Where are we now?

RW Johnson says COSATU is weaker than it appears while the Zulu factor is decisive

Compare the following: the latest issue of New Left Review[1] - the senior journal of the international Left and by far its most intelligent representative - carries an essay by T.J. Clark, "For a Left with No Future". A key section reads:

"By "left" I mean a root and branch opposition to capitalism. But such an opposition has nothing to gain...from a series of overweening and fantastical predictions about capitalism's coming to an end...Left politics is immobilized at the level of theory, and therefore of practice, by the idea that it should spend its time turning over the entrails of the present for signs of catastrophe and salvation. ..Is this pessimism? Well, yes. But what other tonality seems possible in the face of the last ten years? How are we meant to understand the arrival of real ruination in the order of global finance...and the almost complete failure of left responses to it to resonate beyond the ranks of the faithful? Or to put the question another way: if the past decade is not proof that there are no circumstances capable of reviving the left in its nineteenth and twentieth century forms, then what would proof be like?"

And on the other hand here in South Africa we have Irvin Jim of Numsa demanding the nationalisation of just about everything (without compensation, of course) and an immediate advance to socialism, while Blade Nzimande on May day urged that Cosatu "advance the cause of national liberation and socialism" by joining WFTU, the World Federation of Trade Unions.

In WFTU, as I pointed out in a previous article[2], dominant influence is shared between China and North Korea, both countries which do not allow free trade unions and where the super-oppression of labour reaches Stalinist heights. It goes without saying, of course, that both Messrs Jim and Nzimande are full of the "overweening and fantastical predictions" of the collapse of capitalism which Clark mocks.

There is, of course, a very large intellectual gulf between the world of the NLR and that of Messrs Jim and Nzimande, but one is still left with the question of how we should understand the latter two. Should we just treasure them as rare, almost freakish throwbacks to a bygone age, prize exhibits in our own little Jurassic Park? Should we see them as akin to Big Tent revivalists, always prophesying doom and offering us their own wacky, gimcrack road to salvation? Or are they merely farceurs? After all, what could be more farcical than the SACP winding itself up to speak on behalf of "millions of black South Africans", saying it is "deeply incensed" and "outraged" - by what? By the Brett Murray portrait of the unzipped Zuma which, the Party says, is "insulting, disrespectful, and frankly disgusting and sadistic". Yes, that's what it's come down to.

Sadism is now about having a schoolboy joke with a dirty picture and the SACP rallies to protect the threatened dignity of the Big Man. Or again, Irvin Jim simply demands that "the Freedom Charter be implemented" as if all that's required is one big decision and state control will do the rest. But the Charter declared, for example, that the "doors of learning and culture shall be opened!" - and here we are, 18 years into ANC rule and the government still can't get text books into the schools of Limpopo province before mid-year. That is the sort of state we have.

More generally, the left's position is also quite farcical. For consider. Nzimande and Irvin Jim are both part of a left which very much wanted to put Jacob Zuma in power. Three years later it is obvious that all the objectives of the left are further away than they were before: unemployment is higher, as is inequality and as is corruption. The DA has shot up to 24% and now governs 27 municipalities instead of 14.

The ANC is so riven by factionalism that, for the first time, there are open challenges to a sitting ANC leader from within his own cabinet. Zuma himself and his family have all become multi-millionaires and money is poured into Nkandla rather in the manner that Houphouet-Boigny poured money into Yamoussoukro, his home town, ultimately making it the capital and building a basilica there bigger than St Peter's.

Moreover - and this too is new - the President is openly a laughing stock. The greater the solemnity of SACP and Cosatu declarations in his favour, the higher the laughter rises. Yet somehow or other the left is trying to convince itself, against every possible impression and fact, that the current regime represents progress and that Zuma must therefore be given a second term.

For make no mistake, that is what Nzimande and Sidumo Dlamini, the Cosatu president, want. The Left will end up rolled over by the wave, as they did before, and will not say a word against it. What are they going to do - back billionaires like Ramaphosa or Sexwale? They will discover their own reasons for voting for more corruption, more unemployment, more inequality. Jim will no doubt come up with some brainless slogan, Cronin will look for something more Althusserian. The result will be the same.

Those who the Gods wish to destroy.......

The reason why this is so is simply expressed: the necessity of Nguni domination and within it the power of Zulu tribalism. The key fact about South Africa is the higher rainfall down its East Coast, the resulting vast grassy terraces and valleys of KZN and the Eastern Cape, the larger number of cattle and crops that can therefore be sustained there and the correspondingly large numbers of Swazis, Zulus and Xhosas.

Politically this means Nguni dominance, which has been an iron rule in the ANC for over sixty years. Of course, in mid-term one can have amusements, ambitious actors like Malema who wander on stage hoping for laughs and to shock, but this is not very real. He is, as they say in Zululand, just a Pedi boy and since when has that been enough to stand against a Zulu warrior? The same is even truer of Sexwale and Ramaphosa. One is Northern Sotho, the other Venda. Can either command the support of even their home province, Limpopo? No, of course not.

The fact is that ANC rule has created its own little micro-world in Gauteng where ministers and their top civil servants meet, boggle at the utter denouement of ANC governance, read the Sowetan and Business Day and talk to one another. From all this they conclude that everyone is in despair over Zuma and his frailties, that the country is yearning for an alternative. They begin to imagine that even Mbeki was better and indeed, that ABZ - Anyone But Zuma - would be better.

On the ground the fact is that KZN is absolutely solid for Zuma, as is Mpumalanga, that this already gives Zuma about 30% of the vote and that he has, at the least, large minorities everywhere else. What has happened, in effect, is that Inkatha has won after all. A Zulu nationalist candidate  - who very much resembles the Zulu king, complete with polygamy, ostentatious expenditure on the royal palace, and endless pork barrel for the faithful - has rounded up the largest ethnic group, has struck a deal with traditional leaders by offering to legitimate their authoritarian rule throughout the countryside and is sweeping along the heads of the SACP and Cosatu because they are, after all, Zulus too and know that their ambitions are best furthered by being folded in with their tribe - Nzimande can even dream of a Deputy President's spot.

Except, of course, Inkatha was actually far better. Buthelezi dominated KZN politics for over thirty years but he took no more wives, built himself no palace, and his children didn't all become overnight millionaires. But Buthelezi was a well-educated Zulu prince who rather looked down on his nephew, the King, whereas the semi-educated Zuma clearly looks up to him and tries to ape him.

But Zuma remains by far the most likely winner. The only way to prevent this was to split the Zulu bloc. This was attempted but the attempt has now clearly failed. Last week's KZN Conference of the ANC resulted in an absolutely solid front for 100% Zulu-boy Zuma.

There was even talk of upping KZN's current 250,000 ANC members to 300,000 or even 1 million, a recipe for permanent Zulu rule. Anyone who wants to take power away from the Ngunis in general or the Zulus in particular should start right there. There were splits, corruption scandals galore and even assassinations in the KZN ANC over the past three years but when the issue comes down to the crucial one of keeping a Zulu president in office, solidarity is complete. And this is the secret of Zulu power: not just numbers but a cohesion matched by no other group.

The ANC - and "progressives" in general - would like to believe that tribalism doesn't exist in South Africa. If they wish, as a lifestyle choice,  to live in a private fairyland, that's fine. For anyone who wants to get real, well there it is.

The Cosatu Paper Tiger

Anyone who has studied the history of the European labour movement cannot but be struck by the difference between the British and German trade unions on the one hand and their counterparts in Spain, Italy and France, all with anarcho-syndicalist roots. No one has written better about this world than Georges Sorel. Why should it be that when the French CGT or Italian CGIL go on strike they stage marches, demonstrations, that there is violence, fights with the police, broken windows?

The answer, of course, lies in their weakness. Their memberships are small, their strike funds nugatory. They can't really sustain long strikes, so they have to make their anger tell in dramatic fashion, to threaten employers that unless they give in there will be a major rupture in the social fabric.

In Britain or Germany the unions have large memberships and considerable strike funds. If they withdraw their labour they can afford simply to sit on their hands and gradually squeeze the employers. That is to say, there is an inverse correlation between union strength and how noisy and violently they behave.

This must be borne in mind as one observes Cosatu which is nothing if not noisy and violent. The conventional belief is that Cosatu is very strong, that it is able to dominate the alliance with the ANC, to veto ANC policies and to use its superior numbers and organization to determine even ANC internal decisions like the succession struggle. In fact Cosatu is increasingly weak. It has less than two million members in a population of fifty million.

There is a great deal of corruption in its ranks and its strike funds are tiny. Many of its constituent unions have all but forgotten how proper trade unionism works and how to conduct proper strikes. During the NUMSA strike of some two years ago I spoke to some small metal-working employers. The minute Irvin Jim had launched the strike armed thugs turned up at their factories and closed them down by threatening to beat up or kill any worker who did not quit work at once. This is simply how a NUMSA strike works - and it is by no means an exception.

It is exactly like the apartheid police who, having discovered how quickly and easily they got "confessions" once they put electrodes on people's genitals, rather lost interest in doing mundane police work like collecting evidence, interviewing witnesses and the like. Using thuggish methods is so much quicker and easier and, in the case of unions, it also means you don't have to have a large well-organized membership.

As long as you can rent out a few hundred lumpen thugs - they're usually not workers at all - that'll probably do. Every township, after all, has its quota of people willing to carry out necklacing, so rent-a-thug is an easier business in South Africa than, say, car-hire. And every Cosatu action is just as violent as its leaders want it to be. Post-facto declarations in which the leaders tut-tut at violence and say it was nothing to do with them are simply a ritual, rather like Al Capone deploring gang warfare and displaying a wide-eyed innocence after Bloody Sunday.

The violence which followed the DA's decision to march against Cosatu's blocking of youth employment subsidies fits exactly with this analysis. The violence itself was unsurprising: Cosatu is naturally thuggish. But what was striking was that as it became clear that the DA march would go ahead Cosatu became deeply defensive, issuing one wordy declaration after another: there was no doubt that it felt deeply threatened and indeed began to use words like "invasion" and to talk of the DA "declaring war".

These were clear signs of how far Cosatu has become simply an agitprop organization, more at home with manifestoes, declarations, windy rhetoric and press conferences than with the hard and humdrum work of labour organization. The day will come, sooner or later, when this paper tiger will over-reach its strength and when its weakness will become plain for all to see.

That moment is not yet - and for now Cosatu is able to get by on an impression of strength rather than its reality, partly because the ANC too is slowly becoming a paper tiger in the same way that all ruling African nationalist parties tend to become. Every ANC Secretary-General's report on party organization is a litany of dysfunctional fiction al branches, of runaway factionalism, of the rule of money, power and position over all else. The party of Mandela is long dead. Indeed, Mandela is fond of saying that when he gets to heaven he'll join the ANC branch there. Just as well, one feels: it's only in fairyland that his sort of ANC still exists.

Over and over again we have seen African leaders and their parties die or be overthrown - Nkrumah and his CPP, Sekou Toure's PDG, Amilcar Cabral's PAIGC - and suddenly the apparently monolithic ruling party dissolves before one's very eyes, usually amidst cheering crowds who tear down the party symbols and images. For these parties too had become mainly about money, power and position, had become hollowed out of genuinely popular content. This process is already well advanced in the ANC and already its remaining vital sinews are either factional or tribal. One reason why the ANC leans so strongly on Cosatu it that the ANC itself is becoming weaker.

The Grass Roots vs Electoralism

The ANC's great conundrum is that its grass roots are pulling it in a direction opposite to that required by the electorate. Of course, it was designed to be a parti unique, the single party in a one party state, a situation in which neither the electorate nor the grass roots matter much and where philosopher-king rulers like Thabo Mbeki can try to make their personal inclinations into national philosophies - Consciensism, Ujaama, African Socialism, Negritude, have what you will. Mbeki was indeed formed for that single-party world and did attempt something similar with the African Renaissance, the African century, Nepad and so forth. These are but breezes in the wind, easily discarded and forgotten.

Importantly, in the (tiny) ANC of the 1950s and the exile ANC of the 1960-90 period, every important decision was taken by a small self-referential elite. There was no mass membership, which made things easy. Mbeki was also at home in that world and was undone by the fact that the ANC, once it returned home, inevitably grew grass roots. He thought he could flout that by sacking a Deputy President from the biggest ethnic group, by filling his cabinet with loyal Xhosas and by bullying and manipulating the rest. We know what happened.

Even in the US or Europe parties are naturally forced to the centre by their need to woo marginal voters but face a quite different set of gravitational laws when they have to woo their own grass roots. No Republican can get the presidential nomination in the US unless he/she placates the born again evangelical Tea Party nuts, but the key to winning lies in wooing quite opposite types. In South Africa this equation is hugely strengthened by the regional and tribal configuration of the African majority.

The more Zuma comes under fire the more he will fall back upon his solid KZN bloc vote. How do you win that? First, you consolidate your Northern KZN base - essentially Zulu peasant voters who were often Inkatha until recently. Then armed with that you gradually attach the central (Durban) and southern sections of KZN, liberally bestowing pork-barrel favours of every kind, until you have built a solid provincial bloc. Then you add Mpumalanga because it harbours a large Zulu minority and even more (Nguni) Swazis. At that point you can say "come and get me" to anyone.

What this means is that the key lies in pleasing the Zulu peasantry of northern KZN which is, after all, not unlike its country cousins in the centre and south of that province. This is the locus classicus of the Zuma vote. The ANC's great problem is that it exists within a multi-party system and that the problems and world view of the northern KZN Zulu peasant are not the same as (for example) those of Cape Coloureds or urban Johannesburgers of whatever race.

Already the racial minorities have detached themselves from the ANC and the DA has become increasingly competitive even amongst black voters. The real problem that the ANC faces can thus be neatly expressed: nothing seems more certain than that Zuma will get a second term, and yet nothing will create a more advantageous environment for the growth of the DA than another seven years of Zuma-ism, which is to say corruption, drift, self-enrichment and tribalism.

If Zuma wins in 2014, woe betide the ANC in the municipal elections of 2016. People forget that after 1994 Tony Leon began to plan on the basis of the DP (as it then was) becoming the leading Opposition party by 1999. To most this seemed fanciful. He achieved it by a wide margin. Some, at least, of the ANC elite can descry this danger and are trying to ring alarm bells. It is a safe bet that no one much will listen until it's far too late. This has usually been South Africa's story. Oddly, FW De Klerk provides a rare case of a leader who did wake up in time - and he is still paying a high price for that.

RW Johnson


[1] NLR No.74, March-April 2012, pp.53-76.

[2] "Irvin Jim, North Korea and the WFTU", PoliticsWeb, 13.2.2012


This article was published with the assistance of the Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung für die Freiheit (FNF). The views presented in the article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of FNF.

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