By Sean Jacobs
CAPE TOWN — The powerful ruling alliance of South African President Thabo Mbeki's African National Congress and the 3 million-strong Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) is under strain.
In August, thousands of public servants took to the streets to demand better working conditions and higher wages. Led by COSATU, they paralysed traffic in Johannesburg, Cape Town and other major cities.
It was a public gloves-off confrontation — something many South Africans would have considered unthinkable a short time ago but which is now commonplace — between leaders of the ANC government and the trade union movement.
The strike coincided with the start of Mbeki's presidency and led to speculation about the significance of the clash.
The relationship between the ANC and trade unions dates back to the days of the Congress movement of the 1950s, when Nelson Mandela and the late Oliver Tambo were at the centre of ANC campaigns against apartheid, before the organisation was driven underground and into exile. When COSATU emerged as the voice of workers in the 1980s, the ANC quickly established contacts with the union federation. As a result COSATU's focus remained broad enough to include political grievances.
When the ANC was unbanned in 1990, it immediately set about forming an alliance with the Communist Party (SACP) and COSATU. The alliance operated democratically, with major policy decisions taken at regular summits where the three partners were equally represented. It came as no surprise when 20 of COSATU's most senior leaders were drafted onto ANC election lists and into parliament and cabinet in 1994.
In government, the ANC has shifted its macro-economic thinking to a more market-friendly approach — laid down in its Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) strategy. As a result, the rift between the ANC and COSATU has deepened.
Since 1996, COSATU has been politically sidelined. It has had little say in major policy decisions taken by the ANC-led government as conservative, mainstream economists — some that had advised the apartheid regime — have taken centre stage. COSATU's role has been limited to a reactive, defensive and ad hoc approach to economic policy change.
The ANC is emerging as a government increasingly tuned to the interests of foreign and South African business. The government has become concerned more with issues of productivity and wage restraint, as GEAR dictates.
So far, COSATU leaders have carefully avoided a public showdown with the government and senior ANC officials, but they have highlighted areas of potential conflict.
COSATU leaders have noted in internal documents that all major policy decisions are taken by the cabinet, where COSATU has no influence, despite the fact that a number of ministers — Sydney Mufamadi (provincial affairs and local government) and Alec Erwin (trade and industry), among others — come from COSATU and SACP backgrounds.
The problem facing the alliance is that the ability to formulate policies and ensure they are implemented has been taken from it and is now in the hands of the political executive. The alliance is no longer influential.
At its special congress in Johannesburg in August, COSATU adopted a "Declaration on the Alliance" in which it stated: "It is becoming a trend that we are rebuked in our congresses; in the process we get projected as the party that is ill-disciplined within the Alliance; we are told to raise issues within the structures while we are rebuked in front of media cameras; we believe that this should be ended".
Without saying so, COSATU was referring to Mbeki's and defence minister Patrick Lekota's accusations on national television that criticism of the government by COSATU was counter-revolutionary. Mbeki the previous year had dressed down union representatives at their annual conference for their continued criticism of the ANC and asked whether it was in the true spirit of the Congress movement.
The main areas of conflict since the June 2 general election are the government's decision to reduce public service jobs and accelerate the privatisation of state assets in line with GEAR targets.
The still unresolved public sector wage dispute brought to a head the inevitable clash between the unions and the government. The government has refused to increase public sector wages and wants to retrench at least 55,000 civil servants by the end of the year.
GEAR's fiscal deficit-driven policies recommend reduced state spending, which put constraints on wage negotiations and suggests shrinking the size of government.
The impending privatisation of public transport company Transnet (where 27,000 jobs will be shed to make it profitable) has been postponed following worker opposition, but Jeff Radebe, the minister of public enterprises (and SACP central committee member), told an investors' conference in New York in September that the government will reach its targets for privatisation by the end of December.
Now Mbeki has charged his labour minister, Membathisi Mdladlana, with reviewing existing labour legislation, seen by foreign investors as an obstacle to economic growth. His public service and administration minister (and senior SACP leader), Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi, announced on July 7 that a plan for retrenchments would be in place by December.
Another weakness of the alliance is that it lacks a clear program to guide and measure its successes. A paper, titled "Consolidation of COSATU for the New Millennium" and prepared by the federation in August, states:
"Our analysis over the past few years has been that we have not effectively used our organisational and political strength to constantly shift the balance of forces at a socioeconomic level; that while good legislation has emerged in parliament with COSATU participation, there has been no prior strategic planning at the Alliance level; that COSATU largely reacted to policies as they came out of ministries; and that we depended on the views of particular individuals in government, rather than on the position of the organisation as a whole."
Nonetheless, despite the tensions, COSATU has not suggested a break-up of the alliance. Leading members who have raised the suggestion have been rebuked or isolated.
As expected, the August COSATU special congress resolved to strengthen the alliance. Its only suggestion was that the ANC should take the alliance summits seriously. It is telling that a recent alliance summit was cancelled at the last minute by the ANC because it claimed it had not thoroughly prepared for it. Meanwhile, it made a number of important policy decisions around the economy without consulting COSATU or the SACP.
It now appears that COSATU's attempt to tie the ANC to a "Reconstruction Accord" will more likely result in a corporatist "Accord on Employment and Growth".
The best COSATU can hope for is to change the terms of the relationship. It recently elected leaders who, although veterans of workers' struggles, are not as closely tied to the ANC's agenda as were their predecessors, Sam Shilowa (now ANC premier of Gauteng province) and John Gomomo (now an ANC MP).
COSATU's new general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, and president, Willie Madisha, are key to this movement. Vavi was be keen to link COSATU affiliates with the SACP's "Red October" campaign to boost party membership and organisation in the working class.
However, COSATU and the SACP's strategies are weakened by the precarious position they find themselves in within the alliance: while opposed to privatisation, both organisations have to fall in behind the line the ANC takes in government. SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande's recent statement that the SACP was not averse to public-private partnerships is a clear indication of this organisational pressure.
Some COSATU leaders have suggested the formation of a "political centre" in the alliance, where policies and agreements signed by all three parties can be monitored.
Perhaps there was more to Vavi's message to delegates at the recent seventh Organisation of African Trade Union Unity Conference in Johannesburg, when he said: "We cannot countenance a donor-driven or government-sponsored trade union movement. He or she who pays the piper picks the tune."
[Sean Jacobs is a researcher at the Institute for Democracy in South Africa (IDASA) in Cape Town and is involved in community media movements. Visit IDASA at <http://www.idasa.org.za/epolitics/>.]