posts in the SACP, had left that party. But they remain, by definition, communists, their positions perhaps best summed up in the Numsa congress resolution: “The South African Communist Party (SACP) leadership has become embedded in the state and is failing to act as the vanguard of the working class.”
Although there were reports to the contrary, Nehawu’s approach last week was not a call to leave the alliance. Like the SACP, the union wants to retain ties with the ANC and thinks this is possible if Zuma goes and deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa takes over. However, it admits that “…it is clear that the revolution is taking a disastrous trajectory as it needlessly lurches from crisis to crisis”.
How having one of the country’s leading capitalists in the presidency would change the country’s economic trajectory to the “socialism” the SACP espouses, is not explained. But the statement is remarkably similar to one made by Numsa after its special congress in December 2013 and for which the union was castigated by Nehawu and other “loyalist” Cosatu unions. At the time Numsa noted: “The Alliance is dysfunctional, in crisis and paralysed. It is dominated by infighting and factionalism and fails to meet regularly.”
This is now clearly perceived much more widely to be the case. Included among the newly disgruntled are some cabinet ministers and ANC members of parliament who, until now, have slavishly toed the line. This week they did so again — precisely as predicted — when a parliamentary vote of no confidence in Zuma was tabled this past Thursday.
But they do not, in the final analysis, matter, so long as the majority of the indebted and often hand-picked ANC national executive stays loyal to Number One. However, it was interesting to note that Zuma, Ramaphosa and the vociferously loyal deputy ANC secretary-general, Jesse Duarte, apparently found it necessary to verbally stiffen the spines of the ANC caucus before the “no confidence” parliamentary session.
From the looks of it, the next crunch time is likely to arrive next month in Cape Town when Numsa, as the nation’s largest union, stages a national congress. This could see a further splintering of Cosatu if and when a new federation is formed. A spin-off could be the beginnings of a long promised “workers’ party”