Fake unity — and what to look forward to

Posted on December 10, 2017


Unity is the main internal rallying cry as South Africa’s governing ANC  heads towards its faction ridden elective conference next weekend. It comes from various sources within the ANC as well as from its trade union alliance affiliate, Cosatu.

Yet this alliance has never seemed so disunited, a fact summed up by the political and organisational shambles that was the 21-ward by-election in Metsimaholo municipality in the Free State. That the Independent Electoral Commission also revealed itself to be lacking in competence, is a worrying feature going forward.

But the political line-up and reactions to it within alliance structures showed clearly that deep schisms exist. What we now have continues to look like a carnival of opportunism, riddled with the corrosive elements of self interest and greed. The focus is the battle for ANC succession and the major question appears to be whose knives are hovering over whose backs at any given time.

In a decision made before President Jacob Zuma sacked SA Communist Party general secretary Blade Nzimande as higher education minister, the SACP decided to stand candidates in Metsimaholo. This pitted the SACP against the ANC — and the SACP did so with the backing of local Cosatu supporters.

This was scarcely surprising since Cosatu has, for more than 20 years, officially regarded the SACP as the workers’ party. It was acknowledged as such at a national conference of the federation where all affiliates were encouraged to give financial and organisational support to the SACP.

Significantly, the mover of that motion was Gwede Mantashe, then general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers and who is now the powerful secretary general of the ANC. However, he is also a former chairman of the SACP and still sits on that party’s central committee.

Cosatu is also heavily engaged in the current ANC presidential race, announcing last week that its central executive committee would set up a task team to join ANC deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa’s campaign to succeed Jacob Zuma. Controversial Cosatu second deputy president, Zingiswa Losi, also appears on Ramaphosa’s slate as a future deputy secretary general of the ANC.

However, in the wake of the Metsimaholo shambles, the Cosatu national executive stressed that it did not support any party other than the ANC. This was something of a rap over the knuckles for the SACP and amounted to a reiteration of the call to unite under the ANC banner.

Yet the president of Cosatu, S’dumo Dlamini, serves on both the SACP central committee and its politburo, the structures that made the decision to stand independently of the ANC. Fellow politburo members, Senzeni Zokwana and Thulas Nxesi, respectively national chairperson and his deputy in the SACP, also remain in the ANC as cabinet members, supporting and promoting ANC policies.

What unites all sides is the cry for unity. But unity with whom and for what purpose is not made clear. However, because the image of the ANC is now badly battered and soiled by evidence of venal behaviour and corruption, many cries for unity are accompanied by appeals to a mythical “golden past” of the organisation.

But ANC documents show clearly that the movement has for decades faced the reality within its ranks of corruption, nepotism and the abuse of rights. The rot was not weeded out in the years of exile and has flourished in the new dispensation. Principles, and policies based on them, were buried beneath the compromises necessary for unity at all costs.

Metaphorically, it was a case of inviting oil and other pollutants into the waters of principle. As with reality, the pollutants tend to float to the top, poisoning the water.

South Africa’s national motto, since the year 2000, has been (in the now extinct !Xam language) ǃke e: /xarra //ke. It translates literally as “diverse people unite”. But just as under apartheid, where the oppressed could not unite with the oppressor, so too should honest folk not seek to turn a blind eye to — and allow unity — with rogues and robbers.

Over next weekend, little seems likely to change, certainly in the short term, but the labour movement — and Cosatu in particular — may be further damaged. Perhaps the abused Latin motto of what was one of the most racist apartheid municipalities of the past — Germiston — should be adopted and applied.

It was Salus populi suprema lex: The will (or wellbeing) of the people should be the supreme law. But that could only happen if the majority of people (and not any elite) held the real power. That is something to work for and look forward to.