The left steps out of line

Tensions between the government and its trade union and communist partners are at an all-time high.

FOR A TIME the noisy recriminations that accompanied the break-up of the Democratic Alliance nearly drowned out discord within the tripartite alliance. But even as the ANC was engaging in negotiations with Marthinus van Schalkwyk's NNP, its disagreements with its old allies, the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), were far from resolved. Their disagreements long predate the formation of the Democratic Alliance in June 2000, stretching back at least five years to the government's adoption of Gear, the investor-friendly and, in many respects, pro-capitalist macroeconomic policy.

Assessing the seriousness of recurring strife in the tripartite alliance is difficult. Too often past predictions that the partnership between the ANC, SACP and the Cosatu was about to shatter have proved premature. But one point can be safely made: tensions within the alliance are as high as they have ever been. There has been conflict over growing unemployment and the widening gap between the rich and the poor, over the government's refusal to supply anti-retroviral drugs to counter the HIV/Aids epidemic and over Robert Mugabe's violence against the trade union-based opposition party in Zimbabwe. But the most important sign of the deepening rift within the alliance was Cosatu's decision to press ahead with its anti-privatisation strike of August 29 and 30 in the face of earnest ANC pleas to defer or, better still, abandon it.

The national strike was timed provocatively to coincide with the arrival of high-ranking delegates from all over the globe to attend the World Conference Against Racism in Durban. To the government it looked as though Cosatu had resolved to wash its dirty linen in public. It led to acrimonious exchanges between ANC leaders - including those who hold high rank in the SACP - and top Cosatu officials. President Thabo Mbeki indicted his supposed allies in Cosatu and the SACP, for abandoning the "long standing morality of our movement" by lying to claim "easy victories". Cosatu general-secretary Zwelinzima Vavi lambasted the government for stooping to "distortions, half truths and character-assassination".

The strike gave new life to those in the middle to upper echelons of the ANC who believe that the alliance has served its purpose and that the time has come to end the long-established policy that allows ANC members to join and serve in the ranks of the SACP. Their most vocal advocate, former ANC Youth League leader Peter Mokaba, trumpeted "The tripartite alliance is dead." Publicly the ANC national executive committee (NEC) took a less belligerent line. It reaffirmed its commitment to the alliance as the leading "force for democratic transformation in South Africa" but admitted that there were "critical problems" which had led to "public exchanges which are counter-productive" and which need to be "confronted and addressed".

Privately, however, the NEC took a much tougher line. In its document entitled, "Briefing Notes on the Alliance", it blames the troubles on a "leftwing tendency", a phrase that recalls the Trotskyite Militant Tendency which stalked the British Labour Party in the 1980s. Using the term "leftwing tendency" interchangeably with the label "ultra-leftist", the ANC accuses it of conspiring to "detach the working class" from the ANC, of seeking to forge a special relationship between Cosatu and the SACP at the expense of the ANC, and machinating eventually to seize control of the ANC and commit it to a socialist agenda and a "populist and economic programme". Success for the leftwing tendency will serve as a prelude to economic and administrative collapse, thus creating the conditions for a counter-revolution against the "national democratic revolution". The ANC then notes that the leftwing tendency "repeats almost word for word positions articulated by the political opposition", of which the DA is the biggest component. The pamphlet ends with a call to action to "isolate and defeat" the ultra-leftists.

The briefing notes do not name the ultra-leftists. But it has been widely speculated that they include the most prominent leaders in Cosatu, many of whom are also SACP members, as well as Blade Nzimande, general secretary of the SACP. Cosatu leaders identified in press reports include its president Willie Madisha, its general secretary, Vavi, and its public sector co-ordinator Neva Makgetla. Both Madisha and Vavi have allegedly received death threats by email, complete with illustrations of an assassin's gun. Both have received medical treatment for stress. Another prominent trade union leader suspected of being categorised as an ultra-leftist is Gwede Mantashe, general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers, which is affiliated to Cosatu.

Fear of the leftwing tendency explains why the ANC's willingness to help Van Schalkwyk's breakaway from the DP was strictly qualified and tightly controlled. The ANC did not simply scrap the constitutional clause (contained in Annexure A of Schedule 6 of the Constitution) under which members elected under the banner of one party automatically lose their seats if they cross the floor to a rival party. Instead, in the cumbersomely entitled Loss or Retention of Membership of National and Provincial Legislatures Bill unveiled on November 12, it proposes to empower the president to suspend the anti-defection clause to allow members of the National Assembly and provincial legislatures to switch allegiances without forfeiting their seats. It gives the president wide discretion as to when the clause would be suspended and for how long, subject to two conditions only. First, he cannot suspend it within a year of a general election and, second, he must give the National Assembly and the provincial legislatures 21 days notice of his intention to exercise his prerogative. But he is free to determine the duration of the suspension. As Johnny De Lange, chairman of Parliament's justice and constitutional committee noted, the suspension might be operative for a day or for four years, depending on the president's judgement.

The bill - which the ANC initially planned to place on the statute book by the end of the year but which it later decided to defer until the re-opening of Parliament in Feburary next year - will enable the ANC to woo opposition members to its benches at a time of its own choosing. At the same time, it will enable the ruling party to retain control of potentially rebellious "ultra-leftists" in its own ranks by keeping the anti-defection clause in place generally or by relaxing it only when the "ultra-leftists" are quiescent. As a politician and party boss, the president could hardly have asked for a more convenient law. The lead up to the ANC move was shrouded in secrecy. Its own spokesman, Smuts Ngonyama, was talking about plans to scrap the anti-defection clause without qualification barely a week before details of the bill were made public. He was either still in the dark or he was being deliberately misleading.

The threat from the left remains. After more anti-privatisation protests last month, Cosatu is planning to hold a national summit on economic reconstruction by the end of the year or, at the latest, early next year. The plan is to involve all elements of civil society, a development that may dilute the ANC voice. Mercia Andrews, president of the South African Non-Government Organisations Coalition (Sangoco), has given her blessing to the proposed summit. She states that it is time for civil society to flex its muscles, particularly on "how we address the needs of the poor". She says the plan is to give the poor a platform so that they can make their voices heard. Her remarks imply that, after more than seven years of ANC government, the plight of the poor is not being adequately addressed, a view which converges with Cosatu's concern over the growth in unemployment since the adoption of Gear.

ANC historian Pallo Jordan, who serves on the ANC national executive committee, downplays differences within the tripartite alliance. Noting that it is an alliance between three organisations, and not a single organisation, he argues that different perspectives are to be expected and, far from being a cause of concern, are evidence of democracy within the organisation. He dismisses speculation that divergence of views makes the alliance untenable and a parting of the ways inevitable. The alliance is "sealed in blood" and "forged in the crucible of struggle", he declares.

Political analyst Tom Lodge takes a different view. He argues that the once overlapping and closely-knit alliance partners - former President F.W. de Klerk once compared the relationship between the ANC and the SACP to "a scrambled egg" - have separated into ideologically different and disparate components. Their diverging agendas explain the increasing tensions within the alliance, he argues. Union congresses have discussed resolutions that would have been unthinkable a few years ago. The National Union of Metalworkers, another Cosatu-affiliated union, called last year for the SACP to replace the ANC as leader of the alliance. It was not passed but indicates growing resentment of the ANC in union ranks. A resolution at the annual congress in 2000 of the SA Municipal Workers' Union stated that a start should be made on the "process of beginning a discussion on an alternative to alliance".

Historian and prize-winning author Charles van Onselen detects a fundamental contradiction in ANC-ruled South Africa, one which accounts in part for the conflict within the tripartite alliance. The contradiction is between figures which chart improvement in macroeconomic management amid continuing, and perhaps even worsening, poverty and deprivation in many parts of the country. The ANC, impressed by the statistics showing improvement, has one view. Cosatu, aware of rising unemployment and anger on the ground, has a radically different perspective.

The 2001 Budget Review bears out Van Onselen's point. It shows that national revenue more than doubled between 1994-95 and 2001-02, rising from just under R112,358 million to nearly R233,440 million (including a spectacular overshoot of R4,800 million). Even allowing for inflation that is a substantial increase. The rise in revenue has been accompanied by a gradual reduction of the budget deficit (from over 5 per cent in 1994-95 to less than 2.5 per cent in 2001-02), and a diminution in the national debt and consequently government interests payments on it. There has been a parallel reduction in the rate of inflation from 9 per cent in 1994 to 4.2 per cent in 2001 and an increase in annual GDP growth from 2.5 per cent in 1997 to an expected 3.5 per cent in 2001. (The figure was revised downwards to 2.6 per cent in the wake of international turmoil since the September 11 terror attacks on New York and Washington). Van Onselen contends that, because of administrative inefficiency, these improvements have not translated into the delivery of social services and the upliftment of the vast majority of disadvantaged South Africans. Poverty is still a widespread and palpable reality, he says.

Finance Minister Trevor Manuel spells out the vision that sustains the ANC in its commitment to Gear. He talks of achievements attained through sober and tough economic management and promises increased social spending, and the enjoyment of the fruits of fiscal discipline. Cosatu public sector co-ordinator Maktgetla provides the perspective that drives the thinking of the trade union federation. She speaks of "a substantial decrease in social spending in real terms". She quotes figures to show that spending on education, health, welfare, housing and water actually decreased between 1996 and 2000 when inflation is taken into account. Where Manuel, in a briefing to the ANC national leadership, talks of "stability in overall employment levels", Makgetla writes in a conference paper, "Unemployment climbed from 16 per cent in 1995 to around 25 per cent today."

It seems to be a case of "never the twain shall meet". The interests that tie the alliance together are still strong, however. The ANC needs the Cosatu-SACP organisational machine to help mobilise working-class voters at election time. Cosatu knows that a premature split in the alliance leading to an ANC electoral defeat might result in a government with less sympathy for trade unions.

The ANC's strategy to contain the ideological contradictions within the alliance is twofold. Where it can co-opt committed communists and trade union leaders, it does so. One thinks of public enterprises minister Jeff Radebe, who serves on the SACP central committee and defends the government's privatisation policy with all the fervour of a convert. One thinks, too, of Mbhazima Shilowa, once a fiery Cosatu secretary-general and now Gauteng Premier, whose devotion to President Mbeki makes him a target for satire. Where tougher measures are called for the ANC seeks to isolate and destroy ultra-left leaders, bringing its formidable propaganda machine into action and smearing them as infantile leftists playing into the hands of counter-revolutionaries.

In its response to the Briefing Notes, the SACP warns that it may deepen divisions "within the alliance and within the ANC itself". It suggests that rather than encouraging debate about differences, the briefing notes may lead to a "closing of ranks" and even to "witch-hunts". Cosatu's general-secretary, Vavi, has warned that it would not be blackmailed into silence. The ANC attacks, he said, "represent an attempt to deflect attention from the real issues - legitimate differences about macroeconomic policy." So far neither co-option nor vilification has silenced the critical voices on the left - in large measure because they are reflecting views that stem from realities on the ground.

In its report to Cosatu's 1997 congress, the September Commission speculated about what the role of the union movement might be in various future scenarios. One scenario, codenamed Desert, sketched a situation in which the ANC shifts to the right amid "massive demonstrations" and in which - most interestingly - the SACP splits, with half its leadership remaining with the ANC and half linking up with left organisations in a joint bid to build a "worker's party".

The same report noted, however, that most workers believed then that a milder scenario, with the code-name Skoroskoro, was closer to their current reality. Skoroskoro still contained serious problems however. They included the ANC government zigzagging from policy to policy - announcing privatisation but backing down in the face of mass protest, committing itself to a crackdown on crime and corruption but not taking the necessary steps to effect it.

One wonders in which scenario Cosatu members would place themselves today. Cosatu general secretary, Vavi, has hinted that it might now be the "Desert" scenario. Cosatu is to start unity negotiations with the two other trade union groupings, the Federation of Unions of SA and the National Congress of Trade Unions. Talking about the vision of a single united labour federation, he says Cosatu is prepared to forfeit everything, including its alliance with the ANC, in pursuit of "greater worker unity before the year 2003".

Patrick Laurence is an assistant editor on the Financial Mail