Spectres of Heath and Thatcher.

As the public servants’ strike continues it has managed to draw in other unions, with the support and endorsement of COSATU, who are all threatening to go on strike in support of their comrades. That is, of course, their right. Those who say “That is, of course, their right” are naturally about to explain why such rights should not be exercised, in the interests of the fatness of the bottoms of those people who say “That is, of course, their right”. The adipose Creator does not wish to swim against this tide.
Basically, COSATU is flexing its political muscles, on the assumption that the government will be impressed by this, as it has been impressed before. The principal forces currently engaged in the strike — the teachers and the nurses — received big pay increases over the past three years. This did not lead to any significant improvement in the performance of public healthcare and education. Hence, what overall benefit is the public likely to receive from an increase 3,6% higher than the rate of inflation instead of 2% higher than the rate of inflation? The probable answer is, “Little, if any”. Hence, it is probable that public support for COSATU’s actions is not tremendously high.
What support exists probably stems from a broad-based (and not always broad-buttocked) distrust of the Zuma government. People see COSATU as being opposed to that government, and therefore endorse its actions. The only awkward part of this analysis is that COSATU is heavily responsible for the Zuma government being where it is today. In effect, COSATU is going on marches chanting “Down with us and what we stand for!”.
Can’t argue with that.
The core problem for COSATU, however, is that it only appears strong so long as the government is weak. If the government chooses to play it tough for a change, COSATU actually has no cards in its hands. The government has already negotiated as much as any government usually does. What’s more, the unions are in a potentially weak position; the nurses’ strike is actually illegal, and a large number of the teachers are actually underqualified and, if their managers were more honest, could probably be charged with offenses liable to lead to dismissal. COSATU, on the other hand, is charging about, supported by other trade unions, proclaiming that the government is evil, oppressive, neoliberal, brutal, worse than the apartheid regime, etc., etc. All this serves the interests of conservatives well — it’s no accident that conservative unions are now joining the strike when they hear their propaganda mouthed by people who claim to be in alliance with the ANC. Who else’s interests does it serve? Remains to be seen, for even if COSATU wins, it is winning by means which don’t really help the general public.
But what if it doesn’t win?
There is an uncomfortable precedent in British political history. In 1969-70, the British Labour government under Wilson was trying to implement a social contract which it called “In Place Of Strife”. Basically it was trying to get unions to moderate their wage demands in an effort to cut inflation and strengthen the British economy. The unions refused. Labour went to the polls, but partly because of the government’s loss of union support, it lost, and Heath’s Tories came in. Heath’s government implemented a social contract which it called “Fair Deal At Work”, and which was basically the Labour plan under a different name. However, they never managed to resolve the country’s economic problems and as the economy lurched into crisis, with a three-day week, they held another election after a disastrously successful miner’s strike, which they lost. Labour did not win it, however, and Wilson was forced to stagger along in cooperation with the Liberals until the 1976 election brought Callaghan into office with a thin majority.
Callaghan’s government handed over key economic authority in Britain to the International Monetary Fund in exchange for a bailout; famously, he proclaimed that it was impossible for a country to spend itself out of recession, denying two centuries of state interventionism in a single mendacious sentence. The bailout enabled Callaghan’s increasingly unpopular rule to survive until 1979, when yet another strike, by public servants, forced Labour to go to the polls in a desperate attempt to restore its authority. Instead, Thatcher’s Conservatives came in and proceeded to crush the unions, boost finance capital and generally do the spadework for the apotheosis of neoliberalism which was the New Labour government of 1997-2009, of which the Lib-Con coalition is a pale but poisonous shadow.
What has this to do with South Africa today? Just that the South African government is weak and conservative, but nevertheless suffering from a disease which keeps it slightly healthy, namely its traditions of social democracy. This inconvenient social democracy, which makes it so difficult to fire workers, strip the poor of their rights, and generally line up with the corrupt plutocrats who run white civil society, is all that gives the South African government any legitimacy. And it is much loathed by the wannabe plutocrats who sit in the Cabinet. But they don’t know what to do about it because anyone opposing social democracy runs the risk of being trumped by anyone playing even the smallest populist card, such as the Youth League.
What to do about it, surely, is to change the game-plan. At the moment, the loyalty of the ANC’s leadership is, nominally, to the party. The real loyalty of the ANC’s leadership is to themselves, and therefore they support the ANC because they have always supported their party. This is an extremely fragile situation. What happens if the leadership of the ANC and the SACP discover class solidarity and realise that they actually have much more in common with the leaders of the DA, and with the white ruling class, than they have with the people who vote for them? There is certainly a slow convergence between Zuma and the white right, even though this is probably more ideological than electoral.
What’s happening with the COSATU gambit is that COSATU are assuming that the ANC has no choice, in the end, but to give in to them. However, the leadership of the ANC, having been put where they are now by COSATU, cannot be removed from where they are now by COSATU. Zuma and company got their position by a kind of corporate coup, and big business will keep them there so long as they do big business’s bidding. All that COSATU can do is posture and irritate them — in much the same way that COSATU did with Mbeki, of course.
However, Mbeki wasn’t actually a neoliberal, and he didn’t have support from big business. He therefore needed to hold the ANC together under his thumb. (This is probably one reason for his extremely cautious socio-economic policies, which Ha-Joon Chang rightly criticises.) Having the SACP and COSATU yelling at him from across the road was annoying, but fundamentally Mbeki wasn’t going to oppose them, because he didn’t feel that he needed any more enemies.
Paradoxically, the Zuma administration is both safer and more unstable than the Mbeki one. This is because the Zuma crowd are backed by big business, and therefore are safe — except that they don’t know for certain that this will last. Also, they have virtually no ideological or intellectual agenda, which means that they have nothing to hold them on to any course. (They love to have people like Rob Davies around who pretend to pursue policies, but frankly, nobody’s noticed any positive changes in industrial strategy since dear Rob took over, and the Creator’s sad assessment is that there aren’t going to be any such changes.)
What this means is that when the Zuma crowd feel threatened, they are more potentially dangerous. It’s anybody’s guess what they might do in response to COSATU’s behaviour. They might, for instance, try to kick COSATU leaders out of the ANC (which would certainly be legal, since various COSATU leaders have behaved in a way displaying contempt for the party). This was threatened a couple of months ago, it may be recalled. The reason why they might want to do this is that COSATU is attacking the ANC in a way calculated to undermine its authority and internal discipline, and the Zuma leadership desperately needs an issue to create some kind of discipline before everything goes to hell in the ANC. Provoking conflict with COSATU would be a good way of doing that.
Of course, COSATU might knuckle under and allow COSATU leaders to be expelled, but it’s more likely that, being a trade union, they would stand by their leaders, who would then huff and puff and blow down the Tripartite Alliance. They might then go off and form their own party, which would probably do almost as well as CoPe has done, siphoning another fraction of ANC support away. However, they wouldn’t do much better than that — COSATU’s contribution to ANC election successes has not been substantial for the last decade, however much they contributed in 1994.
But with COSATU outside the Alliance, the business-friendly avatars of Zuma and Sexwale would have a strong argument for slapping the Left down. What would they have to lose? Are the voters going to go off and vote for Vavi? Calls for more “market-friendly” policies, like privatisation and like “labour market flexibility” (i.e. gutting the Labour Relations Act) would get a lot more traction — in fact, something of that kind would probably happen, and in that case, the ANC’s support would nose-dive. Meanwhile, most probably, the economy wouldn’t be doing any better, so the ANC’s popularity would be increasingly unstable.
In other words, if the Zuma government takes a hard line with COSATU, this could start a landslide which would end with the ANC haemorrhaging support to right and left, basically to DA and to whatever ragbag of ersatz leftism COSATU was able to gin up. Roger Southall once suspected that COSATU might pick up 20% of the vote. At the moment, if it picked up 16%, it could push the ANC below the 50% threshold. But under the chaotic political confusion which would prevail after the collapse of the Tripartite Alliance, it’s likely that the DA would also pick up support. Imagine a 28% DA, a 16% Workers’ Party and a 10% collection of joke parties confronting a 46% ANC. Who would the ANC align itself with? Under the conditions of reactionary resentment likely to prevail after such an election result, why not align with the DA in order to smack the Workers’ Party in the chops?
And if that happened, the long-term consequences for South African organised labour would be every bit as disastrous as the consequences of Thatcher’s victory over the miners in 1984 was for British organised labour. It’s a worrying possibility, and it’s obviously not something that the South African left is wasting much time thinking about.
Or are they, possibly, looking forward to it?

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