A challenge to the ANC?

December 10, 2010

South African politics have been in flux since the ouster of former President Thabo Mbeki in 2008. As the key architect and administrator of South Africa's pro-business, neoliberal policies, Mbeki was pushed out after pressure from the African National Congress (ANC) and its partners in the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and South African Communist Party (SACP). But since then, Mbeki's successor, President Jacob Zuma, has been under fire for a series of scandals and for pursuing aggressively pro-business policies at the expense of working people.

Tensions between Zuma and COSATU erupted in September with a public-sector general strike that went on nearly three weeks--perhaps the biggest social conflict in South Africa since the fall of the apartheid system. In the aftermath of the strike, COSATU and its allies called a Civil Society Conference that excluded not only the ANC, but also the SACP, which has followed the government's line.

Here, the editorial team of Amandla!, a socialist magazine in South Africa, reports on the conference and its significance for the South African labor movement and the left.

WHILE A lot of noise has been made regarding the African National Congress' (ANC) reaction to the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) holding a conference with civil society, to which the ANC and other Alliance partners were not invited, not much information and analysis has been forthcoming on the conference itself. Amandla! seeks to correct this with this overview of the COSATU Civil Society Conference.

The organizers of the October 28-29 COSATU Civil Society Conference owe a debt of gratitude to ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe and the ANC National Working Committee. Without their paranoid response, the conference would have been confined to media obscurity. Now there is considerable interest among wide sectors of society on what COSATU and its partners' next move will be. Will the conference be a one-off event, or will it lead to popular mobilization and a possible realignment of forces?

COSATU disillusionment

The background to the conference is the growing disillusionment of COSATU in the Zuma government. The failure of the Zuma administration to break with the class project of the Mbeki era is at the nub of COSATU's growing sense of betrayal. After all, COSATU played a very significant role in removing Mbeki and getting Zuma elected president of the ANC. The hope was that this would not just put the Alliance at the center of policymaking, but that COSATU, together with the increased influence of the SACP in the ANC, could bring about substantial economic and other policy shifts.

Hundreds of thousands march in Cape Town during a COSATU-led strike in 2008
Hundreds of thousands march in Cape Town during a COSATU-led strike in 2008

With the nationalist forces in the ANC using the ANC Youth League as a battering ram, the influence of the Alliance left in the ANC has been blocked as Zuma cleverly plays one faction off against the other to consolidate his hold over the center. In addition, the Treasury and the Reserve Bank remain very much in control of macro economic policy, buttressed by the power of international finance and Zuma's fear of pissing off the markets.

Crony capitalism and corruption linked to a predatory elite with increased influence in the leading structures of the ANC has become a major concern for COSATU. The struggle for the heart and soul of the ANC is being lost, even though COSATU, with others, was successful in getting rid of Mbeki.

Of further concern to COSATU has been the neutralizing of the SACP as a force for popular mobilization. Having been given senior representation in government both nationally and provincially, the SACP would seem to be more concerned with maintaining the delicate balancing act of winning space in the cabinet and the ANC's executive committees than the day-to-day class struggles fought at the workplace and in the community.

The breaking-up of the coalition that put Zuma in the Union buildings [the seat of the South African government] has pitted COSATU in a bitter battle against the ANC Youth League and other nationalist/popular forces in the ANC. This has particularly played itself out in the National Working Committee of the ANC, where the populists have the numbers. A key moment was when the National Working Committee threatened to bring disciplinary action against COSATU's General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi for COSATU's attack on allegedly corrupt cabinet ministers.

And if corruption, cronyism and nepotism was a feature of the Mbeki era, the one-and-a-half years of Zuma's presidency has indicated just how far the floodgates can be opened. The fear of COSATU is that if a major effort to expose and fight corruption is not undertaken--and for COSATU, this must be a civil society effort--then the predatory elite will capture the state, killing off the possibility of a progressive, state-led development agenda.

Against this, it was not surprising that three issues dominated the agenda of the conference, namely fighting corruption, addressing inequality--especially in relation to education and health--and drafting a social justice charter that can give a new direction to civil society struggles and act as the glue of a labor-civil society coalition. COSATU's new growth plan document also featured as a major discussion item.


Over 300 delegates attended the conference. What was interesting was the broad range of organizations that attended. Firstly, COSATU was well represented. At least 40 percent of those who participated were from COSATU. If not every COSATU affiliate then clearly most affiliates sent delegations, with representation from different regions. Most of COSATU's provincial secretaries attended, and the head office sent a strong delegation, including national office bearers and heads of departments.

While the majority of civil society delegations were from Gauteng, because travel and accommodation costs were not subsidized, there was a very diverse range of organizations present. Section 27 (formerly the AIDS Law Project), together with the Treatment Action Coalition (TAC), were the co-convenors and were well represented. The Social Justice Coalition and Equal Education--closely aligned to TAC--were also well represented and geared-up for the conference.

The wide range of civil society organizations that came to participate ranged from Congress of Traditional Leaders (CONTRALESA), the South African Council of Churches, the Anti-Privatization Forum and the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee, just to name a few.

Underrepresented were organizations from the land and rural sector, as well as many of the new social movements that have been at the forefront of important service delivery protests. This may be because many of them, such as the Landless People's Movement and Jubilee South Africa, have weakened and fractured since the heady days of the big social movement march during the Summit for Sustainable Development in 2002. Others may have not participated because of their mistrust of COSATU and its alliance with the ANC, which they label as neoliberal.

Abashlali baseMjondolo did not attend out of choice, as they have been recently attacked by COSATU and some civil society organizations in the Western Cape for their direct mass action campaign in Khayelitsha.

What was remarkable and illustrative of the openness and constructive nature of discussions was when Vavi was asked from the floor why is it that COSATU is criticizing social movements like Abahlali, he refused to use the platform to defend COSATU, but said that the planned meeting of Abahlali, COSATU and others should go ahead to sort out differences. This set a really important tone for the meeting and signaled to all participants the constructive atmosphere in which the conference was to be conducted.

Political orientation

There was a refreshingly strong anti-neoliberalism and anti-capitalism in the plenary inputs and contributions from the floor. The conference had a radical flavor also reflected in the opening addresses of COSATU's General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi and Section 27's Mark Heywood. While Vavi was at pains to dismiss ANC concerns that the Conference represented the first steps towards forming a new workers party, he stated boldly that:

We have only one enemy--neoliberalism, that has condemned our people to poverty and unemployment. We want to roll back neoliberal advances and struggle for the adoption and implementation of alternatives. Our struggles have to be both defensive and offensive.

The purpose of the conference was captured by Vavi when he said:

The high levels of poverty and inequality aggravate many other anti-social phenomena which we see increasingly--violent community protests, xenophobia crime, corruption and the collapse of social and moral values. We face not just personal and family disasters, but a national catastrophe, a ticking bomb, which has already begun to explode in our poorest communities.

This was our reasoning behind calling this summit. We can't stand there making speeches without developing a program that will mobilize our society to stop this ticking bomb from exploding.

Heywood, in his input, placed inequality as the central issue that a movement must be built around. He emphasized that the conference should not be a talk shop, and that we must not replicate the Grand Old Duke of York syndrome, where initiatives are started and not followed through.

For the left, they could take comfort from Heywood's strong emphasis on mobilization and movement building and his critique of the market. Perhaps of concern was his strong emphasis on civil society using constitutional provisions and legal forms of struggle. His skepticism of nationalization and socialism is somewhat more worrying. However, since socialism is not exactly on the agenda, given the current balance of forces both nationally and internationally, agreement on prioritizing movement building and militant forms of struggle is much more important.

The conference broke up into three commissions, focusing on developing a social justice charter, campaigning against inequality with specific references to health and education and taking forward COSATU's economic policy document, "A Growth Path Towards Full Employment."

The commissions were also marked by constructive and open discussions with high levels of consensus being achieved and with strong participation of both the unionists and civil society participants. Some of the spirit of commission discussion was captured by an input of Sam Mashinini, COSATU free state provincial secretary, when he asked in the Growth Path Commission, "Who are the civil society formations in the Free State [province], we need to replicate this discussion in the Free State."

The commission debating the development of a social justice charter agreed that such a document could be a powerful instrument, especially if it emerged out of struggle and popular consultation. It could serve as a powerful means to unite broader civil society and overcome its current weakness and lack of purpose. Analogies were made with the ANC's 1955 Freedom Charter, both in terms of how it was produced through popular mobilization and how at a particular moment in the struggle became a powerful force to lead in the struggle for national liberation.

While the COSATU Growth Path for Full Employment was endorsed, a number of valuable points were made on how the document can be strengthened. The conference urged COSATU to advance a social solidarity economy, particularly in regard to workers in the informal economy. Decent work programs should be formalized, with workers dictating the agenda. The right to work should be constitutionalized as part of the struggle to overcome unemployment.

The conference expressed concerns about the idea of a social pact. Workers should not be coerced into pacts with government or employers that will lead to lower wages or worse working conditions. It was also the view coming from this commission that the tax-to-GDP ratio in South Africa is far lower than other comparable countries. There is space to increase taxes, which could furnish the government with billions of rands more to implement important programs, such as National Health Insurance (NHI), and help to eliminate inequality.

An important weakness of the current document is that it needs to be clearer on the idea of the "green economy" and sustainable development. We need to move towards sustainable energy, to migrate the economy from one based on a coal to a low carbon or possibly carbon-free economy.

In terms of taking forward the ideas of the Growth Path, the conference resolved that 2011 should be declared a year of mass mobilization on economic policy and against unemployment, poverty and inequality.

The need for mass mobilization and joint campaigning was a strong theme of the commission that dealt with rights to health and education. The commission called for the establishment of a campaigns committee that will coordinate the campaign for an NHI that would overcome current inequality in the health system.

The commission felt strongly that the model of the NHI must be one that strengthens that public health care system and not private health care. The conference endorsed the view of the commission that community health workers must be formally brought into the health care system as employees of the Department of Health and unionized.

The conference agreed to a national campaign on education to ensure the proper functioning and resourcing of schools. In addition, the conference felt strongly that public officials must enroll their children in public schools and use public health institutions. This would be the impetus to ensuring decent public schooling and healthcare.

Where to from here?

The conference has created expectations that labor and progressive civil society will collaborate in building campaigns directed against inequality and for social justice. The conference strongly endorsed the idea of annual meetings, and that the conference is replicated at a provincial and regional level where campaigns and joint struggles can be implemented.

While COSATU was at pains to deflect potential concern from its Alliance partners that this initiative was not aimed at building an alternative political front, nevertheless, this is the suspicion of the ANC and SACP leaderships. Their fear is that should COSATU proceed with building this process and develop real campaigns with progressive civil society, the dynamic that will be unleashed will displace the ANC and the SACP as COSATU's strategic reference. This is why the conference was greeted with such hostility by the ANC and the SACP.

It remains to be seen how this will impact on COSATU's enthusiasm for the conference and the potential alliance with progressive civil society. However, what is clear is that the global crisis will narrow the space for the Zuma administration to implement radical reforms that address worsening inequality and unemployment.

This, ultimately, will play a large role in determining how COSATU will go forward. The real question, given the anger at the base of society, is whether COSATU can afford not to build a broader movement against neoliberalism and for social justice. Politics is becoming once again interesting on the left side of the spectrum.

Further Reading

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