Cosatu and the ANC ‘top six’ nominations

The reaction to Cosatu’s decision to name its six preferred candidates for the top six positions in the ANC (actually eight candidates, as there are three names for the position of national chairperson) has been predictable. The ANC has described it as arrogant. Several pioneers of the union movement want to discuss the issue with Cosatu.

I am certain that the Cosatu central committee would have taken cognisance of these issues, as it urged its national leadership to deal with the “political implications” of this decision. Thus far, the debate on the decision has focused on whether in the traditions of the tripartite alliance — or, perhaps more precisely, the congress tradition — Cosatu has the right to suggest leadership for another organisation. This debate will continue.

In addition, the impact of the decision on Cosatu must be assessed. This post focuses on some of the challenges that arise from the Cosatu decisions, and argues that Cosatu would have been in a stronger position had it not decided on names for specific positions.

Democratic politics vs palace politics
Cosatu has learned the lesson — better than most organisations — that democratic politics means building and fostering alliances, even if you are the largest and most powerful organisation in civil society. Thus Cosatu has always extensively lobbied civil society organisations to support its strikes. It has, in fact, received significant support both in its anti-privatisation strike, as well as stayaways linked to its jobs and poverty campaign, from progressive civil society.

It has also supported and been a coalition partner in campaigns such as the Basic Income Grant Coalition, People’s Budget Campaign and Treatment Action Campaign. Its strongest allies in civil society have provided solidarity to Cosatu, when it has faced accusations of being “ultra-leftist” or too political. Despite the spin from all sides, it has been a strategy that has benefited Cosatu and its allies in civil society, and it has been one of the motivating factors in government policy becoming more progressive (although much still needs to be done).

The nomination of persons to serve on the ANC raises questions on whether this strategy will continue. For instance, say the six candidates proposed by Cosatu are elected, will Cosatu be able to muster up its forces should Gear 2.0 be implemented? In other words, does the nomination process reflect a shift away from hard-nosed democratic politics to some sort of palace politics? The fact that this question can even be raised is the important factor that Cosatu must address.

The other significant factor is that among Cosatu’s allies there is, especially from gender groups, opposition to a Zuma presidency. Aids groups continue to be incredulous at his suggestion that a shower could prevent HIV/Aids. Despite no public pronouncements, progressive religious groups — across different faiths, and with long struggle histories — must be wondering why Zuma has reciprocated the embrace from more conservative churches. These are tough and sensitive questions that Cosatu must discuss with its allies, who have stood with Cosatu through a very difficult period.

Cosatu needs to meet these groupings, as having a broad-based anti-poverty coalition is more important than anyone in any position. Moreover, most civil society organisations have no view on a preferred successor to Mbeki; they simply think that all the candidates do not have a significantly pro-poor strategy. One can only hope that the “candidates” will take time to meet progressive civil society.

Coalition of the irrational
Compared with these coalitions between Cosatu and its civil society partners, those supporting Zuma look like a “coalition of the irrational”, to quote Aubrey Matshiqi. It brings together those who have gripes against Thabo Mbeki (and there are many of these), Marxist-Leninist groupings, capitalists (both BEE types and old money), the youth leagues, and several provincial structures. And now it brings in the largest union federation in the country.

If anyone can see a rational political project rooted in eradicating poverty that could emerge from this, please let me know. But, then again, this might be a reflection of the ANC, which says it is a multiclass organisation. And most probably it reflects a temporary agreement between contending forces.

As far as I can see there is no discernable and coherent political project that binds these groups together. So what, then, binds them together? There are many in Cosatu that believe that having the “top six” that it suggested would improve relations in the tripartite alliance. A nuance, but a very important point, is that through building alliance relationships, a programme of more rapid social transformation could be affected. It is more likely that it represents an “anti-Mbeki” coalition or that some people have just become power hungry.

Whatever the explanation, the silence in this coalition is problematic. What will this coalition do, if its leaders are elected? Will whatever programme that emerges be progressive?

Where’s the deal?
A central feature of why Cosatu remains strong is that its negotiators are very focused on dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s in bargaining agreements. While presidential succession is not similar to bargaining agreements, the principle of closing loopholes, of making deals watertight, must surely apply. At its current CC, Cosatu outlined the elements of an “electoral pact”, the merits and demerits of which can be debated.

The foundational issue is that Cosatu has raised the question of an electoral pact, but has not had anyone agree to it. This sounds upside-down: surely you get agreement on an “electoral pact” before endorsing a candidate. Or perhaps the logic is that a candidate nominated by Cosatu would agree to an “electoral pact”?

This leap of faith is astounding, given that despite the RDP being what unionist in the transition called a “reconstruction accord”, it has never served its function as a binding agreement. Not having an agreement in place on transformation seems to suggest that we can have less hope of a more redistributive stance from the government.

But give Jacob Zuma some credit. He has not publicly offered any concession. He has been quoted in several places saying that the current economic policy will continue.

Imagine if the ANC national executive committee provided a list of names of its preferred candidates for the top six positions in Cosatu. The union federation and its affiliates would be angry and reassert their hard-won independence. But, there is a more subtle way for Cosatu to lose its independence.

In a scenario where Cosatu’s candidates win elections, will Cosatu then be asked to make concession in the national interest? The experience of political parties suggests that when unions are too closely aligned, they become less independent. This is because they are very closely tied to machinery of the political party. Across the globe, this has meant that unions become bureaucracies, no longer capable of vibrant, independent action against power. That is so because they see themselves being in power.

The impact that a loss of independence would have on Cosatu would greatly affect civil society. Currently, many advocacy projects look to Cosatu to provide a moral endorsement and political strength. The advocacy projects range from renewable energy to social security, and from Tobin tax to destroying pre-paid meters. A loss of independence for Cosatu would mean that many good advocacy projects would stumble along without a strong player.

But, Cosatu should not assume that it has a privileged position. Should it lose its independence, it will be replaced by some other organisation. The problem is that it will take years, perhaps decades, for a strong actor in civil society to emerge.

Fluidity and certainty
A key feature in the battle for Polokwane has been a strong push by section of the ANC to argue that policy is decided. The decisions of the ANC policy conference represent what will happen regardless of who the president is. There are, in fact, some important changes in the policy resolutions. However, Cosatu could affect policy by keeping the policy positions more fluid. And in the tough and nasty world of politics, an agreement on policy shifts to achieve unity across the alliance might even be possible. Instead, through joining the chorus by endorsing the list, the policy becomes secondary and in fact more concrete while the names of people are discussed.

Looking ahead
In its September commission report for its sixth national congress in 1997, it discussed several scenarios. One of these was called “Skorokoro” — meaning a broken-down car. An extract from the Skorokoro scenario reads as follows:

In their secretariat report to the Cosatu congress … the federation’s leadership states that there is a social crisis in South Africa. “The government lacks a vision of where we are going. There is no leadership in civil society. We are rapidly becoming a skorokoro society, and we face the danger of becoming a skorokoro union movement as well.”

To say that Cosatu risks becoming a skorokoro union movement is overstating the case too much. However, one can imagine Cosatu organising a protest action against Gear 2.0 in which it feels betrayed by the political leadership. A scenario in which it goes from crisis to crisis. Then again, Cosatu’s nominees might not win, and that would present a very prickly political puzzle. Either way, nominating the candidates does not have a tactical logic that I can understand. Hopefully, the Cosatu leadership knows better than I.

PS: Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi will speak in the Wits Great Hall on October 4 at 6pm on Cosatu’s efforts to transform the ANC into a pro-poor organisation. He is being hosted by The site seems a little outdated. I will be breaking fast when he starts speaking, so will not attend. Looking forward to reading the transcript, and hoping it offers a reason as to why.

This article first appeared on the Thought Leader group blog hosted by the Mail and Guardian.

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