In an ideal world, the troubles of last year are supposed to be forgotten and left behind. A new year should be an opportunity to start afresh. As Rainer Maria Rilke (Bohemian-Austrian poet and novelist), said, “And now we welcome the new year, full of things that have never been”.
Yet, this January, it seems the left within the Tripartite Alliance is fated to repeat the pattern of last year – unable to influence the political and policy direction of the ANC. As last month showed, the ANC no longer deems it necessary to elect any of the South African Communist Party (SACP) leaders into its powerful decision making body – the National Executive Committee (NEC). We will never know if this rebuff of the SACP has to do with the fallout between its leaders and President Jacob Zuma or if those who voted did not take kindly to their party leaders being told off so frequently and publicly by the SACP. It could be both. What was made clear was that NEC positions to the SACP are not a philanthropic gesture the organisation is entitled to. One can’t help but think that perhaps the ANC is feelings less generous about the NEC positions it doles out, and is ready to close doors.
However, if the by-elections of Metsimaholo are an indication of what’s to come if the SACP contests elections independently, it could be that they have the potential to become a kingmaker in coalition government.
Even more significant is that while the ANC shunned the communists, it readily and with open arms welcomed Cosatu’s Sdumo Dlamini and Zingiswa Losi into the NEC. If recent history (and by recent – I mean the Zuma ANC presidency era) is anything to go by, these two trade union leaders will soon be heading to government; leaving a vacuum within an already weakened labour federation.
All this will have a profound knock-on effect on the left, which has always assumed it can influence policy direction to favour the working class. First, the little leverage the communists had inside the NEC is gone, while the alliance partnership remains in theory. I doubt both Cosatu and the SACP’s word will in future carry much weight when it comes to the ANC’s decisions on national policy matters.
Second, by swelling up the ranks of the ANC with its leaders, Cosatu has become weakened internally. Point me to any significant programme it has produced in the last ten years. Instead of winning policy battles to the advantage of workers, Cosatu has become synonymous with uneasy compromises (as in case of the national minimum wage – settling for R3 500/month instead of the R4 500 they put forward); half-measures (the small turnout and limited impact of its national strike in September, despite promising to shut down the country) and the union’s declining members since 2015, following the expulsion of Numsa.
Thus, as the new year begins, the left, particularly Cosatu, finds itself faced with its biggest organisational challenge to date. It has the politically weakest leaders in its history, its organisational and worker-focused programmes are ineffective. It is truly a house divided and in disarray. The irony in all of this is how Sdumo Dlamini may be rewarded with a cushy government job, yet it was under his leadership that Cosatu became weakened and almost irrelevant.
To this writer, the most remarkable feature of the Cosatu (and its affiliated trade unions’) decline has been (i) losing its ‘activist’ edge and (ii) its inability to respond to the challenges of globalisation.
These unions are less activist and more bureaucratic. By aligning themselves with the governing ANC they’ve become insiders who have been co-opted into the system they’re supposed to be fighting. The politics of the Tripartite Alliance have seeped through to the bloodline of the federation’s agenda of workers so much that it has diluted, blurred and considerably weakened and crippled the trade union movement.
So significant has been this development that today Cosatu is dominated by public sector unions. No longer focused on social justice, many of its fights have been about leadership positions, factions, control over investment arms and ANC succession battles including dividing themselves around preferred candidates.
In so doing, organised labour has failed to keep an eye on changes in the economy and the impact of globalisation on the labour market. It is not surprising that public perception increasingly views trade unions as impediments to economic growth or reaching developmental goals.
The movement fails to see that South Africa is affected and impacted by the world economy. If indeed the trade union movement understood the changes wrought by globalisation it would know that a quid pro quo is occasionally a necessary evil. Its leaders would temporarily let go of the ‘social protection’ model they’ve deployed. A simple look at the recent history of France and Germany illustrates my point. By clinging to job protection laws, trade unions have seen companies hire less labour and increase automation and investment in technology that replaces workers. In short, the labour laws have been the main cause of those two countries’ unemployment.
A disconcerting reality for the trade union movement is that to revive itself, leaders must go back to their actual role: as driver of the redistributive agenda and defender of the voiceless poor. But first, it is time they untangle themselves from the alliance partnership – where they remain the biggest loser in it. So too must the SACP, being overlooked for NEC positions in the ANC is a kick.
In this new year, the left, especially the trade union movement must do some soul searching if they want to remain relevant in the next decade. It is a great pity they have led themselves into this rabbit hole, will they come out from it? One hopes they do. Will they come out wiser? That is entirely up to them.