Why the Zuma coalition will unravel

Stanley Uys predicts that the new regime won't last, in its current form, for long

Whether the "wily Zulu" Jacob Zuma survives personally or not, the political regime around him certainly will not. Before its five-year term of office is completed, it will either have changed its whole character, or just crumbled.

The evidence for this forecast has already stacked up. For South Africans (many whites among them) to sit back now with a whiskey, debate whether the ANC (2008 version) can settle down to running the country by making the odd adjustment here and there, is talking to the fairies. Not a month passes now without the ANC leadership dragging the government down notch by notch. Give South Africa two or three more years of this kind of "governance," and it will formally rank as one of Africa's "failed" states. A preliminary study of "failed" government departments is an exercise in itself.

At the heart of the matter, is a witches' brew of politicians, trade unionists, testosterone driven youth, the would-be upwardly mobile and miscellaneous others. Apart from a leftward tilt, and an agreed pursuit of power and greed, the ANC 2008 has no cause in common, no shared chemistry, no "colonialism" to take apartheid's place. It's every man for himself. The ANC (1912-2008) at least had a legend - not a continuous, lofty one, but a powerful legend nevertheless.

White rule, magnified by apartheid, was the source of this legend; and in his post-1994 arrogance Thabo Mbeki engaged in a running war with the labour movement, creating hostilities that should never have been allowed to deteriorate as far as they did. Presently, these hostilities are being kept active by racist leaders whose mission is to keep "colonialism" alive, long after only a few withered bones litter the old battle terrains.

The ANC 2008 has nothing remotely like this legend in prospect. Its supporters include a mishmash who offer no cause for pride. No doubt the majority of ordinary ANC members are ordinary decent folk who would like to belong to a party of which they can feel proud; but from one end of Africa to the other, with the odd exception, thuggish leaders are the tone-setters. Here it might be noted Gareth van Onselen's (May 28) reference to the "garbage" spewed out by the ANCYL and the menacing MK (ANC) Military Veterans' Association.

On balance, although the ANCYL has been Zuma's most vocal supporter, the street muscle has come from Cosatu, a trade union federation with 21 affiliated unions and a combined membership of about 1.95 million. Obviously, Cosatu leaders cannot represent these members at general elections, such as the one on April 22, because it is not their job to function as a political party - and anyway they do not have a clue whether the average unionist backs, the ANC, or Cope, or any of the other 24 parties that contested the elections. Yet they proceed with utter self-confidence as if they had a mandate to support Zuma - an elected leader for whom both Cosatu and the SACP on occasion have shown open contempt.

As for the SA Communist Party and the Young Communist League, their strategy over the decades has been never to contest an election: rather to piggy-back into office on the ANC. Last year, they said they had 50,000 members; and that since the April 22 elections 37 of the 400 members of the National Assembly are communists (and 62 in the provincial legislatures). Yet from this meagre vantage point, the SACP claim to be South Africa's "vanguard" party, churning out interminable documents in which it positions itself as South Africa's government-designate and waging a tedious ideological war against capitalism.

Cosatu does the rough street work, while the SACP does the Left's long-term thinking and helps plot day-to-day tactics - without elected representation in any national, provincial or local government institution. Could anything be more patronising than the quite overt moves the SACP has made to indicate that one day it will try to take over the ANC, and that meanwhile it will proceed with its Medium Term Vision (MTV) so as not to overplay its hand?

Exactly what the ANCYL represents, except to clamber on board Zuma's gravy train, is unknown, so it can be assumed that it is Cosatu and the SACP who have the most specific designation in mind, namely shifting South Africa's economy to the left.

This where things start to go wrong. With the April 22 election results have come unionist (national, township, rural, etc.) expectations. The country's biggest trade union, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), wants a 15% wage increase (when the mining industry is feeling the worldwide credit crunch and sacking workers). The NUM warns that the labour movement's support for the ANC in the April 22 elections will not prevent it from protesting against Zuma's new administration.

The opposition Democratic Alliance notes that the unions increasingly are resorting to strikes - "hijacking issues of national importance." It quotes the taxi drivers' threatened strike to paralyse the transport system for next year's World Football Cup. Cosatu sounds the alarm that the ANC leadership as "pulling out all the stops to ensure the unions do not embarrass the Zuma administration as the recession depends."

In the Sunday Times (May 30), editor Mondli Makhanya explains how in 1996 SACP activists set out to "capture" the ANC, and tried again in 2002. But "the left was marginalised and its leaders were treated like lepers." Thabo Mbeki, then president, "made noises which left little doubt that he wanted the leftist allies to pack up and leave the running of the ANC to him and his ideological fellow travellers."

This raises an interesting question: if Mbeki had been more conciliatory to the left - the game that is played worldwide - would conciliation have been possible? If so, as it had been over the entire ANC history since 1912, would black politics be very different today? If South Africa's race conflicts are not soluble, then Mbeki had little choice.

The point is that if conciliation had been possible would the left have looked for a standard bearer and found a unique populist one in Jacob Zuma? Zuma's clash with Mbeki arose after all out of a non-union matter - his personal relationship with Mbeki. In that event, would the gladiatorial contest between Mbeki and Zuma have taken place in an entirely separate arena? And would the fierce rivalry between Mbeki and the left never have been more muted? It is a fascinating subject for some learned academic to tackle one day.

Makhanya raises an even more interesting matter: the talk that South African politics may shift leftward under the ANC 2008. He comments: "This is pure fantasy. Once the leftist ministers and other ‘deployed' officials get a hang of government, they will realise that much of what they desired and proclaimed in conference resolutions is at least a century away. There is no way that the current government will recklessly steer the country in an unsustainable direction during the worst economic downturn in a century. There are enough brains in the current administration to militate against this. The left, in particular the trade union movement, is aware of this. Its leaders know that that their constituency will bear the brunt of the global showdown and, correctly, will do their utmost to protect it."

Cosatu clearly is agitated over the rapidly unfolding situation. Its secretary general Zwelinzima Vavi wrote to cabinet ministers last month: "Frankly, we are all sitting on a ticking bomb that may explode at any time. What we face may be on the same scale as the 1973 Durban strikes that engulfed the country in the private sector. This could now happen in the public sector. The agitation around the doctors' strike and the seething anger in the whole service is a sign that we are living on borrowed time." (The Durban strikes, as Makhanya observes, were a turning point in South African history - "they gave birth to the modern trade union movement, rattled the apartheid government and contributed to the rebelliousness that culminated in the 1976 (Soweto) uprisings."

This is where the plot thickens. Is Vavi prodding the unions to "strike a deadly blow" at the party he and others voted for on April 22, or is he warning Zuma that Cosatu's real power lies in its "extensive organisational infrastructure?" Makhanya concludes: "For those who have apprehensions about a populist shift to the left, head-counting reds in government will not yield any answers. The power of the left will be felt on the shop floor and in the streets. The great mystery is how the Zuma government will respond to this new-found appetite for the use of power by the left. The stability of the country and our ability to navigate through the global crisis will depend very much on how this relationship is managed."

Management of the crisis may well decide the future shape of the trade union movement. It could become much more militant, aiming at what the SACP calls "the hegemony of the work class in all sites of power" even during the Medium Term Vision or it could draw back into conciliation - in other words redefining the left. This could trigger an entirely new series of conflicts in black politics - or it could calm the situation.

The answer to some of the central questions asked here could wait where they have often awaited - in economics. Economics will decide South Africa's future. Makhanya may be right that the country's economics will not, cannot, shift leftward. But will this stop the left trying?

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