Confederacy of Dunces.

July 19, 2010

The management of the Tripartite Alliance has always been a difficult issue which has been best resolved by strong, principled leadership, something which has always been absent from most members of the Alliance. It is therefore not particularly surprising that, at the moment, the Alliance is under massive pressure. Of course, invertebrates can handle any amount of pressure, and we should not expect the wobbling jellyfish and wriggling worms which squirm and flop around in the ANC National Executive Committee to be much troubled by any of this.
Originally, of course, there were two separate double alliances. The ANC and the SACP were joined like Siamese twins, and COSATU and the UDF were joined like cellmates. When the ANC and SACP were unbanned, it was natural for the four to get together — three, once the UDF and ANC were collapsed into one. Not only natural, but necessary; without the alliance, the apartheid state would never have been overthrown. However, it was a very strange alliance right from the start.
The SACP was nominally incorporated into the ANC. Until 1994 it recruited almost entirely from within the ANC, and every SACP member was an ANC member. On the other hand, the SACP had its own agenda which was completely separate from the ANC’s, even though the SACP did its best (which was very good) to deny this. Once the unbanning happened, it was theoretically possible to be an SACP member and not be an ANC member, but this was a pointless idea because the SACP’s power lay in the fact that it was an ideologically-driven organised faction within the ANC, and could therefore manipulate ANC structures towards its own ends. It is only recently that the SACP has pretended to have support outside the ANC, but this is almost certainly smoke and mirrors generated by the SACP’s desperate need to pretend to possess the mass constituency which its organisational tactics and practices have denied it. Without the ANC, the SACP is a big version of the Trotskyite organisations which blunder around on the Left in every country, doomed to fractious impotence.
COSATU was aligned with the ANC, but was not within it. The leaders of COSATU are also ANC members, but they have always reserved their independence. As a result, COSATU is a mass organisation capable of challenging the ANC — necessarily, since COSATU is a trade union and therefore its membership’s interests are not identical with those of the ANC government. Also, of course, although its numbers are nominally greater than the numbers of the ANC, COSATU is a less homogeneous organisation than the ANC — meaning that the leaders of COSATU might attack the ANC on grounds which their membership might not agree with, but might tolerate so long as the conflict did not become too intense. (What this means is that while COSATU has more intrinsic independence than the ANC, if COSATU were to walk out and form a labour party, a lot of COSATU members might continue voting ANC in defiance of their unions.)
On the other hand, COSATU’s alliance with the ANC is strategically important for the working class. This is because the ANC has pursued a policy sympathetic to organised labour, for the most part, even though the ANC’s broad economic policy has not been particularly helpful to labour. The obvious problem for COSATU is that any conceivable political alternative to the ANC would, at the very least, adopt the same economic policy, and would probably also be more hostile to organised labour. Therefore COSATU does not wish to see the ANC lose power, and also does not wish to walk away from the ANC, since that would greatly weaken the constituency of organised labour within the ANC and thus relatively strengthen the anti-labour business forces (and the relative influence of neoliberal business forces acting on the ANC from the outside).
What all this means is that the SACP and COSATU are quite willing to attack the ANC for its policies, or practices, or for any other purpose which they can justify. These attacks, however, are almost invariably, at least ostensibly, intended for the good of the ANC. When Jeremy Cronin compared the ANC with ZANU (PF), he could contend that, far from attacking the ANC, he was actually defending it against Helena Sheehan’s Trotskyite assaults, along the same lines through which Cronin purged the anti-ANC Trotskyite Dale McKinley from the SACP. (Of course, this is most noticeable when one is actually an SACP member. From the perspective of the ANC, it seemed that Cronin was arguing that the ANC needed to be fattened for a little longer before its throat was slit, as opposed to Sheehan arguing for putting it out of its misery immediately. However, it is quite possible that Cronin, never the most humanly sensitive person, did not realise that his “defense” would arouse hostility.)
During the Mbeki era, the SACP and COSATU denounced the ANC quite energetically. For the most part they got away with this. The obvious cost was that the SACP and COSATU were largely excluded from power. Actually, numerous members of the SACP and COSATU were appointed, or elected, to positions of power, but for the most part, in order to exercise power, they had to repudiate (actually if not rhetorically) the standpoints taken by their organisations. In return, the SACP and COSATU tended to decry those of their members who took power. This was the less obvious cost of the organisations’ standpoint; they lost all sense of responsibility to the ANC upon which they depended for their political authority, and all sense of the validity of ANC policy. This is why, now that the ANC is dominated by these two organisations, rather than developing new policies, the SACP and COSATU have fallen back on spin-doctoring.
This, of course, is the problem with the recent decision, almost certainly by Jacob Zuma, to withdraw charges against Zwelenzima Vavi, COSATU’s secretary-general and actual boss. The proposal to lay charges against Vavi was made by the ANC’s National Working Committee while Zuma was out of the country, and the allegation is that the NWC, the weekly decision-making body of the ANC, was unanimous in this decision.
The charges related to Vavi’s public accusation that Minister Shiceka and Minister Nyanda were corrupt, and that President Zuma was covering up for them. This accusation was not much worse than accusations made under the Mbeki government, although it was probably a little more extreme. It was not clear that the accusation held any water; both accusations related to media allegations, and while Shiceka had extensively denied the allegations made (and the newspapers which made them had not stood by their stories) the accusation against Nyanda related largely to claims that Nyanda was a director in a company which had gained unfair security tenders relating to World Cup stadium guarding. This is probably sleazy, but it is not clear that Nyanda had broken the law or that Zuma was obliged to investigate it. Certainly, both accusations were infinitely less significant than the ones against Zuma which Vavi had overlooked when he endorsed Zuma for the Presidency of the ANC and the country.
Basically, however, Vavi’s attacks might have been ignored, except for two factors. One was that Julius Malema had recently been brought before a kangaroo court charged with bringing the ANC into disrepute. (The real reason was that he was embarrassing the SACP by raising left-wing issues which the Party had discarded but could not acknowledge discarding.) The court, unable to sustain the actual charges, found him guilty of criticising the President of the ANC, now virtually a capital offence. Obviously, Vavi had done the same, and it would be impossible to deny it if charges were brought.
However, it wasn’t only Malema and his few friends who were smarting. Nyanda was a minor but significant figure in the SACP, and was also very close to Zuma. Hence, the attack on him was partly an attack on the SACP, partly an attack on the ANC, and partly a declaration that COSATU felt that it could smear whoever it liked and get away with it. Unsurprising, then, that everybody present at the NWC meeting — most particularly Gwede Mantashe, the all-powerful Secretary-General of the ANC, who is also Chairperson of the SACP — endorsed bringing the charges. It wasn’t as if Vavi was going to be kicked out of the ANC, but reining in COSATU was in everybody’s interest, as otherwise it would be encouraged to continuously shit in the Charterist nest.
This was all made much worse when COSATU announced that if Vavi were charged, it would walk out of the alliance. The implication was that the union considered itself far too important to be restrained by the organisational discipline of the political party which it was allied to. While this obviously made charging Vavi much more important for the ANC, it also potentially raised the stakes, since if the charging of Vavi went ahead, COSATU would have the choice between wrecking its political position by leaving the alliance on an issue which few ANC members would support COSATU around, or embarrassingly revealing its political impotence and frivolity.
COSATU did have an unexpected ally in the press. Business Day was particularly sympathetic to Vavi, but in general the press backed him, as did the pundits employed by the press. The general claim was that the whole episode was a conspiracy against Vavi allegedly led by Julius Malema, whom the right-wing press had been touting for about a month as an evil and almost omnipotent figure within the ANC. The right-wing press also adopted the COSATU propaganda position, which was that the struggle was between “leftists” and “nationalists” (ignoring the fact that leading SACP figures had endorsed charging Vavi). It was apparent that the political forces represented by the press supported Vavi in the name of “leftists”, which might seem surprising, since these forces were right-wing, hostile to trade unions, and generally sympathetic to big business. If any element within the ANC was sympathetic to these forces it would have been a nationalist element, assuming that such existed.
Of course, the reason for this alliance was that the right wing saw this as a potentially serious breach. (In this they were probably mistaken — it seems likely that had Vavi genuinely been charged, COSATU would have blustered and then backed down.) In other words, Vavi had been risking, and COSATU was toying with, a pattern of behaviour which evidently benefited the ANC’s enemies and undermined their capacity to further their goals (assuming that the Zuma administration possesses such things, a large assumption). This, if anything, showed the danger of allowing the alliance to run amok with the kind of unconstrained personal public vilification of the kind which had characterised Zuma’s campaign against Mbeki.
However, all good things come to an end. Zuma attended the next National Working Committee meeting, and thereafter it was announced that, after all, Vavi would not be charged. The entire NWC backed down in the face of Zuma — or, perhaps, in the face of the combination of Zuma, white big business and COSATU all acting in unison. COSATU crowed with delight, boasting that it had won the battle, and Vavi immediately showed his support for this by reiterating his attacks on the Ministers and on Zuma.
What this showed was that the disciplinary processes of the ANC had completely collapsed. In the place of such processes, was the simple fact that one could get away with anything provided that the President and his rich white protectors were willing to look the other way. Meanwhile, when the charges against Malema collapsed, a fresh charge was manufactured — but then dismantled once again when it threatened to rock the fragile bark of Zuma’s personal authority. It would be difficult to imagine the ANC’s internal coherence surviving this onslaught.
As if to ram the point home, the boss of the SACP, Blade Nzimande, wandered off from his day job as Minister of Higher Education (a job he is doing remarkably badly) in order to demand that the man who planned Chris Hani’s assassination, Clive Derby-Lewis, not be granted parole (as Zuma had suggested). Nzimande may well be right in doing this; Derby-Lewis was probably acting as part of a big white right-wing conspiracy rather than alone, as he claimed, and therefore does not deserve clemency. However, Nzimande has previously claimed that Derby-Lewis had nothing to do with the murder, but that it was instead carried out under the auspices of Thabo Mbeki, a man with whom Derby-Lewis had no connection at all. Therefore, Nzimande should have been calling for Derby-Lewis to be released — but of course it was no longer politically convenient to do so. In effect he was admitting that his earlier slanders had been lies.
There is no bottom to the rabbit-hole down which South African politics voluntarily leaped, along with Jacob Zuma, at Polokwane. We are never going to reach Wonderland. We will fall and fall forever, unless we wake up.